Virginia held five Revolutionary Conventions between 1774 and 1776. The conventions propelled Virginia toward independence from Great Britain, commanding Virginia's delegates to the Continental Congress and overseeing Virginia's affairs until the break was made in July 1776. At the last momentous convention Virginians made decisions that would change Virginia's and the nation's history.
The last of the Virginia Revolutionary Conventions met in the Capitol in Williamsburg from May 6 through July 5, 1776. The only Revolutionary Convention to meet at the Capitol, they met in the same chamber of the building in which the former House of Burgesses had met. During their meeting the royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, was either aboard a warship or entrenched with British soldiers at Tucker's Point near Portsmouth, or his forces were at the mouth of the Piankatank River in possession of Gwynn's Island.
Among the revolutionary decisions the convention made were the instructing on May 15 of the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress to make a motion for independence from Britain, the adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 12, and the adoption of Virginia's first constitution on June 29. The convention spent five days debating the draft constitutions written by George Mason and James Madison and by Thomas Jefferson. Ultimately the first Constitution of Virginia contained parts of both drafts, although many of Jefferson's ideas were deemed too radical. The constitution created a commonwealth, in which the ultimate authority lay with the sovereign people. Fueled by fears of a reoccurrence of the abuses by King George III and the royal governor, the constitution severely restricted the powers of the executive branch (the governor). The legislature was continued as a bicameral body, with a Senate and a House of Delegates. The General Assembly was given the authority to make the laws and to choose the governor, his advising committee, and the attorney general, as well as all the judges and other state officials.
The Virginia Constitution of 1776 was lauded as being democratic and revolutionary. Later when Madison began drafting the United States Constitution, Virginia's constitution undoubtedly influenced his proposals.
On the same day that Virginia's constitution was adopted, the convention voted for the governor. Patrick Henry, a delegate from Hanover, a fiery orator and a fervent patriot, won with 60 votes against the 45 votes for Thomas Nelson Sr. (the previous president of royal governor Dunmore's Council and secretary of the colony), and the single vote for John Page, of Gloucester.
Henry took the oath of office on July 6, 1776, and he was reelected twice, serving as governor until June 1, 1779. He was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. Henry was again governor of Virginia from November 30, 1784, to November 30, 1786.
1. How many votes did Patrick Henry receive?
2. What is a ballot box?
1. What is the significance of the convention's appointing the committee to advise the governor? Why didn't the convention allow the governor to choose his advisors?
2. Why did Virginians decide to limit the executive branch of state government so strictly? How were these limitations similar to the limitations put on the executive branch of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation and under the U.S. Constitution?
The convention journal was recorded during the session in Williamsburg from May 6 through July 5, 1776. A governmental record, it stayed in the Commonwealth's records when the capital was moved to Richmond. In April 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War, a Union soldier removed the journal from the state archives in the Capitol in Richmond and took it home with him. His descendants sold the manuscript journal in 1942 to a Philadelphia dealer in rare books and manuscripts. When the dealer, in turn, attempted to sell the volume to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the state librarian and the attorney general of Virginia intervened to ensure the document's safe return to the archives, by then part of the Virginia State Library. Virginia reimbursed the dealer in the amount of his original purchase price. The transaction was one of several made during the same period that established the precedents by which the Commonwealth of Virginia has been able to recover a large number of lost public documents.
Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission. Revolutionary Virginia: the Road to Independence, a Documentary Record, Vol 7: Independence and the Fifth Convention, 1776. Compiled and edited by Robert L. Scribner and Brent Tarter. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1983.
Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York and Toronto: Franklin Watts, 1986.