Virginia held five Revolutionary Conventions between August 1774 and July 1776. The conventions selected and instructed the Virginia delegates to Congress, organized military preparation, arranged economic embargoes of British goods, and formed the Virginia Committee of Safety that between August 1775 and July 1776 governed Virginia in the absence of the royal governor.
The last of the Revolutionary Conventions met in the Capitol in Williamsburg from May 6 through July 5, 1776. On the morning of May 6, a few members of the House of Burgesses met there for the last time and let that body die. The members of the fifth Convention then began their meetings in the Capitol.
Many of the delegates brought instructions from their localities to declare Virginia independent of Great Britain. As their first order of business, they elected Edmund Pendleton president of the convention. On May 14, the debate on independence began. There was no question that the ties between Virginia and Great Britain would be dissolved (Robert Nicolas Carter voiced the only opposition), but there were varying opinions on how best to preserve liberty and win the clash with British forces. Some of the delegates preferred to wait until foreign alliances could be negotiated, but on May 15 the delegates voted unanimously to instruct the colony's representatives in Congress to introduce a motion for independence.
On June 7, 1776, the senior Virginia member of Congress, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution stating, "That these United Colonies are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." Congress adopted his motion on July 2, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
When the Virginia Convention instructed the delegates in Congress on May 15 to propose a resolution of independence, it also created a committee to prepare a Declaration of Rights and a form, or constitution, of government for Virginia. On June 12, 1776, the convention unanimously adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and on June 29, 1776, it unanimously adopted the first Constitution of Virginia. On the latter day it also elected Patrick Henry governor. He took office as the first governor of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia on July 6, 1776.
1. What did the convention members state were their reasons for wanting independence?
2. What did the convention resolve to do in addition to instructing the congressional delegates to enter a motion for independence?
1. Compare the list of grievances the Virginia convention detailed in their resolution with the indictment of George III in the Declaration of Independence. How are they similar, how are they different?
2. How did Virginia declare its independence even before the Declaration of Independence was created?
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.
Smith, Hampden, III. "The Virginia Resolutions for Independence." Virginia Cavalcade 25 (Spring 1976): 148–157.