Virginia Conventions

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For additional information on the 1788 convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution, see Virginia Ratifying Convention.
The Virginia Constitutional Convention 1829-1830 met in Richmond, Virginia.
A convention of three generations, the last gathering of Revolutionary era giants[1]
History of Virginia

Virginia Conventions, their Constitutions and subsequent amendments have spanned four centuries of framing the rules of political life for the Commonwealth from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 21st. Beginning with the traditions of the General Assembly, convention delegates have since met to bridge the differences among their respective populations in a political process to forge community for each of its historical eras.

The first Virginia Conventions were a series of five self-governing political meetings administering the legislative, executive and judicial functions of government 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 Constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1776 by the Fifth Virginia Convention.

Virginia's six unlimited state Constitutional Conventions took place in 1829-30, 1850, around the time of the Civil War in 1861, 1864, 1868, and finally in 1902. These were all primarily concerned with suffrage and representation in the General Assembly, except for that of 1861 which was called to determine the question of secession from the United States. Its proposed Constitution restricting the franchise was the only one rejected by the people in a referendum. The 1902 Constitution restricting suffrage was proclaimed without submitting it to the people.

In the 20th century, limited state Conventions were used in 1945 to expand suffrage to members of the armed forces in wartime, and in 1955 to implement "massive resistance" to Supreme Court attempts to desegregate public schools. Commissions for Constitutional Reform were used in 1927 for restructuring state government and in 1969 to conform the state Constitution with Congressional statutes and U.S. Constitutional law, especially those provisions related to the 14th Amendment's provisions for Due Process and Equal Protection under the law. Each of these recommendations were placed before the people for ratification in a referendum.

Gallery of presiding officers in Virginia conventions[edit]

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 officers, banned commerce and payment of debts with Britain, and pledged supplies. They elected Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, as the President of the Convention (a position he held for subsequent conventions until his death in October 1775).

St. John’s Church, Richmond VA, before modern addition, meeting place of Second and Third Virginia Conventions, 1775

The Second Convention opened in Richmond and met at St. John's Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia on March 20, 1775. Peyton Randolph served again as the President of the Convention and they elected delegates to the Continental Congress. 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. It was resolved that the colony be "put into a posture of defence: and that Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Robert Carter Nicholas, Benjamin Harrison, Lemuel Riddick, George Washington, Adam Stephen, Andrew Lewis, William Christian, Edmund Pendleton, Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Zane, Esquires, be a committee to prepare a plan for the embodying arming and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose."[2]

Between conventions in April 1775, Randolph, who was the Speaker of the House of Burgesses and President of the Virginia Conventions, negotiated with Lord Dunmore for gunpowder removed from the Williamsburg arsenal during the Gunpowder Incident, which was a confrontation between the Governor's forces and Virginia militia, led by Patrick Henry. The House of Burgesses was called back by Lord Dunmore one last time in June 1775 to address British Prime Minister Lord North's Conciliatory Resolution. Randolph, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress, returned to Williamsburg to take his place as Speaker. Randolph indicated that the resolution had not been sent to the Congress (it had instead been sent to each colony individually in an attempt to divide them and bypass the Continental Congress). The House of Burgesses rejected the proposal, which was also later rejected by the Continental Congress.[3]

The Third Convention also met at St. John's Church on July 17, 1775 after Dunmore had fled the capital (following the rejection of North's resolution) and taken refuge on a British warship. Peyton Randolph continued to serve as the President of the Convention. The convention created a Committee of Safety to govern as an executive body in the absence of the governor (Dunmore). Members of the committee were Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, John Page, Richard Bland, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Paul Carrington, Dudley Digges, William Cabell, Carter Braxton, James Mercer, and John Tabb. The convention also divided Virginia into 16 military districts and resolved to raise regular regiments. The convention ended August 26, 1775, while the Committee of Safety would continue to meet and govern as necessary.[4] [5] [6]

The Fourth Convention in Williamsburg met in December 1775. It denounced Dunmore (in November the royal governor had declared the colony to be in revolt, and had begun battling militia forces in the Hampton Roads area) and they declared that Virginians were ready to defend themselves "against every species of despotism." The convention passed another ordinance for raising additional troops. Edmond Pendleton served as President of the Convention, succeeding Peyton Randolph who had died in Oct 1775.[7][8]

Back in England in December 1775, the King’s Proclamation of Rebellion had declared the colonies outside his protection.[9] But still throughout the first four Virginia state Conventions, there was no adopted expression in favor of independence from the British Empire.[10]

Fifth convention[edit]

