WVU law professor discusses W.Va. history

PARKERSBURG – Robert Bastress brought a history lesson to the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library Monday night.

The Wood County Historical Society invited Bastress, professor at the West Virginia University College of Law, to speak to history lovers at the library.

From the formation of West Virginia to the divide between residents years ago, Bastress discussed writing a constitution and taking the steps toward becoming a state 150 years ago.

Bastress discussed the divide between the eastern and western residents of the former Virginia along with issues that would continue to divide the two groups. He spoke of those who held a large stake in the structure presented for the state government of the new West Virginia.

“It was very difficult to get any kind of reform,” Bastress said of the state’s early government.

In 1828, the state Legislature agreed to equip the people with a constitutional convention. The convention began in 1829 and in 1830 the second Virginia constitution was formed.

Bastress said the convention consisted of two former presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, a chief justice, 11 congressmen, several prominent lawyers and reactionaries.

In 1851, the reform convention eliminated property qualifications for general voting purposes and popular election for the governor, justices and judges. West Virginia was one of the last states to drop the ownership of property guidelines for voting in United States elections, Bastress said.

The constitution of 1851 also enacted less taxation to farmers and less wealthy slave owners.

Much of the debt was funded to political cronies and almost all money was spent in the east, Bastress said.

As of 1861, Virginia was $50 million in debt and about $27,000 stemmed from the eastern part of the state.

Bastress spoke of early reformers wanting equal enforcement and universal suffrage; he said a second constitutional convention was held in Charleston in 1871.

Abolitionism began to exist in the Northern Panhandle of the state and many westerners argued against slavery, he said.

Bastress is one of the leading scholars of the state’s constitution. He has authored articles in a variety of publications, including the Yale Encyclopedia of Legal Biography, the Virginia Legal Review, West Virginia Legal Review and the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

His book “The West Virginia Constitution” was published in 1995 and he wrote the manual, Duties of West Virginia’s County Clerks, in 2007.

The law professor has served as a state coordinator for the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association and received the Sid Bell Award from the American Civil Liberties Union in 2005 for his representation of wrongfully fired federal government employees.