The Virginia Constitution

January 21, 1869


Letter from the Virginia committee to the senate judiciary committee. The committee does not agree with universal suffrage because the recent freedmen in their current uneducated state, are unsafe depositories of political power. However, due to the public opinion, the Virginians are willing to give it up and accept universal male suffrage and as an offering of peace. They have left all that related to universal suffrage untouched, but wish to strike out any of the disqualifications or disenfranchisement that it issues as punishment.


The Virginia Constitution. LETTER OF THE VIRGINIA COMMITTEE TO THE SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE. To the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate: On behalf of the delegation of citizens of Virginia, and in accordance with the request of your committee, we beg leave respectfully to submit, in the form of amendments to House bill 1,485, now under your consideration, such modifications of the constitution proposed by the late convention as in our opinion will, under all the circumstances, lead to its acceptance by the people of Virginia It is due to candor to in this connection that those who sent are expressed, as we believe, the real feel ad purposes of the people of Virginia when they declared, " while the conviction of the undersigned, and, as they believe, of the people of Virginia generally, remains unchanged, that the freedmen of the southern States, in their present uneducated condition, are not prepared for the intelligent exercise of the elective franchise and the performance of other duties connected with public affairs, and are therefore, at this time, unsafe depositaries of political power ; yet, in view of the verdict of public opinion in favor of their being allowed to exercise the right of suffrage, as expressed in the recent elections, the undersigned are prepared, and they believe the majority of the people of Virginia are prepared", to surrender their opposition to its incorporation into their fundamental law as an offering on the altar of peace and in the hope that union and harmony may be restored on the basis of universal suffrage and universal amnesty." Taking it, then, to be established as the policy of this Government to require in Virginia a constitutional recognition and enforcement of the civil and political equality of all men before the law, we have in the amendments proposed inserted all the provisions looking to that result which Congress has heretofore deemed proper, and we have left undisturbed all the provisions of the proposed constitution in any manner relating to that subject. The first modification of the proposed constitution suggested by us is to strike from it all those features of disfranchisement and disqualification, and all those elements of bitterness and strife, political, sectional, and sectarian, which, in our judgment, are wholly incompatible with good government and good feeling, and tend to perpetuate alienations and discords, which all good citizens must deprecate. The power of a State to subject any of its citizens to disabilities for offences against the United States has been seriously questioned. It seems to be conceded that for the purpose of punishment no such power exists, and that disqualifications and disfranchisements are only admissible as measures ol precaution and safety. In this point of view it is worthy of consideration that since the close of -the war the people of Virginia have been living without disfranchisement or disability of any kind under a government whose legislative and judicial departments and whose local organizations have been in the hands of the very classes whom it is sought by the proposed constitution to exclude from every position of trust in the State. We claim with confidence that the result has been that the supremacy of law and order has been as fully maintained, and that the functions of good government have been as well performed in Virginia as in any State in the Union. It is believed that article three, section one, paragraph four, would disfranchise not less than ten or fifteen thousand voters in the State, including all those whom the people have been accustomed to trust in public employments. Article three, section seven, would disqualify for every position of public trust not less than ninety -five out of every hundred of the white people of Virginia who would otherwise be eligible, and would in connection with section three of the same article extend the like disability to serve upon juries. It is believed that there is no advocate of universal negro suffrage who will not agree that in its application to Virginia, at this time, it is a fearful experiment, requiring for its success all the wisdom and experience that can be brought to its management ; and it is respectfully submitted that to exclude from participation in' State or local governments at this time so large a proportion of those who, by experience in public aifairs, are fitted to deal with this great problem would be unwise and unsafe. We earnestly declare that, in our belief, it would be wholly inconsistent with domestic tranquillity, public order, or the security of the lives, liberty, or property, of the great body of the white population of Virginia. The provision of article eleven relating to church property is an attempt to reverse the settled policy of Virginia, which restricts the ownership of church property in amount, and confines it strictly to the local religious congregation. The purpose is to enable "ecclesiastical bodies " outside of Virginia, in opposition to the legislation of the State and against its judicial decisions, to take the churches of Virginia from the local congregations who built them. The provision opens a controversy full of all the combiued bitternesB of party, and section, and sect, over every Presbyterian and Methodist Church building in Virginia. The next modification suggested by us is to strike from the proposed constitution and thus to leave to legislation enactment or modification, the whole of the cumbrous machinery for local organization, government, and