The Constitution of Virginia: Defining the Political Community

Time Period
1764 to 1824
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
1877 to 1924
Media Type
Politics & Government
A. E. Dick

In this October 7, 2021, lecture, A. E. Dick Howard discussed the evolution of Virginia’s Constitution from 1776 to the present day.

Virginia’s Declaration of Rights (1776) declares all men to be “equally free and independent.” But, as to the suffrage, the Declaration speaks in more qualified terms; there must be “sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community.” In the years since 1776, successive revisions of Virginia’s Constitution reflect sharp debate over how we should define the political community. Who belongs? Who doesn’t? In the nineteenth century, the idea of community became more inclusive—universal white male suffrage by 1851 and, during Reconstruction, inclusion of African Americans. In 1902, however, Virginians adopted a constitution that, steeped in notions of white supremacy, disenfranchised most black voters. In l971, Virginia renounced that racially tainted era with the adoption of a new constitution. What brought about that change? What work remains to be done?

A. E. Dick Howard is the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia. He was Executive Director of the Commission on Constitutional Revision, served as counsel to the General Assembly when it received and acted on the commission’s recommendations, and directed the successful referendum campaign for the Constitution’s ratification. His books include the two-volume Commentaries on the Constitution of Virginia and The Road to Runnymede: Magna Carta and Constitutionalism in America.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Want to listen to an audio-only version of this lecture? Listen now on Soundcloud.