Today marks the 150th anniversary of a watershed event that history-minded Virginia curiously (or maybe not so curiously) does not recognize. On July 6, 1869, voters ratified the state Constitution that led to Virginia being readmitted to the Union after the Civil War.
That description, though, doesn’t do justice to what happened that day. Virginians approved a Constitution that was shockingly progressive for its day — so shocking that the state’s conservative political establishment eventually repealed it and taught succeeding generations (including our own) that it was an abomination. That’s because Virginia’s official history textbooks — ones that were still in circulation into the 1970s — taught propaganda and, in some cases, outright lies. Generations of Virginians were brainwashed by the state as effectively as any Soviet indoctrination. Here’s some of the history we weren’t taught in school: The end of the Civil War opened an all-too-brief window into a different path the South could have taken.
In 1867, two years after Appomattox, Virginia was no longer Virginia. Officially, it was the First Military District. That December, Virginia began the process of being restored to the Union. That required a new state Constitution, which required a Constitutional Convention, which required elections to pick the delegates. Those elections in 1867 constituted one of many firsts that Virginia has yet to properly recognize: For the first time, African-Americans were allowed to vote. Well, men anyway. This was still 1867. The convention that assembled in December 1867 was unlike anything Virginia had ever seen. Of the 104 delegates, 24 were African-Americans — most of them newly-freed slaves. We use words like “newly-freed slaves” without fully comprehending what that meant. One of the delegates was John Brown of Southampton County. Before the war, his wife and daughter had been sold — he never saw them again. Now, he would help write the fundamental law for the state.
Chairing the convention was John Underwood, a white lawyer who was related by marriage to Stonewall Jackson. Virginia history books vilify him as a “fortune hunter” and “carpetbagger,” when, in fact, he should be enshrined as one of the state’s moral heroes. Underwood was born in New York but had lived in Virginia off and on for 35 years, so hardly the definition of a “carpetbagger.” Before the war, he had advocated so vigorously against slavery that a vigilante group led by Turner Ashby forced him to flee for his life — yet today there’s a high school named after Ashby and not even a single historical marker for Underwood. Virginia has honored rough justice over actual justice. Where is the justice in that?
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made Underwood a federal judge over the sliver of Northern Virginia that remained under Union control. Come 1867-68, Judge Underwood presided over the constitutional convention with such a firm hand that the constitution it produced became known as “the Underwood Constitution.” It was a landmark document in many ways:
n It granted the right to vote to all men ages 21, both black and white. Underwood wanted to go even further; he advocated for giving women the right to vote, but his hand was not so firm as to get that provision adopted.
n It guaranteed local democracy in Virginia, by creating elected boards of supervisors in counties. Previously, county governments had been administered by judges.
n It created Virginia’s public school system, and mandated both attendance — and state funding. To be fair, this was a congressional requirement for readmission, so Virginia doesn’t get full credit here.
The convention also wrote in two provisions that were more controversial. Both were intended to disenfranchise anyone who had served in the Confederate army or given any “aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement” thereto. New regimes often over-correct and this was no exception. After much politicking that went all the way up to President Ulysses Grant and the Congress, those two provisions were set aside for separate referenda. Otherwise, it was clear Virginia would never approve the new Constitution. Indeed, when the vote was held on July 6, 1869, Virginians voted down both clauses. But they approved the remainder of the Constitution by a landslide margin — 201,585 to 9,136, a margin of 96% to 4%.
By the next year, Virginia was back in the Union – and on a very different course. The first state legislature elected under the new constitution had 27 African-American members and an actual two-party system. In the 1880s, the legislature abolished the whipping post and the poll tax. Danville elected a black majority to town council that then hired an integrated police force. All this was, of course, unprecedented. It was also far too much for many white voters. The backlash hit in 1883, when Democrats (then the conservative party) reclaimed the legislature, and set about instituting what we know today as “Jim Crow.” Virginia evolved — or devolved — into a one-party state that said “whites only.” Still, that wasn’t enough for the state’s ruling elite. In 1902, they decided to abolish the Underwood Constitution completely.
Virginia’s history books taught that the 1902 convention was called “to correct certain undesirable parts of the Underwood Constitution” without mentioning that the main “undesirable parts” was that it gave African-Americans the right to vote. Lynchburg politician Carter Glass called that “a crime to begin with.” The poll tax and other “reforms” were enshrined in the new constitution as a way to reduce the pool of voters, black and white alike.
There would be no referendum in 1902, because the constitution’s authors knew that voters were unlikely to vote to disenfranchise themselves. Instead, they simply “proclaimed” the constitution — a kind of legal coup d’état. Textbooks don’t mention that, of course. They taught schoolchildren that the 1902 constitution “pleased the people of Virginia.” Certain people, sure. Not until 1971, when Republican Gov. Linwood Holton had busted up the state’s one-party system, did Virginia replace that odious document.
This year marks the 210th anniversary of Underwood’s birth and today marks the 150th anniversary of voters approving his landmark Constitution. So why does he have no statue and Virginia have no official recognition? Could it be that some history has been erased?