Call for a Convention
As early as 1885, such calls had coalesced into a constitutional reform movement, with black suffrage one of its principal targets. Nine years later, in 1894, the General Assembly narrowly passed the controversial Walton Act. It mandated what was known as the "Australian ballot," or a uniform ballot issued by the state and not by a political party. In addition, the new law instituted secret voting, which some worried would have significant consequences for voters who could not read. As the New York Times reported on October 29, 1894, "Its most effective, as well, possibly, as its most repugnant, feature is that providing for the appointment of a special constable. This officer is practically the ballot reader for the physically disqualified and the illiterate. It is within his power to disqualify or neutralize the votes of as many of the latter class as he may see fit."
Soon, calls for a new constitution were coming from both ends of the political spectrum, from Populists as well as conservative Democrats. On May 24, 1900, voters approved the proposed convention by state referendum.
The big question, though, was how to do that. After all, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1868) guaranteed equal protection under the law; the Fifteenth (1870) guaranteed African American suffrage. This latter amendment, said Goode, was not only "a stupendous blunder, but a crime against civilization and Christianity," ratified by southern states only "under the rule of bayonet." Still, he insisted that "our people have no prejudice, no animosity, against the members of the colored race." Besides wondering how to tread this fine line between loving the black voter but hating his vote, the Democrats debated whether new laws also should exclude white voters deemed unworthy because of poverty or illiteracy.
Raleigh C. Minor, a delegate from Charlottesville, suggested one solution: the votes of landowners should count double those of nonlandowners. In a letter to the convention, he called his idea "plural voting," claiming it would give "the balance of power to the great, intelligent middle class, while not denying to the poor and ignorant a voice in the community commensurate with their intelligence and average ability to pass upon the complex public questions that constantly arise."
The most-debated specific measure, though, was the so-called "understanding clause," which required prospective voters—or at least those unable to pay a newly instituted poll tax—to give a "reasonable" explanation of any section of the new state constitution at the demand of a registration board. This board, of course, was empowered fully to decide on what was "reasonable." Delegate Alfred P. Thom did not pretend that such boards would treat white and black voters equally. "[I]t would not be frank in me, Mr. Chairman," he said, "if I did not say that I do not expect an understanding clause to be administered with any degree of friendship by the white man to the suffrage of the black man." And just to clarify his meaning, he added, "I would not expect an impartial administration of the clause."
In the end, the constitution that emerged from these debates placed severe new restrictions on voter eligibility. It required payment of a $1.50 poll tax, to be paid six months in advance of any election. Not only that, but the law stipulated that payment be up-to-date for the previous three years. The double-vote plan was rejected, but the convention did adopt the understanding clause, making it a temporary measure for the years 1903 and 1904. In order to avoid the appearance of discrimination against poor whites, the convention also elected to choose the registrars who would enforce voter laws during the first two years following the implementation of the constitution. An additional law that took effect after 1903 required a written application for registration, completed without assistance. Finally, all Civil War veterans, North and South, and their sons were exempted from all of the above requirements.
The delegates chose not to submit their new constitution to Virginia voters for ratification, concluding that the electorate would not willingly choose to disenfranchise itself. Following various court challenges, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in Taylor v. Commonwealth (1903) that the constitution had become law on July 10, 1902.
Legacy of the 1902 Constitution
The 1902 Constitution created a new legal enforcement of Jim Crow and further solidified its social enforcement. Despite that dark legacy, the convention did enact some genuine reforms, including a commission to regulate the railroads, provisions regarding workmen's compensation, and a State Corporation Commission that addressed issues of industrialization and helped create a certain degree of economic stability within Virginia. The 1902 Constitution remained in effect throughout most of the twentieth century until a new state constitutional commission sought to revise it, resulting in the significant legal advances of the Virginia Constitution of 1971.
1869 - John C. Underwood, a Republican judge who dominated the year's constitutional convention in the absence of boycotting Democrats, helps to draft a constitution for Virginia that includes full suffrage for all males twenty-one years or older, including African Americans.
March 6, 1894 - The Virginia General Assembly narrowly passes the controversial Walton Act, which mandates what is known as the "Australian ballot," or a uniform ballot issued by the state and not by a political party. The law institutes secret voting and appoints a special constable who is the ballot reader for the physically disqualified and the illiterate.
May 24, 1900 - Virginia voters approve a proposed constitutional convention by state referendum.
June 12, 1901–April 4, 1902 - An elected body of one hundred delegates convene in Richmond for a constitutional convention, and debate for almost a year.
July 10, 1902 - Virginia's Constitution of 1902 becomes law, disenfranchising thousands of poor whites and nearly eliminating the state's African American electorate. It replaces Virginia's 1869 Reconstruction-era constitution, which had a universal male suffrage clause. The new constitution also creates the State Corporation Commission to regulate the railroads.
November 7, 1905 - Largely because of the voting restrictions implemented by the Constitution of 1902, 88,000 fewer ballots are cast in the gubernatorial election than in the previous election in 1901.
July 1, 1971 - The Constitution of 1971 becomes law and ends the rules and regulations instituted by the Constitution of 1902.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Breitzer, S. Virginia Constitutional Convention (1901–1902). (2013, April 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Constitutional_Convention_Virginia_1901-1902.
- MLA Citation:
Breitzer, Susan. "Virginia Constitutional Convention (1901–1902)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Apr. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 7, 2008 | Last modified: April 4, 2013
Contributed by Susan Breitzer, an adjunct assistant professor of history at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She completed her PhD from the University of Iowa in 2007.