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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 convention.

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 longstanding sectional differences within the Commonwealth of Virginia—though not, as it proved, progress enough to withstand the coming crisis of the Civil War.

Written by Louis H. Manarin


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

  2. Van Schreeven, William J. The Conventions and Constitutions of Virginia 1776-1966. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1967.

  3. Register of Debates and Proceedings of the Virginia Reform Convention. Richmond: 1851.