Constitutions of Virginia

Virginia has totally replaced its state constitution several times. The first version was written and adopted over a decade before the Federal Constitution, and the last major revision of the state constitution was adopted in 1971. Since then, there have been several amendments, including three that were adopted in November, 1999.

The state constitution was first drafted in 1776, to establish a basis for government after declaring independence from Great Britain. The Federal Constitution was written in 1787 to define how the separate states would form a "more perfect union." The Federal version has been amended but never replaced - though in 1861, there was an attempt to withdraw completely from the union, and 11 southern states lived under an alternative constitution for about 4 years.

The Federal Constitution has achieved mythic status now. A shrine has been created at the National Archives for visitors to see the document in an altar-like setting. That reverence would surprise the men who negotiated it in 1787, or argued for its adoption by the 13 colonies in 1788-90. A Constitution is a powerful document, but it's just a negotiated agreement between people. It's not a "divine word" that is delivered intact from on high. It's equivalent to an understanding at the start of a marriage - in nearly all cases, the partners evolve and re-establish their connections tro each other to reflect changing circumstances. In a few cases, people renew their vows to re-define their mutual understanding - and

Writing, amending, and replacing the Virginia constitution is a straightforward political process, with intense debate and occasionally some raw political bargaining. The 1869 Underwood Constitution was imposed in part by military force. Virginia was required to adopt a new constitution in order to rejoin the Union and end the Federal occupation of "Military District #1" and restore Virginia as a state withing the Federal system.

The First State Constitution - 1776

[to be added]

Writing and Adopting the Federal Constitution in 1787-88

If you remember your high school history, you probably know a lot about Virginia leading the American Revolution - but at most you may recollect about "two-bits" worth of knowledge about Virginia's reluctance to join the new nation that came from that war, the United States.

Now, in addition to the Federalist Papers, you can actually refer to a real two-bit piece to refresh your memory of Virginia's Constitutional debates. New quarters are being issued, in the order in which states ratified the Constitution. Virginia was the largest colony, and its leaders were prominent in the creation of the new country during the American Revolution... but Virginia is not #1, or #2 in the sequence. Instead, Virginia's quarter will be issued at the end of 2000, right after New Hampshire's quarter, because Virginia was the tenth state to ratify the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation that had been adopted in 1781.

Patrick Henry was as outspoken in opposition to the Constitution in 1788-89 as he was to continued British rule in 1775-76. Henry "smelled a rat" and refused to go to Philadelphia and attend the Constitutional Convention in 1788. Henry's eloquence made it a close contest before Virginia ratified the Constitution, and joined the stronger Federal union.
But Henry's concerns about an excessively-strong central government have stayed part of the Virginia political psyche. Concerns about the loss of state control - particularly state protection of what slaveowners called "private property" - were a key part in Virginia's abortive effort to leave the union and join a weaker confederation of Southern states in 1861.

Constitutional Conventions of Virginia



- Holt, Wythe W. Jr., "The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902," Virginia Magaine of History and Biography 76 (January, 1968), pp.67-102
- McDanel, Ralph C., The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore MD, 1928

Virginia Government and Politics
Virginia Places