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Constitution of 1830

As Virginia’s western population grew, it became apparent that the state’s original constitution of 1776 was in need of reform. In 1816, at Staunton, representatives from 38 counties called for a constitutional convention. Westerners wanted a greater share of government as their portion of the population grew. Representation in the House of Delegates was the principal issue, because it was not based on population. Eastern conservatives, fearing loss of power to the growing West, opposed changing representation to a population basis.

In 1824, a second meeting in Staunton again called for a constitutional convention. Finally, during the 1827–28 session, the legislature agreed to submit the matter to a vote of the freeholders or property owners. By a vote of 21,896 to 16,646, the voters approved the calling of a convention. By and large easterners opposed the call, and westerners favored it. In the spring of 1829 the voters elected convention delegates. Of the 96 delegates, 36 were from the west.

In October 1829, the delegates assembled at Richmond, a gathering traditional historians have often referred to as the “last gathering of giants” because its delegates included two former presidents, James Madison and James Monroe; U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall; both of Virginia’s U.S. senators; and 11 of Virginia’s congressmen. Monroe was chosen president of the convention.

Philip Doddridge of Brooke County championed the cause of western reformers. However, western arguments failed to convince eastern powerbrokers from the Tidewater and Piedmont. The westerners gained only slight concessions. Representation in the legislature was equally divided into four sections—Tidewater, Piedmont, Shenandoah Valley, and Trans-Allegheny. The right to vote was slightly extended, but not to all white male taxpayers, as the west preferred. Popular election of the governor was defeated, though his term was extended from one to three years. Efforts to reform the method of appointing judges and local officials failed. Voters in Western Virginia overwhelmingly rejected ratification of the proposed constitution. Divisions between the eastern and western regions were a contributing factor to West Virginia’s later declaration of independence, led by Doddridge protégé Waitman T. Willey, often known as the “Father of West Virginia.”

Adopted by the convention on January 15, 1830, by a vote of 55 to 40, the new Virginia constitution was submitted to the voters. Only the freeholders, householders, and leaseholders could vote, and they did so, 26,055 for and 15,563 against, with limited support from western Virginians. Lacking any provision for amendments, the new constitution could not be changed but only replaced, as was done in 1851 with the adoption of still another constitution.

Written by Louis H. Manarin


  1. Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1976.

  2. Democracy, Liberty, and Property: The State Constitutional Conventions of the 1820's. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

  3. Proceedings and Debates of the Virginia State Convention of 1829-30. Richmond: S. Shepherd & Co., 1830.

  4. Pulliam, David L. Constitutional Conventions of Virginia. Richmond: John T. West, 1901.