1851 Constitution of Virginia

in 1848, railroads in Virginia were concentrated east of the Blue Ridge
in 1848, railroads in Virginia were concentrated east of the Blue Ridge
Source: Library of Congress, Skeleton map showing the Rail Roads completed and in progress in the United States (1848)

Another convention, meeting between October 14, 1850 - August 1, 1851, wrote Virginia's third constitution. The delegates took a break between the two session, held October 14-November 4, 1850 and January 6-August 1, 1851.

The 1851 constitution finally eliminated the requirement of voters to own a certain amount of property and established universal, white manhood suffrage. With a few exceptions, all white males over 21 years of age who met the residency requirements became eligible to vote. "Freehold" voting was an objective primarily of western Virginians, since a higher percentage of them had been blocked from voting by the property minimums in the 1776 and 1830 constitutions. Women and people of color remained unable to vote.

Ministers remained ineligible to serve in the House of Delegates or State Senate:1

...no person holding a lucrative office, no minister of the gospel or priest of any religious denomination, no salaried officer of any banking corporation or company, and no attorney for the commonwealth shall be capable of being elected a member of either house of assembly.

The executive branch structure was revised by eliminating the role of the General Assembly in choosing the governor, and holding direct elections for that position. The Council of State, originally eight people elected by the legislature in the 1776 constitution and then three people in the 1830 constitution, was completely eliminated.

In the colonial era and under the previous two constitutions, if a governor died or resigned his office before completing his term, the longest-serving member of the Council of State would serve until the General Assembly met and choose a new governor. Abolishing the Council of State eliminated that possibility, so the new constitution created the elected position of Lieutenant Governor so there would be a backup official.

The 1851 constitution also gave voters the right to elect the Attorney General, as well as the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. If an election for those offices was contested, or if a vote ended in a tie, the General Assembly retained the authority to determine the winner. That provision remains in the current state constitution.2

The power of local residents was increased by having direct elections for local officials - clerk of the county court, surveyor, commonwealth attorney, sheriff, commissioners of the revenue, constables, and overseers of the poor. Term limits were imposed on sheriffs. A sheriff could be elected for just two sequential terms, and could not serve in any political office for a year after the second term ended.

Voters also elected judges of the Supreme Court of Appeals, circuit court, and county courts. The constitution required that counties be divided into districts, each of which would elect four justices of the peace. Those justices formed the county court and handled a mix of legislative, executive, and judicial functions.

The General Assembly had appointed all judges since counties were first created in 1634. In practice, the county courts were an aristocratic bastion controlled by the wealthy property owners in a county. Whenever there was a vacancy, the other members of the county court recommended the replacement and the governor/legislature routinely appointed that person.3

The number of General Assembly sessions were cut in half, by shifting from annual to biannual meetings. Time limits were also defined for the biannual session.

The State Senate gained power equal to the House of Delegates. Prior to the 1851 constitution, the State Senate could not originate legislation; it could only amend proposals generated in the House of Delegates. The 1851 constitution said:4

Bills and resolutions may originate in either of the two houses of the general assembly, to be approved or rejected by the other, and may be amended by either house with the consent of the other.

In the 1850-1851 constitutional convention, westerners again failed to get voting districts realigned enough to overcome the dominance of the General Assembly by voters living east of the Blue Ridge. In the 152-member House of Delegates, 66 seats (43%) were allocated to districts west of the Blue Ridge. The percentage of western districts in the State Senate was lower, at 38%. In that 50-member body, only 19 State Senators would be elected from west of the Blue Ridge.

New language was added to prevent the creation of new counties smaller than 600 square miles. The large minimum size was intended to limit the number of new members that would be elected to the House of Delegates as new counties were created. Today, only nine counties in Virginia exceed 600 square miles in size:5
- Pittsylvania (968.94 sq mi)
- Augusta (967.00 sq mi)
- Rockingham (849.08 sq mi)
- Halifax (817.84 sq mi)
- Bedford (753.02 sq mi)
- Albemarle (720.70 sq mi)
- Franklin (690.43 sq mi)
- Fauquier (647.45 sq mi)
- Mecklenburg (625.48 sq mi)

Eastern landowners were unwilling to give up their guarantee of legislative control that was enshrined in the 1830 constitution. Easterners continued to cite their justification of excessive representation for districts east of the Blue Ridge, based on the claim that government was responsible for protecting property and the greatest property values were east of the mountains.

Easterners also feared that westerners might be more willing to accept emancipation of enslaved people in the future, since the vast majority of such "property" was located east of the mountains.

