The Constitutional Convention of 1829-30
Semi-Centennial History of West Virginia
(Charleston: Semi-Centennial Commission Of West Virginia, 1913)
The Constitutional Convention of 1829-30
The convention which met at Richmond on October 5, 1829, was an august assemblage composed of ninety-six of the most prominent men of the state (four members from each senatorial district) - eighteen of whom were from counties within the present limits of West Virginia. Its dominating spirit of sectionalism was largely due to the geographic and economic conditions which for years the defects of the old constitution had aggravated. The two sections agreed on the acceptance of the bill of rights; but, with their radically divergent ideas, they clashed on the practical application of the principles of government.
Practically all the time of the convention (October 5, 1829 to January 15, 1830, was consumed by debates on two questions: representation and suffrage. On the question of suffrage the thirty-six delegates from the district west of the mountains stood solidly for white population as the basis for both houses, in opposition to the East which favored a representation based on white population and taxation combined. Madison, Marshall and Monroe defended the property basis on the ground that the state was the conservator of property. In the debates, when the eastern members demanded reasons, based on facts and conditions, for what they termed "the most crying injustice ever attempted in any land" against property rights, the westerners continued to cite the bill of rights and the abstractions of Jefferson. In answer to the statement that nearly three-fourths of the tax had been paid by the counties east of the Blue Ridge, the West asked who were the men who had fought the battles. When Judge Upshur from the Eastern Shore, in a speech lasting the greater part of two days, endeavored to show that the law of the majority came from no source - not from the law of nature, nor from the exigencies of society, nor from the nature and necessity of government, nor from any constitutional source - Philip Doddridge of Brooke answered him by asking: If the majority are not possessed of the right or power to govern, "whence does the gentleman derive the power in question to the minority?" When Randolph, in a high key, exclaimed that if he were not too old to move he would never live under King Numbers, Campbell from the Ohio extolled King Numbers as the most dignified personage under the canopy of heaven. During the debate the white laboring farmers in the western part of the state were designated "peasants" holding the same place in political economy as the slaves of the tide-water East. There were reports that the western members would secede from the convention. To allay sectional feeling Monroe urged mutual concessions and suggested a white basis for the house and a mixed basis for the senate.
Thus the debate continued until finally a plan of apportionment by districts, based on no principle and opposed by the West, was adopted. The extension of suffrage was most strongly advocated by the western people who quoted Jefferson in favor of free manhood suffrage, but who were promptly notified by Randolph that the East was "not to be struck down with the authority of Mr. Jefferson!" At this time, in Virginia (the only state of the twenty-four in the Union which still adhered strictly to freehold suffrage), in a total of 143,000 free white males there were 100,000 free white citizens paying taxes to the state - of which about 40,000 were freeholders and 60,000 were men who owned personal property.
Having failed in the effort for manhood suffrage, the West fought vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to extend the suffrage at least to tax payers. Several easterners, arguing that much of the land in the West, fit only for a lair of wild beasts, was not worth a mill per acre and would never be of any value, were determined to draw the line of suffrage restriction even closer by fixing a minimum value for a freehold. Throughout the East the feeling was pretty general that there should be some local attachment. Monroe said that the elective franchise should be confined to an interest on the land, and Randolph approvingly agreed that "terra firma" was the only safe ground in the commonwealth on which the right of suffrage could stand. "The moment you quit the land," said he, "you find yourself at sea without a compass, without landmarks, or polar star."
The convention finally agreed to lessen the requirements of a freehold, and to extend the suffrage to leaseholders and housekeepers who paid taxes.
Philip Doddridge, typifying the western democratic sentiment moved that the executive, unhampered by a council, should be elected by the people and responsible to them. Although at that time eighteen states elected their governors by popular vote, his motion was lost. Mr. Naylor of Hampshire proposed that the office of sheriff should be filled by the people instead of by the county court whose members were accustomed to give this office to themselves in rotation, the one receiving it selling it at public auction to the highest bidder; but this recommendation met the formidable and successful opposition of men as influential as Giles and Leigh who thought such an innovation would disturb the county court system which to them was "the most valuable part of the constitution." In the convention there seemed to be an abhorrence of overlegislation and to remedy this Mr. George of Tazewell proposed that the assembly should meet but once in two years. The motion was lost, many perhaps feeling with Randolph that as the legislature of the United States met every year the Virginia assembly should meet annually also in order to watch it. Resolutions submitted by western members, looking toward the encouragement of public education, were opposed by eastern men, some of whom feared the adoption of a system by which the people of the East would be taxed for the education of the children of the West. Nor did the West, after failing to realize so many of its longed for reforms, have any prospect of realizing them in the early future. The proposition that there should be a constitutional provision for amendment received but twenty-five votes. In opposing this proposition John Randolph declared that he would as soon think of introducing a provision of divorce in a marriage contract; and although he was strongly against the constitution, he exclaimed: "If we are to have it, let us not have it with the death warrant on its very face."