Virginia Capitol, Williamsburg VA
where the Fifth Convention of 1776 met

The newly elected fifth convention began May 6 to July 5, 1776, and met in Williamsburg. It elected Edmund Pendleton its presiding officer after his return as president of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. There were three parties in the Fifth Convention. The first was mainly made up of wealthy planters, who sought to continue their hold on local government as it had grown up during colonial Virginia’s history. These included Robert Carter Nicholas Sr. who opposed the Declaration of Independence from King George. It dominated the convention by a malapportionment that lent an advantage to the slaveholding east. One historian maintained that this party ensured the continuation of slavery at a time when other states began gradual emancipation.[11] It ensured the continued self-perpetuating gentry rule of county government with a franchise limited by property requirements underpinning the republican form of state government.[12] The second party was made up of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, lawyers, physicians and “aspiring young men”. These included the older generation of George Mason, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, and the younger Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.[13] The third party was a minority of young men mainly from western Virginia. This party was led by Patrick Henry and included “radicals” who had supported independence earlier than 1775.[14]

On May 15, the Convention declared that the government of Virginia as “formerly exercised" by King George in Parliament as “totally dissolved” in light of the King’s repeated injuries and his “abandoning the helm of government and declaring us out of his allegiance and protection”.[15] The Convention 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 of Parliament as the "fourth realm" of British Empire, but 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, keeping the Union Jack of the British Empire in the canton and adding the thirteen red and white stripes of the self-governing British East India Company.[16]

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 when it became necessary for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another", “the Representatives of the united States of America [did]…by the authority of the good people of these Colonies”, become free and independent of the colonial governments which once acted upon them separately.[17]

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.

Ratifying (Federal) Convention of 1788[edit]

The Convention met from June 2–27, 1788, in the wooden "Old Capitol" building at Richmond VA, and elected Edmund Pendleton its presiding officer. The Virginia Ratifying Convention narrowly approved joining the proposed United States under a Constitution of supreme national law as authorized by “We, the people” of the United States. James Madison led those in favor, Patrick Henry delegate to the First Continental Convention and Revolutionary wartime governor led those opposed. Governor Edmund Randolph who had refused to sign the Constitution in the Philadelphia Convention chose in Virginia's Ratifying Convention to support adoption. George Mason had refused to sign due to the lack of a Bill of Rights in Philadelphia. The Virginia ratification included a recommendation for a Bill of Rights, and James Madison subsequently led the First Congress to send the Bill of Rights to the states for ratification.

On receiving the proposed Constitution from the Philadelphia Convention, Congress initiated a ratification procedure for the proposed Constitution which by-passed the sitting state legislatures, going directly to the people of the country, state by state. Four delegates, James Madison with Edmund Randolph for the Federalists and Patrick Henry with George Mason for the Anti-federalists made most of the speeches of the Convention; 149 of the 170 delegates were silent.[18] An early estimate gave the Federalists seeking ratification a slim margin of 86 to Anti-Federalists rejecting at 80, with four unknowns. Federalists came from the Tidewater and Northern Neck, the Shenandoah Valley and western counties, although the Kentucky counties along the Ohio River feared being abandoned to the Spanish under the new government. The Anti-federalists found strength in the central Piedmont, Southside and southwest counties.[19]

Unlike the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, the Virginia Federal Constitution was open to the public and crowds filled the galleries along with the press. Delegates changed sides over the debates, demonstrators paraded in the streets, and the press churned out accounts of the proceedings along with commentary pamphlets. The Federalist Papers first became a factor in state ratification conventions outside of New York in Virginia.[20] Although a majority of Virginians were said to be against adoption of the Constitution, and the Ani-federalists had the oratorical advantage with Patrick Henry, the Federalists were better organized under the leadership of judges who had been trained by George Wythe, and former Continental Army officers who aligned with George Washington.[21]

Patrick Henry questioned the authority of the Philadelphia Convention to presume to speak for “We, the people” instead of “We, the states”. In his view, delegates should have only recommended amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Consolidated government would put an end to Virginia’s liberties and state government. Nine states making a new nation without the rest would abrogate treaties and place Virginia in great peril. Edmund Randolph had changed from his opposition in the Philadelphia Convention to now supporting adoption for the sake of preserving the Union. He noted that the Confederation was “totally inadequate” and leading to American downfall. The new Constitution would repair the inadequacies of the Articles. If something were not done, the Union would be lost. The new government should be based on the people who would be governed by it, not the intermediary states. The Constitution should be ratified, along with any “practical” amendments after the new nation was begun.[22]

George Mason countered that a national, consolidated government would overburden Virginians with direct taxes in addition to state taxes, and that government of an extensive territory must necessarily destroy liberty. Although he conceded that the Confederation government was "inefficient”, he wanted a clear line between the jurisdictions of the federal and state governments, including the judiciary, because he feared the shared powers would lead to "the destruction of one or the other."[23] Madison pointed out that the history of Confederations like that provided in the Articles government were inadequate in the long run, both with the ancients and with the modern (1700s) Germans, Dutch and Swiss. They brought "anarchy and confusion", disharmony and foreign invasion. Efficient government can only come from direct operation on individuals, it can never flow from negotiations among a confederation’s constituent states. The proposed Constitution creates a republic with each branch of government grounded in the people without hereditary offices. Its mixed nature was both federated and consolidated, but in all cases was based on “the superior power of the people”. The states would remain important because the House of Representatives were chosen by people in each state, and the Senate was chosen by the state legislatures. The Constitution limited the national government to enumerated powers.[24]

