Who Belongs? Virginia’s Constitution and Defining the Political Community

Virginia’s 1776 Declaration of Rights defines government as being for the common benefit. Since then, the Constitution of Virginia has been periodically revised, defining who belongs to the political community. Virginia’s successive constitutions have reflected the great battles of successive eras – the age of Jacksonian democracy, Civil War and Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction white supremacy, civil rights and greater inclusiveness. Virginia’s present Constitution became effective in 1971. Over 50 years have passed since its adoption. How well has it stood the test of time? What are the challenges of our era?

Watch a video of the presentation by A. E. Dick Howard, who is the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law at the University of Virginia.  Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Professor Howard is a graduate of the University of Richmond and received his law degree from the University of Virginia. He was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics, and economics. After graduating from law school, he was a law clerk to Justice Hugo L. Black of the Supreme Court of the United States.

The program was moderated by SSV board member Bob Beard who is a former news anchor with CBS 19 in Charlottesville and a longtime reporter in Washington, D.C., including CNN, NBC and Reuters.

A podcast of the event is below.

Program Summary

A. E. Dick Howard, the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law at the University of Virginia and widely acknowledged as an expert in the fields of constitutional law, comparative constitutionalism, and the Supreme Court, was our speaker on the Virginia constitution. His program began with the history of Virginia’s constitutions and how they have evolved. The original voters were male with a “permanent common interest” i.e., property owners.

The first modifications in the 1829 convention were mild and made modest changes. By the 1851 convention the property owner requirement was dropped. After 1865, to be readmitted to the Union, the Virginia constitution had to ratify the 14th amendment and agree to allowing former slaves to vote.

At the end of Reconstruction, laws began to become more restrictive against Black and lower-class white voters. This was the start of a poll tax, difficult registration requirements, and grandfather clauses. The result of these laws had been that in 1870, 50 percent of Black voters were registered and in 1902 that number was five percent.

Governor Goodwin convened the most recent constitutional convention with a group of distinguished Virginia men with Professor Howard as executive director. The final document was passed by a 72 percent vote in legislature when Holton was governor. The major changes in the current constitution as listed by the speaker are these: organization of the educational system with the introduction of standards of quality, anti-discrimination clauses (including gender) for the first time, funding of public schools at both the state and local level, the court system was reorganized to be more efficient, and introducing environment as part of public policy.

In summary, Professor Howard feels that the constitution has stood the test of time well and reflects the will of the people while acknowledging the need for a healthy amendment process. Questions were then taken from the audience. The entire text of the Virginia Constitution can be accessed at this link: https://law.lis.virginia.gov/constitutionfull/#

Comments are closed.