Virginia Conventions

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For the 1788 convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution, see Virginia Ratifying Convention.

The Virginia Conventions were a series of five political meetings in the Colony of Virginia during the American Revolution. Because the House of Burgesses had been dissolved in 1774 by Royal Governor Lord Dunmore, the conventions served as a revolutionary provisional government until the establishment of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia in 1776.

First through fourth conventions[edit]

The first convention was organized after Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses when that body called for a day of prayer as a show of solidarity with Boston, Massachusetts, following the Boston Port Act. The Burgesses moved to Raleigh Tavern to continue meeting. The Burgesses declared support for Massachusetts and called for a congress of all the colonies, the Continental Congress. The Burgesses, operating as the first convention, on August 1, 1774, met and elected representatives to the Virginia convention, banned commerce and payment of debts with Britain, and pledged supplies.

The second convention opened in Richmond and met at St. John's Church on March 20, 1775. At the convention, Patrick Henry proposed arming the Virginia militia and delivered his "give me liberty or give me death" speech to rally support for the measure.

The third convention met in July 1775 after Dunmore had fled the capital and taken refuge on a British warship. The convention created a Committee of Safety to take over governance in the absence of Dunmore. The convention also divided Virginia into 16 military districts and resolved to raise regular regiments.

The fourth convention denounced Dunmore and declared that Virginians were ready to defend themselves "against every species of despotism."

Fifth convention[edit]

The fifth convention began May 6, 1776 and met in Williamsburg. On May 15, the convention declared independence from Britain and adopted a set of three momentous resolutions: one calling for a declaration of rights for Virginia, one calling for establishment of a republican constitution, and a third calling for federal relations with whichever other colonies would have them and alliance with whichever foreign countries would have them. It also instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to declare independence. Virginia's congressional delegation was thus the only one under unconditional positive instructions to declare independence; Virginia was already independent, and so its convention did not want their state, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, to "hang separately." According to James Madison's correspondence for that day, Williamsburg residents marked the occasion by taking down the Union Jack from over the colonial capitol and running up a continental union flag.

On June 7, Richard Henry Lee, one of Virginia's delegates to Congress, carried out these instructions and proposed independence in the language the convention had commanded him to use: that "these colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." This paved the way for the American Declaration of Independence, which also reflected the idea that not one nation, but thirteen free and independent states were aborning on the east coast of North America.

The convention amended, and on June 12 adopted, George Mason's Declaration of Rights, a precursor to the United States Bill of Rights. On June 29, the convention approved the first Constitution of Virginia, which was also the first written constitution adopted by the people's representatives in the history of the world. The convention chose Patrick Henry as the first governor of the new Commonwealth of Virginia, and he was inaugurated on June 29, 1776. Thus, Virginia had a functioning, permanent, republican constitution before July 4, 1776 -- uniquely among the thirteen American colonies.


Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Virginia's American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840, Lexington Books, 2007.