The Virginia Ratification (Federal) Convention made a final vote ratifying on George Wythe’s motion, passing it 89 to 79. Virginians reserved the right to withdraw from the new government as “the People of the United States”, “whenever the powers granted unto it should be perverted to their injury or oppression,” but it also held that failings in the Constitution should be remedied by amendment.[25] Unlike the Pennsylvania Convention where the Federalists railroaded the Anti-federalists in an all or nothing choice, in the Virginia Convention the Federalists made efforts to reconcile with the Anti-federalists by recommending amendments like that of Virginia’s Bill of Rights preamble to its 1776 Constitution.[26]

Constitutional Convention of 1829-30[edit]

Capitol at Richmond VA, meeting place of 19th century Conventions

The Convention met from October 5, 1829 - January 15, 1830, and elected Philip P. Barbour its presiding officer. The last "gathering of giants" from the Revolutionary generation included former presidents James Madison and James Monroe, and sitting Chief Justice John Marshall. But three generations were represented among those who would serve in public office including three presidents, seven U.S. Senators, fifteen U.S. Representatives and four governors. The other delegates to the Convention were sitting judges or members of the Virginia General Assembly.[27]

Almost immediately, the Constitution of 1776 was recognized as flawed both for its restriction of the suffrage by property requirements, and for its malapportionment favoring the smaller eastern counties. Between 1801 and 1813, petitioners called on the Assembly to initiate a constitutional convention ten times. The House of Delegates passed a bill twice, but the conservative eastern planter majority in the Virginia Senate killed both measures. Continuing growth in the western parts of the state led to another fifteen years of agitation. Several counties in the Eastern Shore, northern Piedmont and western counties began opening polls for direct expression from the voters for a constitutional convention, eventually there were twenty-eight such counties calling for reform.[28]

Malapportionment in the Assembly was seen as “an usurpation of the minority over the majority” by the slave owning eastern aristocracy. Partisans argued for apportionment by white population, versus “federal numbers” combining white population with three-fifths slaves, versus the existing system counting whites and slaves equally to favor the slave-holding eastern counties. After several General Assembly sessions with close votes for calling a convention, in 1828 the Assembly allowed for a statewide ballot for “Convention”, “Neutral” or “No Convention”. It passed by 56.8 percent, with most convention support coming from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains northwest to the Ohio River. But the easterners in the State Senate had stacked the deck in their favor, by apportioning the delegates by four per Senate district, producing a group of men which was more wealthy and more conservative than the House of Delegates. [29]

The Convention elected Philip Pendleton Barbour its presiding officer, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, sitting federal district judge and a future Justice on the Supreme Court. Conservatives among the Old Republicans such as John Randolph of Roanoke feared any change from the sacred Founders 1776 Constitution would lead to an ideological anarchy of “wild abstractions” imposed by egalitarian “French Jacobins” through “this maggot of innovation”. In answer, John Marshall put forward a petition from the freeholders of Richmond which observed that, “Virtue, intelligence, are not among the products of the soil. Attachment to [slave] property, often a sordid sentiment, is not to be confounded with the sacred flame of patriots.” Any white male who had served in the War of 1812 or who would serve in the militia in there future defense of the country deserved the right to vote.[30]

Abel P. Upshur, a judge on the Virginia General Court, spoke for conservatives when he asserted that there “is a majority of interest as well as a majority in number”. Because both persons and property were the “elements of society”, majority rule by the people alone was not an equitable solution. “Those who have the greatest [property] stake in the Government…[must] have the greatest share of power in the administration of it.” Lawyer John R. Cooke, a veteran of the War of 1812 countered that delegates must base the Constitution and legislative representation on the wishes of citizens, “the white population…[looking] to the people” for its authority, not only the wealthy, not to sectional slave-holding interests, and "not to the supposed rights of the [unequally populated] counties.”[31]

Reformer’s efforts to adopt direct popular election of Governor were defeated in favor of continuing election by the General Assembly.[32] Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, proposed gradual emancipation, a suggestion which never made it out of committee onto the Convention floor.[33] The reformers lost on almost every issue. Nevertheless, even with the exaggerated Virginia Senate representation apportioning the delegates, the three most important roll calls were close. The “white” population basis of apportioning the General Assembly failed by two votes. The extension of the vote to all free white males failed by two votes. When the popular election of governor passed on its first vote, it failed on reconsideration. The divisions which would lead to West Virginia’s split were evident. Regardless of the various ideologies represented or delegate political affiliation, the final vote 55 yes to 40 no was along an east-west divide. Only one delegate voted yes from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.[34]

