During the colonial period, Virginia had no written constitution. Instead, from 1607 to 1624, the Virginia Company of London managed the colony under royal charters. The charter of 1618 required that the assembly's laws conform to the laws of England. From 1625 to 1652 and again from 1660 to 1776, Virginia was a royal colony, with all governmental authority derived directly from the British Crown, which issued formal commissions and specific instructions to the royal governors appointed by the king or queen. During the Interregnum in England between 1652, when Virginia surrendered to Parliament, and 1660 when Charles II regained the throne, the colony was essentially self-governing. Women and Virginians of African descent most likely never voted in colonial Virginia, and laws passed in 1670 and 1699 specifically restricted the franchise to free, adult white men who owned land.
The Virginia Convention that met in Williamsburg from May 6 through July 5, 1776, unanimously adopted a Declaration of Rights on June 12 and about two weeks later, on June 29, unanimously adopted the first constitution of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia. These two documents are some of the most important examples of political thought from the founding era of the United States, and had tremendous influence on the creation of the American Republic. The Virginia constitution was a model for the governments of other states, and most important, the national government of the United States. It was also influential abroad during the French Revolution.
The first Virginia constitution addressed a variety of topics and made no provisions for amendments. The right to vote for members of the assembly remained unchanged from the colonial laws previously in force. The General Assembly was designated as the legislative branch of the government. The assembly, which met "once or oftener every Year," consisted of a House of Delegates (two members elected from each county and one from each incorporated city or borough) and a twenty-four-member Senate (members elected for four-year terms that were staggered, with one-fourth of the Senate districts holding an election each year). All bills had to originate in the House of Delegates. The Senate could suggest amendments to bills that the House had passed, except in the case of "money bills" that levied taxes, which could only be "wholly approved or rejected." The assembly elected Virginia's representatives to the Continental Congress and after ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1788 the state's two United States senators. The assembly also elected the attorney general, treasurer, and other necessary state officials.
The office of governor, the executive branch, was an intentionally weak one. The General Assembly elected the governor for one-year terms (no more than three consecutive terms) and required him to act with an eight-member Council of State that the assembly also elected. If a governor died, resigned, or was absent from the capital, the president of the Council served as lieutenant, or acting, governor. The governor had no power to veto bills that the assembly passed.
The Virginia constitution authorized the assembly to establish a judiciary—a state court system—but left the organization of the courts to the legislators. Local courts continued to function as they had during the colonial period. When the assembly created the Court of Appeals in 1778 and 1779, the statutes vested appointment of the judges in the assembly.
By making few references to local institutions, the constitution left the organization and structure of local government largely unchanged. County courts continued to nominate militia officers, sheriffs, and other local officers whom the governor usually appointed, and vacancies on the county courts were usually filled in the same manner.
The convention elected Patrick Henry the first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the new constitution went into effect when he was sworn into office on July 6, 1776.
1. What is the name of the legislature in Virginia?
2. What are the names of the two branches of the legislature?
3. Who chose the governor?
1. What influences do you see from the Virginia Constitution of 1776 in the Declaration of Independence? How about in the United States Constitution?
2. How do you think the Virginia Constitution of 1776 influenced the French Revolution?
3. Why did the Virginians intentionally create the office of the governor as a weak executive?
Selby, John E. “Henry Lee, John Adams, and the Virginia Constitution of 1776” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 84, No. 4 (Oct. 1976): 387–400.
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.