The 1851 constitution did include a requirement for the General Assembly to reapportion how its members would be elected 15 years in the future. That provided a temporary resolution of the heated 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 redistricting issue directly. The choices would involve districts with boundaries drawn to equalize just the white population, and districts with boundaries drawn on a "mixed basis" to balance both the white population and the assessed value of property within the district.

The power of the eastern bloc enabled it to protect slaveowners in Tidewater and the Piedmont from the threat of confiscatory taxation. The 1851 constitution required that all property had to be taxed at the same rate, and "property" included enslaved people that were more common east of the Blue Ridge.

If the General Assembly increased the tax rate to raise more revenue from wasterners who owned slave property, then the tax rate would increase just as much on land owned by farmers without slaves. More significantly, the constitution also defined a $300 cap on the value of enslaved adults and prohibited any tax on people less than 12 years old, ensuring the tax burden would fall primarily upon western landowners:6

Sec. 22. Taxation shall be equal and uniform throughout the commonwealth, and all property other than slaves shall be taxed in proportion to its value, which shall be ascertained in such manner as may be prescribed by law.
Sec. 23. Every slave who has attained the age of twelve years shall be assessed with a tax equal to and not exceeding that assessed on land of the value of three hundred dollars. Slaves under that age shall not be subject to taxation...

Those provisions ended up subsidizing slaveowners, as the value of their "property" grew far beyond those caps throughout the 1850's. The western residents, who owned fewer enslaved people, paid an increasing percentage of the state property tax because of the $300 cap. Dissatisfaction reached the point where westerners discussed splitting the state.

The new constitution was ratified by the voters on October 24, 1850. It went into effect on January 12, 1851.7

The 1851 constitution created no mechanism for amendments, except for apportionment. A new constitutional convention would be required, if voters wanted to change anything other than the basis for drawing boundaries of voting districts.

Constitutions of Virginia

What Is the Significance of Virginia Being a "Commonwealth"?

the 1851 Constitution eliminated the property ownership requirement and allowed more white men to vote
the 1851 Constitution eliminated the property ownership requirement and allowed more white men to vote
Source: Hathi Trust, Code of Virginia, 1860



1. "Virginia Constitution, 1851," for Virginians: Government Matters, https://vagovernmentmatters.org/primary-sources/519.html; "The Virginia Constitution: A Documentary Analysis," William and Mary Law Review, Volume 10, Number 2 (Winter 1968), p.514 (Table I), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlr/vol10/iss2/20/; Article III, Section 7, 1851 Constitution of Virginia, https://vagovernmentmatters.org/files/download/433/fullsize.pdf (last checked November 7, 2022)
2. "Article V. Executive - Section 2. Election of Governor," Constitution of Virginia, https://law.lis.virginia.gov/constitution/article5/section2/; "Article V. Executive - Section 13. Lieutenant Governor; election and qualifications," Constitution of Virginia, https://law.lis.virginia.gov/constitution/article5/section13/; "Article V. Executive - Section 15. Attorney General," Constitution of Virginia, https://law.lis.virginia.gov/constitution/article5/section15/ (last checked October 17, 2019)
3. "Article VI. Judiciary Department - County Courts," Constitution of Virginia, https://law.lis.virginia.gov/constitution/article5/section2/; Patrick M. McSweeney, "Local Government Law in Virginia, 1870-1970," University of Richmond Law Review, Volume 4, Issue 2 (1970), p.187, : http://scholarship.richmond.edu/lawreview/vol4/iss2/2 (last checked July 28, 2021)
4. "Virginia Constitution, 1851," for Virginians: Government Matters, https://vagovernmentmatters.org/primary-sources/519.html (last checked August 16, 2023)
5. John J. Dinan, The Virginia State Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.8-9, p.11, https://books.google.com/books?id=fe9MAgAAQBAJ; Virginia General Assembly, "Virginia Constitution, 1851," in Virginia Civics, Item #519, http://vagovernmentmatters.org/primary-sources/519; "Virginia Land Area County Rank," USA.com, http://www.usa.com/rank/virginia-state--land-area--county-rank.htm (last checked May 3, 2022)
6. John J. Dinan, The Virginia State Constitution, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.8-9, p.11, https://books.google.com/books?id=fe9MAgAAQBAJ; Virginia General Assembly, "Virginia Constitution, 1851," in Virginia Civics, Item #519, http://vagovernmentmatters.org/primary-sources/519 (last checked December 27, 2017)
7. "The Virginia Constitution: A Documentary Analysis," William and Mary Law Review, Volume 10, Number 2 (Winter 1968), p.514 (Table I), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlr/vol10/iss2/20/ (last checked June 20, 2019)

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