Some malapportionment in the General Assembly was eased relative to the majority of voters and white population in the Valley in the House of Delegates, but nothing for the transmontane west. Some suffrage restrictions were modified to include long term leaseholders and male heads of household.[35] The Constitution of 1830 was a "triumph of traditionalism.”[36]

Constitutional Convention of 1850[edit]

Following the 1830 Constitution, Virginia began to change politically under the pressure of party competition. The Old Republican gentry rule supported by their local county freeholders began to be replaced by partisan lawyers of state’s rights Democrats and commercially minded Whigs, though the planter elite and their representatives in the ruling Democratic "Richmond Junto” continued to resist any change. Democrats were divided between easterners who supported an apportionment in the General Assembly based on a mixed basis of population and property which favored their slave-holding counties. Democrats in the west, while agreeing with anti-federal government Doctrines of ’98 and states' rights, were more inclined to a white population basis. The Whigs were more united statewide in their insistence to expand suffrage and find a more equitable reapportionment between east and west sections.[37]

The General Assembly malapportionment was a perpetual irritant in Virginia’s politics, and in December 1849 Democrat John B. Floyd became the fourth governor to call for a Constitutional Convention to reform the Constitution of 1830.[38] Although the Assembly complied, the planter Richmond Junto succeeded in extending the existing Assembly apportionment for the Convention representation. While the western counties held more than half of the white population, the eastern Piedmont and Tidewater sections held over sixty percent in the Virginia Senate.[39]

Most states reformed their earlier Constitutions to embrace white manhood suffrage and white population apportionment in state legislatures. Instead of the earlier colonial “stake in society”, they placed a democratic faith in the people’s ability to govern themselves in a democracy. But only in Virginia did the reactionary basis remain a mixed basis of population and property to reflect the “majority of interest” in slaves. Indeed, even reformers in the "Reform Convention” of 1850 spent most of their time explaining that their innovations would not threaten the institution of slavery in Virginia.[40] The Convention delegates were a younger generation raised in the Second American Party System of Democrat Jefferson Davis and Whig Henry Clay. Unlike the three generation Convention of 1829-30, they were primarily in their twenties and thirties at the beginning of their careers in the professions and industry, without large land holdings, without gentry family ties.[41]

The Convention met from October 14, 1850 - August 1, 1851, and elected John Y. Mason its presiding officer. The Convention featured fierce debates, the arguments raged throughout Virginia in the press and they were widely reported nationally. Direct popular election of governor was supported by Whig Congressman John Minor Botts. He was opposed by Richmond Junta Democrat Richard L.T. Beale who argued against the natural equality of all men, and the “plundering propensities” of the multitude seeking a “majority of mere numbers”.[42] Although for direct election of Governor, Henry A. Wise was more fearful of the eastern slave-holders loss of control in the General Assembly. He believed that “protection of slavery, not the liberalizing of Virginia’s Constitution, was the most significant business before the convention.”[43] Albert G. Pendleton suggested that nearly 100,000 citizens of the western counties were disenfranchised by the 1830 Constitution, and that malapportionment led to the lack of internal improvements needed in west. Muscoe R.H. Garnett opposed expanding the franchise to prohibit internal improvements that might benefit the western counties.[44] James Barbour objected to extending the franchise to white westerners because support for outright emancipation had originated from there in the past. Even with proposals for freed slave expatriation to Africa, Barbour doubted any assurances from the west for the long run preservation of slavery.[45]

After almost six months of wrangling, the question of apportionment was brought up for a vote. The plan for representation in both houses on a mixed basis failed, and the plan for representation in both houses on a population basis failed. The compromise was for the House of Delegates to be on the white population basis, giving the western counties a majority, and for the Senate to be on a modified mixed basis of population and property including slaves, giving the eastern counties a majority. In the remaining two months of the Convention, it was agreed to allow direct popular election of the governor, but each office holder would be limited to one term. Constitutional provision for public education was voted down.[46] Voting by secret ballot was rejected, perpetuating the voting vive voce aloud.[47]

The powerful Assembly-appointed Governor’s Council was abolished and a popular elected Lieutenant Governor was created. Most radically, judges on the Supreme Court of Appeals, in district courts, and county justices of the peace were to be elected by the expanded electorate. Three classes of taxation were linked so that an increase in one required the same increase on all, applicable to poll tax on whites, land taxes and slave taxes. In a measure to advantage slave owners, taxes were set for adult slaves at $300 each when the unskilled field hand was valued twice as much in Virginia. The state legislature lost its statutory ability to manumit slaves, and it was enabled to pass legislation prohibiting individual owner manumissions of their slaves.[48]

Over three days’ balloting in October 1851, the new Constitution was overwhelmingly approved by 75,748 for with 11,060 against. Property requirements for voting were abolished and Virginia state government had the democratic form of Jacksonian America at last. Yet the Richmond Junto leadership of state’s rights Democratic rule remained nearly as powerful as ever.[49]

