Ken Plum: Rewriting the Constitution of Virginia
The celebration of the fourth of July reminds us that not only did the colonies in America break free from the Mother Country in 1776, but they embarked on a course of independence that included written constitutions. While common law and precedent continued to play a role in their governance, their basic structure of government was detailed in a written document. Constitutions, however, are not static documents. They can be amended over time to reflect changes in society.
The Commonwealth of Virginia is on its seventh constitution. Its first constitution of 1776 opened with George Mason’s Declaration of Rights that with some changes is still a part of the present constitution and which influenced the Bill of Rights in the federal constitution and in the constitutions of many other states. Virginia’s current constitution was approved by the voters in a referendum and became effective on July 1, 1971—50 years ago.
The current constitution replaced a horribly racist document that had been written by 100 white men in 1902 in reaction to the growth and influence of Black voters in the state under the state constitution that had been adopted during the Reconstruction Era in 1870. The imposition in the constitution of 1902 of such voter requirements as payment of a poll tax six months before an election three years in a row along with a literacy test disenfranchised almost all Black voters and half the white voters. When asked about the discriminatory aspects of the proposed constitution, Carter Glass who was one of the leaders in the convention and who later became a senator exclaimed: “Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.”
While the constitution of 1971 eliminated the discriminatory and racial aspects of the previous constitution, many of which had been voided by federal law and court decisions, the new constitution added two very important articles: the provision that had been in the past constitution that “white and negro children could not attend the same school” was replaced with a new article that provides for free public and elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age. The 1902 constitution also added a new section on conservation providing that “it shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect the atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.” Both these additions were strongly advocated for by the late Delegate Dorothy McDiarmid who represented the Town of Vienna and parts of Fairfax County in the House of Delegates.
To learn more about the writing and rewriting of the Constitution of Virginia, visit lva.virginia.gov/71constitution. There are many links to articles, videos, and events on the subject. Constitutions as the basic framework of our government deserve periodic review and amendments and revisions as necessary to ensure that government is responsive to the needs and interest of the citizens of the Commonwealth.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.