The completed constitution, a precedent for all later constitutions of the South before 1860, provided for several minor reforms. Under it the number of delegates was reduced from 214 to 134 (not to exceed 150), the county system of representation was abolished and representatives were apportioned according to districts - which were so arranged that the apportionment was more nearly in accord with the respective population of the counties. Thirty-one of the representatives were assigned to the twenty-six counties west of the Alleghenies. Of these thirty-one, the twenty-three counties now in West Virginia were given twenty-nine. However, as no reapportionment could be made before 1841, and then not unless two-thirds of the assembly agreed, and since the East had a large majority in the legislature, the chances for a reapportionment were small. An age qualification of twenty-five years was added to the qualifications of delegates. The number of senators was increased from twenty-four to thirty-two, not to exceed thirty-six. The state was divided into two great senatorial districts separated by the Blue Ridge. The western district which contained the larger number of electors was given only thirteen members while the eastern district was given nineteen. The age qualification for senators was changed from twenty-five to thirty years. The right of suffrage was extended to all white male citizens twenty-one years of age who were qualified to vote under the old constitution and laws.* (The law of 1785 defined a freehold as twenty-five acres of improved or fifty acres of unimproved land.) to all who possessed a $25 freehold, a $25 joint tenantship, a $50 reversion, a five-year leasehold of an annual rental value of $20, and to all tax-paying housekeepers who were heads of families; but the right was granted in terms the interpretation of which proved very difficult. There was a provision for the viva voce vote - characteristic of the South.
The term of the executive was increased to three years and he was ineligible for the next three years. Contrary to the constitution of 1776, which had left all qualifications of the executive to the general assembly, the new constitution contained several provisions requiring that the executive must be thirty years of age, a native citizen of the United States, or a citizen at the time the federal government was established, and a citizen of Virginia for five years next preceding his election. The executive council was a rotary body consisting of three instead of eight members chosen by the assembly, and the senior councilman was authorized to act as lieutenant governor.
This constitution, submitted to the people, in April, 1830, was ratified by a vote of 26,055 to 15,563. The vote within the bounds of West Virginia stood 1,383 for ratification and 8,365 against it.* (*The trans-Alleghenny region refused to be reconciled to the constitution of 1829 and continued to talk dismemberment. A writer in the Wheeling Gazette of April, 1830, suggested that a convention in the West should be called to appoint commissioners "to treat with the eastern nabobs for a division of the state - peacably if we can, forcibly if we must." A series of essays appearing in many western papers urged that dismemberment alone could bring relief to the West. On October 1, 1830, citizens of Wheeling called a mass meeting to consider the expediency of measures to annex northwestern Virginia to Maryland (north of a line from the mouth of the Little Kanawha to Fairfax stone.) The Winchester Republican suggested that Virginia should let the disaffected population of the northwest go, and suggested that the southwest, deprived of its northern allies, would give up its desire for separation if the desired improvements in the southwest should be completed. Thomas L. Lees of New Jersey, president of Linsley Institute, in some notes of 1831, wrote: "That part of Virginia which borders on the Ohio is rapidly improving in wealth and population; its inhabitants have long been dissatisfied with the selfish policy and the usurpations of the eastern slave holders, whose influence in the legislative body has ever been exerted in the perpetration of an oppressive aristocracy. The people here are very different from those of the eastern part of the state. Industry is much more encouraged and respected; slavery is unpopular, and the few who hold slaves generally treat them well. The time is not far distant when Western Virginia will either liberalize the present state government, or separate itself entirely from the Old Dominion.")
Naturally, the constitution of 1830 worked unfavorably for the West. The vast resources of West Virginia - forests of excellent timber, oil and natural gas, and 16,000 square miles of bituminous coal in workable seams - remained undeveloped because of the short sightedness of eastern leaders. The West with no railroads and no canals, solely needed improvements; but despite much public agitation and vigorous struggles in the general assembly, it had to remain content with paltry appropriations for turnpikes, obtained by log rolling, while vast sums were spent on badly managed improvements which were undertaken in the East* (*Owning to conflicting reports in regard to the relative merits of railways and canals, Virginia in 1832 surrendered its interest in the James River Canal company to a joint company (the James River and Kanawha company) which was empowered to continue the work to the Ohio either by a railroad or a canal or by a combination of both. The work of the new company was postponed by lack of capital and the inability to secure it from the banks. In the meantime, the management of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal had incurred the displeasure of the federal administration, and its president was removed through the influence of Jackson.)
Under this constitution the present territory of West Virginia received no public buildings, had no representatives in the United States senate and had no opportunity to furnish the governor for the state before the appointment of Joseph Johnson in 1850.
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