Secession Convention of 1861[edit]

The Convention met from February 3 - December 6, 1861, and elected John Janney its presiding officer. The majority at first voted to remain in the Union, but stayed in session awaiting events. Conditional Unionists objected to coercion manifest in Lincoln's call for state quotas to suppress the rebellion, and switched from their earlier Unionist vote to secession on April 17. At the outset of the Convention, the Confederate Congress sent three commissioners to address the convened delegates in the first week of meeting. Fulton Anderson warned that the Republican Party now in control of the United States government intended “the ultimate extinction of slavery and the degradation of the Southern people.” Henry Lewis Benning explained that Georgia had seceded because “a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery.” The Virginia-born John Smith Preston insisted that when the North voted for Lincoln, it decreed annihilation of white Southerners, who must act in self-defense, and Virginia should lead the Southern host in an independent Confederacy. His speech brought the Convention to a standing ovation, but only a third of the delegates were for immediate secession. The Conditional Unionists awaited some overt action of aggression from Lincoln before deciding to secede.

In the second week of the convention debate on February 28, Jeremiah Morton of the Piedmont’s Orange County made an early speech for secession. The Abolitionists fanaticism was "inculcated in the Northern mind and ingrained in the Northern heart, so that you may make any compromise you please, and still, until you can unlearn and unteach the people, we shall find no peace…for thirty years they have been warring upon the fifteen States of the South.” He questioned whether slavery could be safe with Black Republicans taking over all branches of the Federal Government. The Union was already dissolved, and Virginia would surely go with her Southern brethren. If the Confederacy "give us the post of danger, they will also give us the post of honor. They want our statesmen; they want our military; they want the material arm of Virginia to sustain ourselves and them in the great struggles [before us].”[50]

On March 4, Lincoln’s inauguration day, Jefferson Davis called up 100,000 militia to serve a year and sent besieging troops to surround Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pickens in Florida. In his inaugural speech, Lincoln supported the Corwin Amendment to constitutionally guarantee slavery in the states. That same day Waitman T. Willey from trans-Alleghany Monongalia County answered Morton with a Unionist speech. He defended Virginia’s institutions from Northern attacks against slavery, but sought to bring Virginia’s “oppressors to acknowledge those errors and to redress her grievances…The remedy proposed by gentlemen on the other side is secession, [But] there is no constitutional right of secession…” He warned that secession would bring about war, taxes and the abolition of slavery in Virginia. As long as Virginia stayed in the Union, the “wandering” states of the Confederacy might return to the Union.[51]

John S. Carlile of Alleghany County, like Willey an Uncondidtional Unionist, stressed that western Virginians were committed to slavery as “essential to American liberty.” But he would not run away from devotion to the Union. “This government that we are called upon to destroy has never brought us anything but good. No injury has it ever inflicted on us. No act has every been put upon the statute book of our common country, interfering with the institution of slavery in any shape, manner or form, that was not put there by and with the consent of the slave-holding States of this Union…” If Virginia joined the Confederacy, the North would no longer be bound by the Constitution to stand by slavery and slave-holding states, and it would join with England, France and Spain to extinguish slavery everywhere.[52] The younger grandson to Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe Randolph, now a Richmond lawyer, made a secessionist speech, observing that although the Republicans had captured the United States Government “in strict accordance with Constitutional forms”, it was merely sectional. “The Government, then…is constitutionally revolutionized, and requires a counter-revolution to restore it.” But “Let [Virginia’s industries] go with us into a Southern Confederacy, and receive protection from Northern industry, and they will be what they ought to be—the manufacturers and miners of a great [Southern] nation.” We should go into the Confederacy, “we are told it will bring war. On the contrary it will tend to avert war…Neutrality is impossible and would be dishonorable.”[53]

Over the course of March 21-23, John Brown Baldwin of the Valley’s Augusta County made a Unionist speech, beginning with a defense of “African slavery, as it exists in Virginia, is a right and a good thing…” But he believed that the idea that the election of someone to the Presidency could justify secession “as a direct assault upon the fundamental principles of American liberty”. The three branches of government with their Constitutional checks and balances protect against “encroachment upon the liberties of the minority of the people or upon the rights of the States.” And even with the withdrawal of Southern delegations, the remaining Republican majority passed a Constitutional Amendment for ratification prohibiting the Federal Government to interfere with slavery in the states in any respect. “...the great masses of people, leaving out the politicians and fanatics of both sections, have this day an earnest yearning for each other, and for peace and Union with each other…” Baldwin sought a conference of border states to adopt the Peace Convention recommendations that he believed would cause the Confederate states to separately return to the Union.[54]

