“We the Delegates…”

Virginia's Constitutional Ratification Convention June 2-27, 1788

Part II: Pittsylvania County's Ratification Convention Delegates

By Herman E. Melton

The March Court Records of Pittsylvania County make no mention of a special election during the month of March. The only item of any historical importance whatsoever that month, was the appointment of Abraham Shelton, William Short, Reuben Payne and John Parker to “lett to the lowest bidder an Addition to the Courthouse of this County, also a table and Benches agreeable a plann of said addition to be constructed by them, and that they Report the same here to the Court.” There was an election nevertheless, and two of Pittsylvania County's most illustrious citizens were chosen. Their task was to serve as the County's two delegates to a convention in Richmond which would decide whether or not Virginia would ratify the newly adopted Constitution of the United States. It was significant that both men had been very prominent in the cause of the American Revolution.

John Wilson was the son of Peter Wilson who patented land along the Sandy River in 1746 and founded a ferry on the Dan some six miles above Danville. The family became enormously wealthy holding a vast acreage and many slaves.

According to the venerable historian Maud Clement, John married Mary Lumpkin and they reared a family at Dan's Hill on the Dan. Their children were intermarried with other prominent county families of Hairston, Tunstall, Perkins, Brodnax and Pannill. It is said that from Peter Wilson's progeny came two governors of North Carolina and three of Georgia.

John Wilson became active in the affairs of his county at an early age, and after his marriage in 1767, he became a Captain in the Militia upon the founding of the County. Wilson was a planter, but he also operated the ferry where he opened a store also. He was a vestryman in old Camden Parish and for a time served as overseer of the poor. Wilson was a learned man and a “Gentleman Justice” in the Court. He served a term as County Sheriff before being elected to the General Assembly.

He cast his lot with the Patriots' cause even before the Revolution, when he signed the paper in the complaints presented to the British Crown by the Non-Importation Association. In 1775, he was elected to the Committee of Safety, a Revolutionary activist organization. He served as Colonel in the Militia eventually and was extremely valuable to the cause as one who procured many provisions for the Continental Army.

After the Revolution, he served another term as a Delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and continued to be active in County affairs. Later, he was to be instrumental in securing a tobacco inspection station at Wynne Falls near Danville, since he had helped found the original Town of Danville. In view of all his achievements, he was a logical choice to represent his county in that historically important event of 1788.

Colonel Robert Williams, the other Delegate, resided on the waters of Sandy Creek of the Banister. He had title to many acres and perhaps epitomized the Pittsylvania landed gentry.

Williams was a lawyer, and his selection as a delegate meant that the Convention was to have the benefit of his good legal mind. he was practicing law in the area when Pittsylvania County came into being in 1767. He was married to Rebecca Lanier in 1774, and they reared several children. Both were originally from North Carolina.

He served as Colonel in the Militia during the Revolution and was elected to the important post of Chairman of the County Committee of Safety. In 1776 he was lected as one of the first two Delegates to serve in the newly formed Virginia House of Delegates. His fellow delegate from Pittsylvania County that term was the notable Benjamin Lankford.

During the 1770s, William served as Commonwealth Attorney in the August company of the following county officers: John Dix, Sheriff; John Donelson, Surveyor; and William Tunstall, Clerk. This Patriot was a good choice to accompany John Wilson to Richmond.

It is noteworthy that many Delegates representing other counties in the Convention had ties to Pittsylvania County; either through family, property or residence at some time. Among them were John Pride of Amelia, Judge Paul Carrington of Charlotte, Isaac Coles of Halifax and the Cabells of Amherst.

Records of the minutes of the Convention indicate that neither of Pittsylvania's Delegates addressed the Convention. They are recorded as voting NO when the question of ratification was put to vote on June 25th, but there are no records as to their stated reasons for voting as they did. A good guess is that they were under the influence of Patrick Henry, a landholder in neighboring Henry County and an opponent to Ratification. The compelling reason however appears to be sectionalism. In examining the identities and home counties of the seventy-nine who voted NAY, one finds that fifty-one of them were from localities west of the meridian of Richmond.

The Virginia Ratification Convention, which Wilson and Williams attended, was perhaps the most important one in all the states. Virginia was a large state, and its leaders were the most prominent of all in the halls of the national government. Historians and scholars are unanimous in the belief that had Virginia rejected the document, it would have sounded the death knell of the Constitution.

Yes, Pittsylvania's delegation voted NAY. Even so, there is consolation for the modern Pittsylvania County citizen, who in 20/20 hindsight regrets that John Wilson and Col. Robert Williams voted against the ratification of so successful and revered a document as the Constitution of the United States. The truth is that the great achievement in Richmond was not only the approval of the provisional document, but also the attachment of a “Declaration of Rights” to it. These twenty-one resolutions included those provisions which ultimately became the Bill of Rights and many of the subsequent Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The influence that the Virginia Declaration of Rights had on the future development of the Constitution are well known. Suffice it to say that in Richmond, the NAYS actually won when they forced a compromise. It emerged in the Ratification document which went up from there to Congress. Had not they been attached at the end of the debate, the NAY forced of the Convention would have certainly won. As it was, civilization was the beneficiary.

The vote was close: 89 Yeas to 79 Nays. It was a historic moment, and in retrospect, it is proper for every Pittsylvania County citizen to pause; contemplate the implications; and be proud that Pittsylvania County was represented there.


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.