Virginia's Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902

Holt, Wythe, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Younger, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia

Recently-freed blacks and whites from the lower socioeconomic strata of Virginia society had been forcibly franchised by federal troops in 1869 pursuant to the carpetbagger Underwood Constitution. The planters and other members of the elites opposed enfranchisement of the masses, and they worked throughout the period 1869-1902 to reduce the power of this dangerous group. The elites had good reason to be afraid, since a core of opposition from those recently enfranchised steadfastly exercised their right to vote whenever there appeared to be a chance of achieving some success, and during the period 1879-1883 the Re-adjusters, an amalgam of dissident middle and upper-class whites with the core, gained power and enacted or threatened to enact several dangerous programs.

The core had not eroded away by 1900, despite heavy social, economic, and political pressures applied against it, but it had become weakened and discouraged due to termination of support from the federal government, disintegration of the Republican Party in Virginia, electoral fraud and chicanery, and overt violence plus white supremacy arguments. Sufficient historical conditions existed, then, to allow the legitimation of disfranchisement via a constitutional convention which the elites could reasonably expect to control. Moralizing young Progressives and beleaguered planters from the Black Belt seized the initiative, obtained the endorsement of the Democratic Party, and after much wrangling wrote disfranchisement into a new Constitution.

The emerging Progressive faction within the Democratic Party seemed to be the dominant force at the Convention and in Virginia politics. Progressive rhetoric claimed to champion better, purer, more democratic and more socially aware government through the elimination from the body politic of electoral irregularity, machine control, and corporate influence. The portions of the new Constitution dealing with such matters proved, however, to be feeble and inadequate. Most institutional avenues of oligarchical control were left unaffected. Electoral corruption inĀ­ creased due to the methods chosen to effectuate disfranchisement. While corporate regulation was established, its economic impact was minimal. No institutional attempt was made to force corporations to stay out of politics. Further, what little in the way of cosmetic social justice which Progressivism brought to the Old Dominion was legislated by the Martinites, who easily regained power, and very little of benefit to unions or the workingman was enacted.

The weakness and failure of Progressive reform, as embodied in the Constitution of 1902, should be not be surprising. The Progressives and the Martinites were sociologically and economically members of the same class. They represented wealth, position, tradition, and stability; any desire for social justice was enunciated within an overarching hierarchical cultural framework of paternalism. Few Democrats in the Convention spoke for the core of opposition. The undemocratic new Constitution, and the sluggish, unexciting Convention that produced it, marked the reestablishment by Virginia's elites, old and new, of control over a troublesome lower class whose members for three short decades had exercised the power of the franchise to attempt to alter their miserable conditions. The elites, though struggling internally as the change from one mode of production to another inexorably proceeded, had placed themselves firmly back in power.

The Constitution of 1902, and the Progressive achievements in Virginia, can be understood as "reforms" only when the viewpoint is that of the elites. The core of opposition understood that the calm now covering the surface of society had been introduced by force. Electoral fraud and closed, oligarchal government persisted. Corporate political and economic influence was unstaunched. The social needs of much of Virginia's citizenry were by and large not met. Many, perhaps most, Virginians were benefited neither economically nor spiritually by the Constitution of 1902 and its concomitant fog of Progressive "change.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Virginia -- Constitutional Convention -- (1901-1902)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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