John S. Barbour Jr. of the Piedmont’s Culpeper County was the first Unionist to break away into the secessionist camp. While “resolutely protecting slave labor” he was for encouraging manufacturing and commercial interests in Virginia against those of the North. He asked what would do more to promote Virginia’s growth, participation “in a hostile confederacy in which your [legislative] power will be but 11 out of 150 [with he North], or in a friendly confederacy where it will be 21 out of 89 [with the South]?” In the South was a government to join “in full working order, strong, powerful and efficient…” Along with a number of secessionist speakers, Henry A. Wise tried to move the Convention into a “Spontaneous Southern Rights Convention” to immediately install a secessionist government in Virginia, but on April 4, almost two-thirds of the Convention voted against secession, and a three-man delegation was sent to consult with Lincoln who had resolved to protect Federal property in the South.[55]

With the fall of Fort Sumter, Lincoln matched Jefferson Davis call up of 100,000 for year with a call for 75,000 for three months, including 3,500 Virginians to restore Federal property taken in the South by force. Unionists sought delay of any military action on secession violating Virginia’s neutrality until the people’s referendum approved of it.[56] But the Unionist bloc lost its Conditional Unionist faction with the Lincoln requisition of troops, and the new secessionist majority resolved the Convention into secret session on April 16. Unionists warned that precipitating secession and war would lead to Northern support of abolition and the end of slavery in Virginia.[57] The next day, former Governor Henry Wise announced that he had set the “wheels of revolution” against the U.S. Government in motion with loyal Virginians seizing both the Harper’s Ferry federal armory and the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth. His demonstration with a drawn horse pistol produced a resolution to secede 88 for 55 against.[58]

The Virginia Secession Ordinance was to “repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, by the State of Virginia.” That Constitution had been “perverted to their injury and oppression…not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding states.”[59] Two days after the secession resolution and a month before the referendum, the Confederate flag was raised over Virginia’s capitol building, a delegation was sent to vote in the Confederate Congress, state militias were activated and a Confederate army was invited to occupy Richmond. While the ballots from Unionist counties were lost, the total referendum votes counted numbered more than that of the 1860 presidential election by including men voting viva voce aloud in Confederate army camps, approving secession by 128,884 to 32,134.[60] The “War in defense of Virginia” as the ensuing conflict is named by the General Assembly failed, as did secession and the Confederate promise of slavery into the twentieth century.[61]

Wheeling Conventions of 1861[edit]

Main article: Wheeling Convention

Virginia's second Convention of 1861 was a Unionist response to the secessionist movement in Virginia. The Wheeling Convention meeting at Wheeling, Virginia (1863 WV), sat on May 13–15, June 11–25 and August 6–21, 1861. The First Wheeling Convention called for elections to another meeting if Virginia's Ordinance of Secession were to pass referendum. It was passed on May 23, 1861. A Second Wheeling Convention included 32 western counties, Alexandria and Fairfax.

Twenty-nine of the convention delegates were members of the Virginia General Assembly as state Delegates or state Senators, such as John J.Davis of Harrison County and Lewis Ruffner of Kanawha County. Wheeling Convention delegate, Republican Francis H. Pierpont of Marion County was elected by the Convention as Governor of the Restored Government of Virginia which was recognized by the Lincoln Administration. Unlike in Kentucky and Missouri, Federal arms were unable to reclaim Virginia counties for incorporation into the Restored Government by 1863, and West Virginia was made its own state.

The Restored Government of Virginia was also recognized by the U.S. Congress, seating its Congressional delegation in the 37th United States Congress entirely made up of Unconditional Unionists. U.S. Senators elected were Waitman T. Willey and John S. Carlile. Representatives were seated from where delegates in the Richmond Convention of 1861 had voted to remain in the Union. They were the western 10th, William G. Brown, the 11th, Jacob B. Blair, and 12th, Kellian V. Whaley, in Congressional Districts of counties that would mostly become West Virginia, along with the 7th, Charles H. Upton, from Alexandria and Fairfax County, and the 1st, Joseph E. Segar in the Eastern Shore and Tidewater Peninsulas. Following the loss of its governance over the population of West Virginia, Congress in the 38th United States Congress did not seat either Senators elected by the Restored General Assembly, nor Representatives elected in truncated elections in Union occupied areas of Virginia; the entire state's delegation went vacant.[62]

Loyalist Convention of 1864[edit]

The Convention met from February 13 - April 11, 1864, and elected LeRoy G. Edwards its presiding officer. Following the creation of West Virginia, the remnant of Loyalist Virginian government held a Convention of delegates from a few periphery counties occupied by Union forces. It abolished slavery, but generally it is seen as "without force" during the time of federal military occupation until the Constitution of 1870 ended Reconstruction.

Constitutional Convention of 1868[edit]

The Convention met from December 3, 1867 - April 17, 1868, and elected John C. Underwood its presiding officer. A convention of enfranchised Unionists, freedmen and ex-Confederates was dominated by Radical Republicans. The Convention proposed two "obnoxious clauses" meant to restrict suffrage among ex-Confederates. Negotiations with President Grant resulted in separating the two more controversial proposals, and the remaining Constitution was ratified by referendum. It provided for the vote for African-Americans and public education.

