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Virginia Constitution, 1851

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Virginia signed its first constitution in 1776 upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Since that time, there have been frequent amendments and six major revisions to the constitution: 1830, 1851, 1864, 1870, 1902, and 1971. Our current constitution is an amended version of the 1971 constitution. These revisions to the Virginia constitution are representative of the political, social, regional, and racial climate of the times.

The constitution of 1851 took significant steps in extending voting rights. In previous versions, only white male property holders could vote. With new revisions, all white men were eligible to vote. Judges were to be elected rather than appointed. In addition, the 1851 constitution also created the position of Lieutenant Governor.

Although the reforms extended rights for white men, the constitution enacted more restrictions on African Americans. Emancipated slaves have 12 months to leave the state before they are automatically re-enslaved. In stark defiance to many abolitionists, the constitution - which was written by the government and voted on by the electorate - barred the General Assembly from declaring the emancipation of any slaves. This placed further obstacles to anyone who wished for the government to abolish slavery. Later constitutions continued to wrestle with the issue of African American rights or disenfranchisement.

Source: Constitution of Virginia, 1864 in Francis Newton Thorpe, The Federal and State constitutions, colonial charters, and other organic laws of the states, territories and colonies now or heretofore forming the United States of America (Govt. Print. Off., 1909): 3829-3852.