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Election of the state Constitutional Convention,1870

CONTENT WARNING

Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 

Context

The election of representatives to the 1867 constitutional convention was the first time that large numbers of Black men could vote in Virginia and the first time any Black men were elected to public office. Radical Republicans won most of the contests, with 24 Black men and 80 white men elected to serve in the convention. The convention was chaired by Judge John C. Underwood and lasted from December 3, 1867 to April 17, 1868. The "Underwood Constitution" institutionalized the rights of black men over 21 to vote. Women of any color were still not granted the franchise or right to vote which matched the decision of the US Congress when drafting the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution. The members of Congress ignored the requests of women suffragists when it expanded suffrage, but only authorized men to vote.

The proposed new constitution required creating a statewide system of free public schools, a major priority for those who had been enslaved and denied an education. The convention debate centered on altering the Bill of Rights to say that all mankind was, "irrespective of race or color, are by nature equally free." In addition to the white delegates who were unwilling to accept the concept, some of the leading black delegates also opposed the revision. They aspired to a constitution which represented all people regardless of race and opposed including any mention of race or color in the document.

The new constitution also included Article XII, which provided a workable mechanism for amending the state constitution for the first time in Virginia history. The process has been retained in all subsequent constitutions. The process of implementing Article XII included serval steps.  First, a General Assembly must approve a proposed amendment. Second, the next general election would take place for members for the House of Delegates and the State Senate. Third, the new General Assembly would need to approve the same language of the proposed amendment created by the former General Assembly. Lastly, the proposed amendment would be submitted to the voters for a final decision. A constitutional convention was no longer required to change the constitution. Although only one constitutional convention has been held in Virginia since 1870.

The voters in Virginia ratified their new constitution in 1869 by a vote of 210,585 in favor and only 9,136 opposed. Congress approved the new state constitution, as required under the Reconstruction program, on January 26, 1870. In doing so, Virginia to re-enter the Union and vote to send members to the US House of Representatives and US Senate. In 1877, Federal troops were withdrawn from southern states as part of the compromises that resolved the disputed presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Without pressure from the Federal government, Virginia increasingly restricted the voting rights of black men and institutionalized segregation via "Jim Crow" laws.

The black delegates to the General Assembly in 1867-1868 would have had the opportunity to participate in the discussions and voting on the new state constitution. Records exist of their attendance and payment received when they were serving in the General Assembly. They played an important role in the changing the policies and practices of legislation in state governance.

 

Citation: Virginia Constitutional Convention (1867-1868), Attendance book, 1867-1868.Accession 40656. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va. 23219.

 

Standards

VS.9, VUS.7, USII.4,CE.2, CE.7, GOVT.6

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Scan it: Scan the documents. What do you notice about them? What do you think they were used for?

Post Activity

Be a Journalist: Four men of color, Thomas Bayne, John Brown, Joseph Cox and David Canada were elected to and participated in the 1867-1868 Constitutional Convention. The documents from the record book indicate their days of attendance at the convention, and serves as account book, noting payment for attendance and reimbursement for travel expenses. You are a journalist preparing to interview one of these men, what are the three most important questions you would ask? Why are they important?

Current Connection: Provide an example of how the documents reflect or led to a concept/position/policy/ practice in government today.

Food for Thought: How could have the inclusion of men of all races been different five year before or five year after they occurred in 1870?