Constitutional Convention of 1902[edit]

The Convention met from June 12, 1901 - June 26, 1902, and elected John Goode, Jr. its presiding officer. Progressives sought to reform corrupt political practices of the Martin political machine and to regulate railroads and big corporations. Martin delegates agreed to restrict suffrage of African-Americans and illiterate whites, and a powerful State Corporation Commission was established, but the Martin machine persisted in controlling Virginia politics until his death.

Constitutional Commission of 1927[edit]

Capitol, Richmond VA with 1904 wing additions

The Commission met from July 7, 1926 - February 16, 1927, and was appointed Virginia Chief Justice Robert R. Prentis its chair. Governor Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the successor boss of the Democratic Organization in Virginia, sought and gained governmental reform streamlining local government and increasing the power of the governor over the executive, as well as implementing constitutional restrictions on the General Assembly's ability to incur debt.

Limited Constitutional Convention of 1945[edit]

The Convention met from April 30 - May 1, 2, 22, 1945, and elected John J. Wicker, Jr., its presiding officer. During World War II, Virginia held a Constitutional Convention called for the limited purpose of expanding the franchise to members of the armed forces during wartime. Efforts by some delegates to expand the scope of the convention to reduce the voting age below 21 failed.

Limited Constitutional Convention of 1956[edit]

The Convention met from March 5–7, 1956, and elected John C. Parker its presiding officer. When the Supreme Court ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional, proponents of "massive resistance" to racial integration in schools secured a Limited Constitutional Convention for the purpose of state financing of non-sectarian private schools, resulting in segregation academies supported by public funds.

Constitutional Commission of 1969[edit]

The Commission met from April 1968 - January 1, 1969, and former Governor Albertis S. Harrison, Jr. was appointed its chair. After seven decades since the previous unlimited Convention, a Constitutional Commission was called by Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr. to consolidate piecemeal amendments and to conform with U.S. statutory and constitutional law.

Subsequent amendments[edit]

Since 1971, additional piecemeal amendments have been added in response to federal developments. Amendments ratified by the voters reduced the voting age to eighteen, removed residency requirements for voting, and conformed voter registration to the Motor Voter Act. A legislative session may be held after a Governor's veto. Virginia has also followed the lead of other states. Virginia joined thirty-two other states in in 1996 by amending its Constitution to provide for rights of victims of crime. Since 1996 Virginia and other states have adopted a provision protecting the right of the people to hunt, fish and harvest game.[63]

In 2006, Virginians aligned with twenty-nine other states seeking to ban homosexual marriage by Constitutional Amendment. The amendment limited marriage to “unions between one man and one woman”.[64] This Virginian Constitutional provision ran afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in both its due process and equal protections clauses in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

Failed amendments[edit]

Two proposals for Constitutional Amendment have failed to be enacted, but both remain current topics of periodic political discussion. Virginia remains the only state to ban governors serving consecutive terms, and it is only one of two still selecting both trial and appellate judges by the state legislature.[65]


