Constitution of 1851
By the time the census of 1840 was taken, the white population of Western
Virginia exceeded that of the rest of the state. Westerners quickly pointed
out that they had only 56 of the 134 delegates and 10 of the 29 senators
in the Virginia General Assembly. Conventions met in Clarksburg and Lewisburg
in 1842 and demanded a constitutional convention to remedy matters. Between
1842 and 1849 several constitutional convention bills were introduced
in the legislature but went nowhere due to the opposition of easterners.
Finally on December 3, 1849, Gov. John B. Floyd called for a constitutional
convention. After long debate a bill calling for a referendum passed the
legislature on March 4, 1850. In April voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly
approved the measure. In August the voters elected delegates to the constitutional
When the delegates convened in Richmond on October 14, 1850, the convention
was called to order by Joseph Johnson of Harrison County. Following the
appointment of standing committees, the convention recessed on November
4. When the convention reconvened on January 6, 1851, it began crafting
a new constitution for Virginia, one making significant concessions to
the West. It was agreed that the seats in the House of Delegates would
be apportioned based on the white population recorded in the 1850 census.
This meant that the Trans-Allegheny counties would have 83 of the 152
seats. In the Senate the East received 30 of the 50 seats, but a provision
was included calling for the General Assembly to reapportion representation
in both houses in 1865 and every ten years thereafter. Property qualifications
were abolished as a requirement for voting, meaning that every white male
citizen who was 21 or older could vote if a resident of the state for
two years and of his county, city, or town for one year. Efforts to abolish
voice voting and to institute voting by secret ballot failed to pass.
Those voters who owned property in more than one county were limited to
voting in only one.
Provision was made for the popular election of the governor for a four-year
term. The office of lieutenant governor was created, also to be elected
by popular vote. The governor's powerful advisory council, which had been
controlled by the legislature, was abolished. The appointment powers of
the governor were curtailed, and all judges and local officials and members
of the Board of Public Works were to be chosen by popular vote. This meant
the local selection of local officials, which the western delegates had
fought for unsuccessfully in the 1829-30 Convention.
Several changes were made to the legislature. Annual meetings were discontinued
and biennial sessions instituted. Delegates were elected for two years
and senators for four. More power was given to the Senate by allowing
senators to introduce legislation and allowing the Senate to amend the
budget bill, which by law originated in the House. The delegates to the
convention agreed that one half of a capitation tax paid by every voter
was to be used to promote schools and education. To appease Eastern slaveholders,
the property tax rate on slaves was set lower than on land and livestock.
Westerners could consider the final document a victory, and it became
known as the Reform Constitution. Approved by the convention by a vote
of 75 to 33, the new constitution was submitted to the voters for ratification
or rejection between October 23 and 25, 1851. The voters cast 75,748 votes
for and 11,060 against ratification. The Constitution of 1851 made satisfying
progress toward addressing long-standing sectional differences within
the Commonwealth of Virginia though not, as it proved, progress
enough to withstand the coming crisis of the Civil War.
See also Constitution of 1830
Louis H. Manarin
David L. Pulliam, The
Constitutional Conventions of Virginia from the Foundation of the Commonwealth
to the Present Time, 1901; William J. Van Schreeven, The Conventions
and Constitutions of Virginia 1776-1966, 1967.
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