police and is clearly unfitted to the condition of the State, and if fixed in the constitution will be a cause of embarrassment and strife, seriously affecting the public peace and the harmony and good order of society. The population of Virginia ia very sparsely and unequally distributed over the territory of the State, and the physical and geographical features of the country are such as to render wholly impracticable any arbitrary plan of sub-division. The most we have been able to do thus far is to make the counties the units of local government, and to give to the county courts, composed of all the county justices, the control and direction of the local government and police. Rally incur the distrust and excite the apprehensions of the local '"minority, and tend to collisions calculated to impair personal security and to endanger the public peace. The same difficulties surround the subjects of local taxation and education, in regard to which we are satisfied that the proposed system will be found unequal and inefficient in its operation, and in its results Intolerably expensive and oppressive. The solution of these difficulties which we propose is to strike the whole of this system from the constitution and leave it to the Legislature, in which all localities, interests, and classes, will be fully represented, to regulate the: whole subject by laws, which will be at all times open to modification and improvement, such as experience may suggest or the public interest may require The next modification proposed by us is to strike out the provisions in article eleven relating to homestead and other exemptions. The laws of Virginia now in force provide for homestead and other exemptions, prospective in their operation The provisions of these laws are believed to be not materially different from those in the proposed constitution, except in regard to past indebtedness, as to which we regard the proposed provision as clearly in conflict with the Constitution- of the United States. The chief importance which we attach to striking out this provision grows out of its injurious effect upon the minds of the people, whose necessities already incline them to look with favor upon any suggestion of relief from pecuniary obligation The only remaining suggestion of modification is as to the maximum of taxation for local free school purposes, in article eight, section eight. It will be observed that we have made no objection to the school system proposed except so far as it depends on the local organization, to which we have already referred. No objection is offered in any quarter to the establishment of a thorough system of free public schools, at least as rapidly as the proposed constitution requires ; and although we have asked to strike out the mode of local taxation proposed we have suggested a modification which avoids any diminution of the. amount to be raised by taxation for public free school purposes. In suggesting the modifications referred to we by no means wish to be understood as conceding 'that the proposed constitution is free from what we regard as important defects in other particulars, but we do not understand it to be the purpose of Congress to interfere in such matters further than may be required by high considerations aftecting the integrity of the constitution and the maintenance of justice and domestic tranquillity. We have, therefore, confined our objections to provisions of the proposed constitution falling properly, as we believe, within the scope of such an interposition. The clauses which we ask to have stricken out from the proposed constitution are of different degrees of importance; but the least important, we think, will be found to involve some grave public mischief or injustice. Those included in our first suggestion could not but plunge our State into civil anarchy and discord, and disturb the general and growing harmony of the two races of our people, if not to array them in deplorable hostility to one another. They would arrest immigration, paralyze all forms of industry, destroy our domestic peace and hope of prosperity, and render us a burden to the Union, instead of an important addition to its resources, wealth, credit, and power. In our personal interview with the committee we called their attention to provisions of the proposed constitution, and especially to that relating to usury, as instances of the insertion into a constitution of matters peculiarly proper to be left to ordinary legislation. The provision in regard to usury is one new in Virginia, and will establish a policy which, whatever may be its merits, must seriously affect all the material interests of our people. It is respectfully submitted for the consideration of the committee whether a measure of legislation so important, and in regard to which opinion is so much divided, ought to be fixed in the constitution, and so placed beyond legislative control. As to the mode of granting relief from the mischievous provisions to which we have referred? To What, by act of Congress, suggesting modifications as fundamental conditions precedent - we desire to say that it has been suggested as the result of an examination of the precedents found in the past legislation of Congress, and upon consultation with a number of the wisest and most experienced members of both Houses. In the preparation of the amendments proposed to the pending bill we have endeavored fairly to follow the precedents established in like cases ; and we may be permitted to suggest, in conclusion, that we believe it will be found that the modifications proposed by us will in fact conform the proposed constitution to the principles and policy of the reconstruction acts. It is, perhaps, proper to say we, and those with whom we act, though concurring, as we believe, with the people of Virginia, do not claim to be authorized to speak for them. Respectfully, your obedient servants, Alexander H. H. Stuart, John B. Baldwin, "Wyndham Robertson, W. T. Sutherlin, James Neeson, J. F. Johnson, W. L. Owen, J. L. Marye, Jr., J. F. Slaughter, Committee. Washington city , January 18, 1868.
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