  1. ^ Grigsby, Hugh Blair. The Virginia Convention of 1788, Da Capo Press, NY. (1891, 1969) p.34
  2. ^ "Resolutions of the Provincial Congress of Virginia; March 23, 1775". The Avalon Project, Yale Law School. Retrieved 9 April 2016. 
  3. ^ "Virginia Resolutions on Lord North's Conciliatory Proposal, 10 June 1775". Founders Online, National Archives. Retrieved 10 April 2016. 
  4. ^ "The Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates for the Counties and Corporations in the Colony of Virginia". Wythepedia: The George Wythe Encyclopedia, William & Mary Law Library. Retrieved 9 April 2016. 
  5. ^ "JULY 1775 -- INTERREGNUM CHAP. III.". Retrieved 9 April 2016. 
  6. ^ "Virginia in the Revolutionary War". Retrieved 9 April 2016. 
  7. ^ "WPA Guide to Virginia: Virginia History". American Studies at the University of Virginia. Retrieved 10 April 2016. 
  8. ^ "Virginia in the Revolutionary War". Retrieved 9 April 2016. 
  9. ^ Gutzman, Kevin R.C., Virginia's American Revolution", ISBN 978-0-7391-2132-0, Lexington Books, 2007, p.22
  10. ^ Grigsby, Hugh Blair. The Virginia Convention of 1776, Da Capo Press, NY. (1891, 1969) p.7
  11. ^ Grigsby, Hugh Blair, The Virginia Convention of 1776, 1855 ISBN 978-1-4290-1760-2, p.110, 67
  12. ^ Tartar, Brent. The Grandees of Government: the origins and persistence of undemocratic politics in Virginia, 2013 ISBN 978-0-8139-3431-0, p. 115
  13. ^ Grigsby (1855) p.110, 6
  14. ^ Grigsby (1855) p.110, 148
  15. ^ The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, “Constitution of Virginia; June 29, 1776” viewed April 14, 2016.
  16. ^ Andrews, Matthew Page. Virginia: the Old Dominion, 1937 p. 327. The flag for the perpetual union of the United States would feature a circle constellation of thirteen stars fixed in the heavens of a blue canton along with thirteen red and white stripes.
  17. ^ National Archives and Records Administration, Declaration of Independence. viewed April 14, 2016.
  18. ^ Dabney, Virginius. Virginia: the New Dominion. 1971. ISBN 978-0-8139-1015-4, p.172
  19. ^ Heinemann, Ronald L., et al. Old Domion, New Commonwealth: a history of Virginia, 1607-2007, 2008 ISBN 978-0-8139-2769-5, p. 145
  20. ^ Maier, Pauline. Ratification: the people debate the Constitution, 1778-1788, 2010, ISBN 978-0-6848-6855-4, p. 257
  21. ^ Dabney, Virginius. Virginia: the new Dominion. ISBN 978-0-8139-1015-4, 1971 p. 171-2
  22. ^ Maier 2010, p. 260-261
  23. ^ Maier 2010, p. 261-262
  24. ^ Maier 2010, p. 268-270
  25. ^ Maier, 2010, p. 306
  26. ^ Maier 2010, p. 308
  27. ^ Gutzman, Kevin R. Virginia’s American Revolution: from Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840. 2007, ISBN 978-0-7391-2131-3, p. 163, 165
  28. ^ Shade, William G. Democratizing the Old Dominion: Virginia and the Second Party System, 1824-1861. 1996, ISBN 978-0-8139-1654-5, p. 57-61
  29. ^ Shade 1996, p. 62-64
  30. ^ Shade 1996, p. 65-66
  31. ^ Shade 1996, p. 65
  32. ^ Gutzman 2007, p. 188
  33. ^ Andrews 1937, p. 430
  34. ^ Heinemann 2007, p. 173-174
  35. ^ Shade 1996, p. 64
  36. ^ Heinemann 2007, p. 173
  37. ^ Shade 1996, p. 262-263
  38. ^ Vam Scjreeven, William J. The Conventions and Constitutions of Virginia, 1776-1966. The Virginia State Library, 1967. p. 7
  39. ^ Heinemann 2007, p. 189
  40. ^ Shade 1996, p. 174-277
  41. ^ Shade 1996, p. 169-272
  42. ^ Heinemann 2007, p. 189-190
  43. ^ Shade 1996, p. 276-277
  44. ^ Dinan 2006, p.8
  45. ^ Dinan 2006, p. 9
  46. ^ Shade 1996, p. 280-282
  47. ^ Heinemann 2007, p. 190
  48. ^ Wallenstein, Peter. Cradle of America: a history of Virginia. 2007, ISBN 978-0-7006-1994-8, p. 170
  49. ^ Andrews 1937, p. 466
  50. ^ Freehling, William W. and Craig M. Simpson (eds.) Showdown in Virginia: the 1861 Convention and the fate of the Union. 2010 ISBN 978-0-8139-2964-4, p. 3-10.
  51. ^ Freehling 2010 p. 12-21.
  52. ^ Freehling 2010 p. 13-26
  53. ^ Freehling 2010 p. 51-61
  54. ^ Freehling 2010 p. 75-87
  55. ^ Heinemann 2007 p. 219
  56. ^ Freehling 2010 p. 165-166
  57. ^ Freehling 2010 p. 169-176
  58. ^ Heinemann 2007 p. 219-221
  59. ^ Wallenstein 2007 p. 190
  60. ^ Dabney p. 294-296
  61. ^ Heinemann 2007 p. 222-223
  62. ^ Martis, Kenneth. Historical Atlas of the United States Congress, 1789-1989. 1989, ISBN 978-0-0292-0170-1, p. 114-116
  63. ^ Dinan, John. "The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide", ISBN 0-313-33208-8, 2006, p.24, 51, 216.
  64. ^ Peaslee, Liliokanaio and Swartz, Nicholas J., "Virginia Government: institutions and policy", ISBN 978-1-4522-0589-2, 2014, p. 19.
  65. ^ Dinan, John. "The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide", ISBN 0-313-33208-8, 2006, p.24.


  • Dinan, John (2014). The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide. Oxford University Press. 
  • Hugh Blair Grigsby, The Virginia Convention of 1776, Da Capo Press, NY, (1855) 1969.
  • Hugh Blair Grigsby, The Virginia Convention of 1788, Da Capo Press, NY, (1891) 1969.
  • Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Virginia's American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840, Lexington Books, 2007.
  • Liliokanaio Peaslee and Nicholas J. Swartz, "Virginia Government: institutions and policy", Congressional Quarterly Press, 2014
  • William J. Van Schreeven, "The Conventions and Constitutions of Virginia, 1776-1966", Virginia State Library, 1967.
  • WPA Project:History of Virginia

Further reading[edit]