According to John G. Morgan in his book West Virginia Governors, “The historic morning of June 20, 1863, the official birthday of the 35th state, was cloudy with a threat of showers, but the sun broke through reassuringly.”
A crowd assembled outside Linsly Institute in Wheeling, where Arthur Boreman would stand on a platform and take the oath of office as the first Governor of the new state.
Morgan writes that a newspaper account said the 39-year-old Boreman had “abundant black hair, a full-flowing beard, a strong face marked with strong intellectual features and well-rounded high forehead.”
Boreman was born in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, but when he was four his family moved to Tyler County. He became a lawyer and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1855. However, Boreman held a dim view of the government in Richmond and became a leading advocate for statehood for western Virginia.
Boreman, a Republican, began his inaugural address 156 years ago today with a few lines about being humbled by the honor and “celebrating the most auspicious event in the history of this people,” but he then launched into a lengthy and pointed criticism of Virginia.
It was only near the end of his speech that Boreman focused on his vision for the new state, but even then it was only after he cautioned that “military matters” would occupy most of his time (the Civil War would last two more years) and he could not be expected to “give much time at present to the internal civil policy of the state.”
However, Boreman did say that he would do whatever was within his power to “advance the agricultural, mining, manufacturing and commercial interests of the state,” adding that one priority was to establish a public education system.
Boreman closed by asking for the indulgence of the people, confessing that, “I shall, no doubt, often do wrong; this is the lot of man.”
But the state’s first Governor got a lot of things right. He was an advocate for statehood and put a priority on education. He was popular enough to be re-elected twice–the Governor’s term at the time was for two years—and was elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1869.
According to The West Virginia Encyclopedia, “Boreman supported the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race.” It has always been reassuring that West Virginia was on the right side of history during the Civil War.
President John F. Kennedy did not benefit from the same improvement in the weather as Governor Boreman when Kennedy visited Charleston on June 20, 1963, to celebrate the state’s Centennial. The rain poured down, causing Kennedy to shorten his speech to the crowd of 10,000 to less than four minutes.
However, Kennedy famously quipped, “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.”
From Boreman to Kennedy and beyond, the leaders who have known West Virginia have always understood the myriad challenges of the Mountain State. Sometimes, the obstacles seem too great to overcome.
However, West Virginians, regardless of circumstances, carry themselves with a sense of pride in their state and a strong connection to their home. When the headwinds turn into gale force winds, we hear the words of the late WVU head football coach and West Virginia native Bill Stewart:
“All my life I have been in tough situations. You just jut your jaw, bow your back, you shut your mouth and go play as hard as you can play. If you do that in life, be it in your daily walk, your job, your marriage or whatever phase of your life, you will be okay.”
Happy Birthday, West Virginia!
(Editor’s note: I have run a version of this commentary on previous West Virginia birthdays.)