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.
- 1 Gallery of presiding officers in Virginia conventions
- 2 First through fourth conventions
- 3 Fifth convention
- 4 Ratifying (Federal) Convention of 1788
- 5 Constitutional Convention of 1829-30
- 6 Constitutional Convention of 1850
- 7 Secessionist Convention of 1861
- 8 Wheeling Conventions of 1861
- 9 Loyalist Convention of 1864
- 10 Constitutional Convention of 1868
- 11 Constitutional Convention of 1902
- 12 Constitutional Commission of 1927
- 13 Limited Constitutional Convention of 1945
- 14 Limited Constitutional Convention of 1956
- 15 Constitutional Commission of 1969
- 16 Subsequent amendments
- 17 Failed amendments
- 18 Notes
- 19 References
Gallery of presiding officers in Virginia conventions
Philip P. Barbour
John Y. Mason
Francis Pierpont, Loyalist Governor in 1864
John C. Underwood
John Goode, Jr.
Harry F. Byrd, Sr.
Governor called 1927 Commission
Mills E. Godwin, Jr.
Governor called 1969 Commission
First through fourth conventions
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).
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."
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.
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.  
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.
Back in England in December 1775, the King’s Proclamation of Rebellion had declared the colonies outside his protection. But still throughout the first four Virginia state Conventions, there was no adopted expression in favor of independence from the British Empire.
The newly elected fifth convention began May 6 to July 5, 1776, and met in Williamsburg. It elected Edmund Pendleton its presiding officer. 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. 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. The second party was made up of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, lawyers, physicians and “aspiring young men”. These included the older generation George Mason, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, and the younger Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 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.
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”. 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, 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, 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.
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.
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
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 led those opposed. Edmund Randolph who had refused to sign the Constitution in the Philadelphia Convention chose Union over any reservations. George Mason refused to sign due to the lack of a Bill of Rights. 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.
Constitutional Convention of 1829-30
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. Some malapportionment was eased relative to the majority of voters and white population in the west, and some suffrage restrictions were modified. Proposals to abolish slavery were defeated.
Constitutional Convention of 1850
The Convention met from October 14, 1850 - August 1, 1851, and elected John Y. Mason its presiding officer. The "Reform Convention" aligned Virginia's Constitution to Jacksonian Democracy principles for the most part. Representation proportionate to the population was gained in the lower House of Delegates, as well as popular election of the Governor. General Assembly discretion to manumit or to abolish slavery was removed.
Secessionist Convention of 1861
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. The Convention's proposed constitution which would have restored 1830 suffrage restrictions failed at referendum. Unconditional Unionist delegates from the western counties adjacent the Ohio River later formed West Virginia in 1863.
Wheeling Conventions of 1861
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. It established a Restored Government of Virginia duly recognized by the U.S. Congress.
Loyalist Convention of 1864
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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”. 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).
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.
- Grigsby, Hugh Blair. The Virginia Convention of 1788, Da Capo Press, NY. (1891, 1969) p.34
- "Resolutions of the Provincial Congress of Virginia; March 23, 1775". The Avalon Project, Yale Law School. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
- "Virginia Resolutions on Lord North's Conciliatory Proposal, 10 June 1775". Founders Online, National Archives. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
- "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.
- "JULY 1775 -- INTERREGNUM CHAP. III.". Virginia1774.org. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
- "Virginia in the Revolutionary War". Retrieved 9 April 2016.
- "WPA Guide to Virginia: Virginia History". American Studies at the University of Virginia. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
- "Virginia in the Revolutionary War". Retrieved 9 April 2016.
- Gutzman, Kevin R.C., Virginia's American Revolution", ISBN 978-0-7391-2132-0, Lexington Books, 2007, p.22
- Grigsby, Hugh Blair. The Virginia Convention of 1776, Da Capo Press, NY. (1891, 1969) p.7
- Grigsby (1855) p.110, 67
- Grigsby (1855) p.110, 6
- Grigsby (1855) p.110, 148
- The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, “Constitution of Virginia; June 29, 1776” viewed April 14, 2016.
- National Archives and Records Administration, Declaration of Independence. viewed April 14, 2016.
- Dinan, John. "The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide", ISBN 0-313-33208-8, 2006, p.24, 51, 216.
- Peaslee, Liliokanaio and Swartz, Nicholas J., "Virginia Government: institutions and policy", ISBN 978-1-4522-0589-2, 2014, p. 19.
- 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