Waitman T. Willey was born in a small cabin in Farmington and became one of the first Senators to represent the new state of West Virginia. An attorney by trade, Willey played an important role in shaping policies in the new state during the Civil War. He had previously opposed the political power of the eastern half of Virginia and his vote in favor of secession from Virginia was related to his support of the Union as well as previous conflicts with delegates from the eastern half of Virginia.
Waitman T. Willey was born in Farmington WV in a log cabin in what is today Marion County. Willey studied law and graduated in 1831 from Madison College in Pennsylvania. He established his practice in the Morgantown area and soon began a career in politics. He served as clerk of both the county and superior courts of Monongalia County before the Civil War.
Prior to the Civil War, Willey advocated for equal representation for western counties and argued that the Three -Fifths Clause favored the slave planters of eastern Virginia. He also claimed that these planters were out of touch with the challenges faced by western Virginians. This inequality between the different regions of the state, separated by the Appalachian Mountains, was ultimately what started the drive for West Virginia statehood.
Willey was appointed as a delegate to the Wheeling Conventions and played an active role in establishing the groundwork for West Virginia statehood. He voted at the conventions in favor of seceding from Virginia and helped ultimately form the new state of West Virginia.
Willey was then named as one of the two Senators from West Virginia after President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill making West Virginia a new state. Willey was listed as a Unionist in the United States Senate and was later reelected as a Republican in 1865. Willey had been a slave owner and did not support immediate emancipation. Instead, he hoped that emancipation would be gradual with financial compensation from owners. Eventually, a compromise was made that stated the young slaves under the age of 21 on July 4, 1863, would become immediately free upon reaching that age. This compromise was made moot by the victory of Union forces and the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Willey was not reelected in 1871 owing to the resumption of power by the Democratic Party. Willey moved back to Morgantown where he still maintained a smaller political presence. Waitman T. Willey died on May 2, 1900, at the age of 88.