There’s a tendency among 21st century patriots to assume the foundation of republican free government, conventions of the sovereign people, was known from the moment of independence in 1776. While the essential purpose (security of rights) of any government, expressed so eloquently by Thomas Jefferson, was widely accepted, the actual process to arrive at such government remained elusive.1 How were thirteen distinct societies to go about replacing their previous monarchal régimes? Let’s look at one, Virginia.
Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the House of Burgesses when it passed a resolution on June 1st 1774 declaring a day of fasting and prayer in support of their colonial brethren in Boston. While it wasn’t known at the time, English rule ended and would never return when Dunmore fled to a Royal Navy frigate on June 8th. Virginia’s society was in a state of nature, and society demands government.
In 1776, conventions were not viewed as superior to legislative assemblies. Instead, conventions were regarded as inferior legislative bodies called together to deal with emergencies. In 1660, England found itself without a Cromwell or a King. Real and legal Parliaments depended on a Lord Protector or King to call them into session. What to do? Members of the Cromwell era Parliament met in a convention, and voted to establish themselves as a Parliament. The new Parliament subsequently petitioned the son of the King murdered by Parliament (Charles I in 1649) to assume the throne as Charles II.2
While this may strike us today as a technicality of little importance, Royal Governors had the monarchal power to call or dismiss colonial legislatures. In our Declaration’s fifth indictment, George III was accused of repeatedly dissolving our representative houses. An echo of this executive power is found in Article II § 3 of our Constitution: “He (the President), may, on extraordinary Occasions convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper . . . “
In Query XIII of his 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the necessity, after dissolution of the Burgesses, to quickly establish another assembly, “competent to the ordinary business of government, and to the calling forth the powers of the State for the maintenance of our opposition to Great Britain.”
Soon after Lord Dunmore escaped, the now unsanctioned burgesses met in “convention” in August 1774. Knowing they did not have power to make law, the convention of ex-burgesses nonetheless passed resolutions involving the nonimportation of English merchandise, and another that the colonists should refuse to export colonial goods to England unless the English agreed to come to terms with them.
The conventions Jefferson described were extra-legal but perfectly just (in the Natural Law sense) meetings of the former burgesses. Two representatives per county comprised the three conventions in 1774 and 1775. Few of the attendees expected independence. The conventions were natural responses to the absence of government. While they knew they were inferior assemblies without legitimate powers, they stood as temporary bodies until Royal government returned. Per Jefferson, members were expected to coordinate effective resistance to Great Britain and nothing more.
Not until the fourth convention in December 1775, did delegates assume governmental authority. By May 6th 1776, the date of the final convention, Virginia was moving determinedly toward complete independence from England. In Williamsburg, delegates declared their desire for freedom in a statement issued to their congressional representatives. Virginia was the first state to have a new constitution.
The 1776 Virginia constitution was a legislative act. The same people in the same assembly designed to craft statutes to fight a war against Great Britain, also designed the state’s governing form. In his Notes, Jefferson wrote that “It (VA Constitution) pretends to no higher authority than (any) other ordinance of the same session; it does not say that it shall be perpetual; that it shall be unalterable by other legislatures.” A constitution was a particular sort of statute, and not a legislatively unalterable form of government. As Jefferson wrote:
At an annual election they had chosen delegates for the year, to exercise the ordinary powers of legislation, and to manage the great contest in which they were engaged. These delegates thought the contest would be best managed by an organized government. They therefore, among others, passed an ordinance of government. They did not presume to call it perpetual and unalterable. They well knew they had no power to make it so; that our choice of them had been for no such purpose, and at a time when we could have no such purpose in contemplation. Had an unalterable form of government been meditated, perhaps we should have chosen a different set of people.
Since no legislature may curtail subsequent legislatures, the Virginia legislature was at perfect ease when it occasionally operated at odds with its constitution. It is part of the reason the Articles of Confederation were but a rope of sand. Being legislatively ratified, subsequent Virginia legislatures, as well as those other states, were free to obey or not, any Article.
Virginia did not establish a Constitution called for, and ratified by, the sovereign people until 1830.
Conclusion. When Americans cast themselves free from allegiance to a king, some time was needed to sort out the appropriate institutions to demonstrate the people’s sovereign will. Unfortunately, even today, far too many Americans aren’t familiar with the concept of sovereignty, and how it is supposed to be expressed. The outward manifestation of the American people’s will is, of course, our Constitution, yet ignorance on the part of many, especially when emotions are incited by a temporary chief executive who promises to fundamentally transform the United States of America, has muddied the people’s understanding of their just power . . . and especially, their duty. There is little time to reverse course and restore free government. Article V.
We are the many; the elites are the few. Now, it is our turn. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.
Related post: Electoral vs. Sovereign Capacity: American Conventions.
- Becker, C. L. (1922). The Declaration of Independence. New York: Random House. Pg. 24.
- Coward, B. (2003). The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited. Pg. 285.