To Approve or Reject the U.S. Constitution in 1788

By Herman E. Melton

The time: June 2, 1788. The place: New Academy atop Shockoe Hill in Richmond. The occasion: Virginia's Ratification Convention. The issue: Approve or reject the proposed new U.S. Constitution adopted in 1787 in Philadelphia. The background: Nine states had already ratified the document. A total of ten were needed to make it the law of the land.

All eyes were on Virginia, the young nation's largest state and the home of its most powerful and talented leaders. It was generally thought that as Virginia went, so would go the nation. The 170 delegates assembled with this as a backdrop.

Leading the fight for approval was Gov. Edmund Randolph (who had opposed the adoption in Philadelphia but now favored it) and the young, quiet spoken James Madison — fresh from his victory in Philadelphia.

They faced formidable opposition from golden throated Patrick Henry — only lately from Henry County, adjacent to Pittsylvania — and tall erudite George Mason, another patriot. The firebrand Henry feared the adoption of a body of laws from which a guarantee of civil liberties was missing. George Mason agreed. Both blanched at the thought of an all-powerful central government.

Moreover, there were rumors (not totally unfounded) that the proposed new Federal government intended to give Spain control of the Mississippi as the price of peace. To the farmers in Western Virginia (now Kentucky and Ohio) it meant that they would soon be unable to navigate the great river — so useful in delivering their produce to Atlantic markets. Already, members of the powerful Eastern establishment were openly planning an expensive system of canals and locks through which the Western farmers would be forced to ship their produce.

Delegates to the Virginia Convention were lobbied intensely by opposing forces. Kentucky and Ohio were but territories of Virginia but reached as far west as the Mississippi. both had fewer delegates, and they were seething. They wanted statehood far more than they wanted a new Constitution. It was natural that they rallied around the articulate Henry, who seemed to understand their problems better than George Washington, the influential proponent of a new Constitution.

Who were Pittsylvania's delegates to the convention and how did they vote? For or Against?

Each county and major municipality was allowed two delegates, each of which was elected by the General Assembly. Unfortunately, the minutes of the convention indicate that neither delegate spoke.

John Wilson, a delegate, was the son of Peter Wilson, an early county pioneer whose progeny ultimately included five state governors. John was one of the founders of the town of Danville and served as a “Gentleman Justice” in the County Court before being elected to the General Assembly. He became active in county affairs at an early age and as a member of Non-Importation Association he hurled his defiance at George III by affixing his signature to a long list of complaints submitted to the British Parliament in 1775. As an early activist, he became a Colonel and head of the county militia during the Revolution.

Colonel Robert Williams, also a delegate, lived east of present day Spring Garden and as a wealthy planter and professional lawyer, he served the county in many capacities. At the outset of the Revolution, he was elected to the post of Chairman of the county Committee of Safety by his fellow citizens. After the Revolution he became one of the first two Delegates to the General Assembly.

Yes, Pittsylvania was well represented, but how did Delegates Wilson and williams vote on the question of approval or rejection of the U.S. Constitution?

A study of the underlying issues and the nature of the vote affords some hint to the answer. The vote was close: 89 YEA and 79 NAY.

This victory by the YEAS came only after a compromise in which they agreed to attach a “Declaration of Rights” consisting of twenty-one resolutions which contained those provisions that ultimately became the “Bill of Rights” and many of the subsequent Amendments to the Constitution.

Yes, Wilson and Williams voted NAY.

However, before regretting that Pittsylvania's County's Delegates against the ratification of so revered a document as the U.S. Constitution, it is well to view the issue in the light of facts known to Wilson and Williams at the time and to ignore 20/20 hindsight.

First of all, both knew neighbor Patrick Henry well and were naturally influenced by him. Secondly, it could be argued with logic that the real achievement at the Convention was not only the approval of the provisional document, but also the attachment of a “declaration of Rights” to it Most scholars believe that democracy won in Richmond when the Nays forced the :Rights: attachment to the final ratification document on June 27.

Had they not been attached, it is certain that the ratification would have been defeated. Moreover, it is an accepted fact that the attachment of the Virginia Declaration of Rights had a profound influence on the adoption of the Bill of Rights later on.

So regardless of how the Pittsylvania delegation voted, civilization was the beneficiary, and every Pittsylvania County citizen can be proud of them.


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.