Constitutions of Virginia

Virginia's state constitution was first drafted in 1776, to establish a basis for government after declaring independence from Great Britain. George Mason is credited with drafting the Declaration of Rights, which was adopted first.1

The first version was written and adopted over a decade before the Federal Constitution. 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 Confederate constitution for about 4 years.

Virginia voters have totally replaced the state constitution in 1830, 1851, 1864, 1869, 1902, and 1971. Since 1851 voters have amended those constitutions, in large and small ways, many more times.

Unlike the US Constitution written in 1787, Virginia's 1776 document made no provision for any amendments. Pressure for changes resulted in a constitutional convention in 1829 that wrote a new constitution, replacing rather than amending the one adopted in 1776. The 1830 constitution also provided for no amendment process, so another convention held in 1850 wrote Virginia's third constitution.

The 1851 constitution included a requirement for the General Assembly to reapportion how its members would be elected, reflecting the continuing controversy regarding how voters in eastern Virginia had a greater share of elected representatives compared to voters in western Virginia. If the General Assembly could not reach a reapportionment deal in 1865 and every ten years afterwards, the 1851 constitution required to governor to organize an election so voters could resolve the apportionment issue directly.

Though there was no process for revising the 1851 constitution other than the vote scheduled in 1865, an amendment was proposed by the same 1861 convention that approved the ordinance of secession withdrawing Virginia from the United States. That amendment revised Section 23 in the 1851 constitution, which limited the tax on slaves to a maximum of $300. Voters approved the amendment to tax slaves at market value (ad valorem) on May 23, 1861 at the same time they approved secession.

Western landowners had complained that their property was subject to ad valorem taxes, with no maximum tax as land value increased. Failure to tax slave "property" the same way provided an unfair benefit to the slaveowners who were concentrated east of the Blue Ridge. Amending the 1851 state constitution to change the way slaves were taxed was proposed in order to appease western voters, most of whom did not rely upon slave labor, and to increase western support for secession.

The 1861 special convention that approved secession chose to stay in existence and write a new state constitution later that year. At a minimum, joining the Confederacy required purging references in the state constitution to the United States. The convention adjourned and, after reconvening in December 1861, proposed a new state constutution. It incorporated the already-approved amendment on taxing slaves the same as taxing land:2

Taxation shall be equal and uniform throughout the Commonwealth, and all property shall be taxed in proportion to its value

The 1851 constitution had eliminated the requirement of voters to own a certain amount of property. All white males over 21 years of age were eligible to participate in the ratification vote for the new constitution on March 13, 1862, and on a separate proposal to limit future voting in Virginia to taxpayers.

The vote coincided with the Peninsula Campaign of the Union Army under General George McClellan. In that crisis, Governor Letcher directed the militia in all counties/cities to "without waiting for further orders [m]ove at once to the places designated." The few Virginians who managed to vote rejected the proposed new constitution and the limitation of the franchise, so throughout the Civil War the Virginia constitution included references to the United States and no references to the Confederacy.3

The Restored Government of Virginia, which stayed allied with the Union, also tried to revise the state constitution. The General Assembly meeting in Alexandria organized a vote on January 21, 1864 to elect delegates to a constitutional convention.

The convention met between February 13-April 11, 1864 and wrote a new Virginia constitution that realigned voting districts to reflect the loss of counties to West Virginia (but retained Virginia's claim to Berkeley and Jefferson counties), replaced "viva voce" voting with the written ballot, granted the right to vote to white men who had lived in Virginia for only one year, and abolished slavery in Article IV, Section 19:4

Slavery and involuntary servitude (except for crime) is hereby abolished and prohibited in the state forever.

The convention did not submit the new constitution to a popular vote for ratification. Most of Virginia did not accept the authority of the Restored government, and those areas under the control of the Union military (such as Hampton Roads) were governed by officers who did not cooperate well with the civilian government under Gov. Francis Pierpont. The 1864 Alexandria convention, like the 1776 convention, simply declared the new constitution to be in effect. Union victory at the end of the Civil War meant that 1864 constitution applied to all of Virginia - minus Berkeley and Jefferson counties, which the US supreme Court determined in 1866 were part of West Virginia.5

voters trying to elect representatives to conventions or ratify new Virginia constitutions during the Civil War faced unique challenges...
voters trying to elect representatives to conventions or ratify new Virginia constitutions during the Civil War faced unique challenges...
Source: Harper's Weekly, How Virginia Was Voted Out Of The Union

In 1867 during Reconstruction, the US Congress declared Virginia was no longer a state but instead Military District Number One. To re-enter the Union, Virginia was forced to revise its constitution again. After Virginia was reclassified as Military Distruct Number One, Union Army officials determined that a new constitution would be adopted and blacks would be allowed to participate in process. Existing limits in 1851 constitution on who could vote were ignored; the election of the 1867 constitutional convention that met in Richmond was the first time black men were allowed to vote in Virginia. Over 20 black men served in the convention chaired by Judge John C. Underwood.6

The "Underwood Constitution" institutionalized the rights of black men over 21 to vote. The voters in Virginia ratified the new constitution in 1869, but at the same time rejected the proposal that former Confederates be banned from voting or serving in office. Congress still allowed Virginia to renter the Union and to send members to vote again in the US House of Representatives and US Senate, starting in 1870.

In 1877, Federal troops were withdrawn from southern states as part of the compromises that resolved the disputed presidential electio between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Virginia increasingly restricted the voting rights of black men and instutionalized segregation ("Jim Crow" laws).

A new constitutional convention in 1901 created stricter voting requirements in the new state constitution that reduced the number of potential voters. Local and state officials then blocked so many blacks and poor whites that by the 1940's, Virginia's political process was considered to be so unrepresentative that the state was considered to be a "museum of democracy."7

a primary objective of the 1902 state constitution was to limit the ability of black men to vote
a primary objective of the 1902 state constitution was to limit the ability of black men to vote
Source: Broadside 1901.N68, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia, 1901 Flyer--"No White Man to Lose His Vote"

The last major revision of the state constitution was adopted by the voters in 1971. "Massive resistance" had failed, and the General Assembly had abandoned the "pay as you go" fiscal constraints.

Nearly every General Assembly considers proposals for additional revisions, but few make it through the process. Constitutional amendments must be approved twice by the General Assembly (an election for the House of Delegates must occur between those two votes), and then voters must approve the change in a statewide referendum.



1. "The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776," Virginia Memoy, Library of Virginia,; Jeff Broadwater, "George Mason (17251792)," Encyclopedia Virginia, March 6 2014, (last checked February 24, 2015)
2. Section 22, Constitution of 1861, (last checked February 24, 2015)
3. Brent Tartar, The Grandeees of Government: the Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2013, pp.223-225; Gov. John Letcher, "By the Governor of Virginia. a Proclamation," Richmond Times Dispatch, March 13, 1862, (last checked February 24, 2015)
4. Article IV, Section 19, "Constitution of the State of Virginia, and the ordinances adopted by the Convention which assembled at Alexandria, on the 13th day of February, 1864," (last checked February 24, 2015)
5. Sara B. Bearss, "Virginia Constitutional Convention (1864)," Encyclopedia Virginia, December 11, 2013, (last checked February 24, 2015)
6. Brent Tartar, The Grandeees of Government: the Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2013, p.225
7. Key, V. O., Southern Politics in State and Nation, Knopf, New York, 1949

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