Trump wants to give part of Virginia to West Virginia!
That’s true, but not the one you likely think. The Trump in question is not Donald Trump the president but rather Charles Trump, a state senator in West Virginia. That latter Trump has opened a curious historical door: He’s persuaded the West Virginia state Senate to invite Frederick County, Virginia — that’s the one around Winchester —to change states.
Frederick County has said it’s not interested, but Trump — henceforth the legislator, unless otherwise noted — is on firm legal ground. When West Virginia was carved out of Virginia back in 1863, it invited Frederick County to join. Trump wants it made clear that the invitation still stands.
Before we get to the essential question — should Frederick County be interested? — let’s review the messy but fascinating history that lays behind all this. The creation of West Virginia was not as simple as some pro-Union western counties breaking off during the Civil War. We know you’ll be shocked by this, but there were a lot of politics involved. Politicians from Wheeling — at the time, third-largest city in the Old Dominion — wanted a smaller state where they could dominate. Those from the Kanawha Valley around Charleston wanted a larger state to diminish Wheeling’s influence. The large-state faction won out, but there was still a lot of tussling over just how large that new state should be. One expansive proposal called for everything west of the Blue Ridge, as well as most of modern-day Northern Virginia.
Whatever the size of the state, there was one thing that statehood advocates were keen on. For years, the eastern-based state government had done everything it could to frustrate railroads that didn’t lead to Virginia ports — especially the Baltimore & Ohio that went to, well, Baltimore. However, the B&O was an economic linchpin for Wheeling and the northwestern counties. They were determined to have all the Virginia counties that the B&O ran through to keep them out of the regulatory hands of Richmond. That meant West Virginia had to have Berkeley County and Jefferson County, which we know better today by their county seats of Martinsburg and Charles Town. Just to be on the safe side, West Virginia wanted to include neighboring Frederick County, too.
Virginia’s Unionist government — the one that Abraham Lincoln recognized as the lawful state government, even if it didn’t really control the state — officially gave its permission for Berkeley, Jefferson and Frederick to join West Virginia “whenever” they voted to do so. The problem was that when West Virginia was officially created, those three counties were inconveniently held by Confederate forces. Eventually Berkeley and Jefferson came under Union control and voters there agreed to join West Virginia. Whether those were truly free and fair elections has always been a matter of some dispute. Before the war, Jefferson County had voted strongly for secession while Berkeley County wanted to stay with the Union. Did the presence of Union troops discourage pro-Southern voters from going to the polls? Virginia later alleged the votes in both counties were fraudulent, but we’re getting slightly ahead of things. These votes — whether fair or not — came after Congress had already voted to admit West Virginia as a state. After the war was over, the reconstituted General Assembly in Richmond voted in December 1865 to rescind the approval that its Unionist version had given for Berkeley and Jefferson to join West Virginia. Congress, though, voted in 1866 to affirm that the two counties had lawfully been transferred to West Virginia. Virginia sued to get the two counties back. In 1871, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of West Virginia. Those two counties could stay.
That settled the matter legally, but not politically. In 2011, a legislator from Berkeley County introduced a bill to allow three West Virginia counties — Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan — to hold referenda to rejoin Virginia. He wasn’t being serious; he said he simply wanted to call attention to how Virginia’s economy was much better than West Virginia’s so that, economically speaking, those counties, would be better off in their former state. That bill quickly died, of course. Now comes another West Virginia legislator who discovered the old invitation to Frederick County. That 1871 Supreme Court decision upholds the invite to Berkeley and Jefferson; by inference, it would seem the invite to Frederick would still be legitimate, too. Trump — the legislator — wants to renew that invitation.
News flash, just in case anyone is in doubt: Frederick County isn’t going anywhere. But that won’t stop us from asking some philosophical questions. Which should it be: Should those counties in the West Virginia panhandle rejoin Virginia, as per the 2011 suggestion? Or should Frederick (and presumably Winchester) join West Virginia? (Don’t say leave things as they are; that’s no fun).
Prospective college students in those counties would be better off in West Virginia: In-state tuition at West Virginia University is $8,976 per year; in-state tuition at the University of Virginia starts at $16,640.
Many taxpayers would be better off in Virginia, though. In Virginia, the sales tax is presently 5.3% (except in certain urban areas). In West Virginia, it’s 6%. Virginia also has lower income tax rates. In Virginia, income tax rates range from 2% to 5.75%. In West Virginia, they’re 3% to 6.5%.
Schools, though, are better funded in Virginia. By our math, West Virginia supplies Jefferson County with $3,619 per student. By contrast, Virginia gives neighboring Frederick County $4,517 per student. Now, both states have complicated funding formulas, so we can’t say for sure how Frederick County would fare under West Virginia’s system or how those West Virginia counties would fare under ours.
Politically, switching states would not change much. All these counties voted strongly for Trump — that’s Donald Trump — in 2016. Adding the West Virginia ones to Virginia wouldn’t have changed the statewide margins here enough to make a difference; neither would subtracting Frederick and Winchester. Of course, in a much closer race — such as the 2013 attorney general’s race that saw Democrat Mark Herring win by just 907 votes — having those three extra Republican counties might have changed the outcome. Maybe Democrats might secretly like to see Frederick County leave, while Republicans might want to see if they can revive that 2011 offer.