Map of Virginia

The Commonwealth of Virginia rebelled from England and created its own constitution in 1776 as an independent state. This document was written primarily by James Mason and was basically a bill of rights rather than a detailed framework of government. When Virginia joined first other colonies, under the Articles of Confederation, and then the United States, under our present Constitution, its government functioned much as it had as a colony. It had a legislature, but that body and the county courts were dominated by an elite of what one historian has called "Gentlemen Freeholders." This colonial gentry was made up of men who had a good deal of land and twenty or more slaves. Yet the right to vote was much more widely enjoyed than in England. Although governors were appointed by the imperial government before the Revolution, there were popular elections for the House of Burgesses.

Thus colonial Virginians (at least, many of the white landholding men) were used to elections, and these were several-day events that were quite public and rather intensely social. From 1776 until 1850, the government of Virginia continued to function on its original principles, and the Virginia constitution was not significantly changed. Thomas Jefferson early had called for a revision of the constitution of the commonwealth. His most extensive analysis was in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in the 1780s. Most historians are also familiar with a well-known letter written just a year before his death when constitutional reform was being debated.

The Old Dominion (as Virginia was often called) during the period of the elections being presented here had a governor and his counsel elected by the legislature. The legislature was bicameral, and both houses were popularly elected by the freeholders—essentially white men who held a respectable amount of land or, after the legislature changed the law in 1785, lived in town and owned a house.

In the 1820s the movement for reform grew. There were a number of demands to democratize the government, by electing the governor popularly, for example, or by building a hierarchy of republics from the local level up (Jefferson’s favorite idea). Even so, the famous collection of prominent Virginian statesmen, including ex-presidents, senators, congressmen and even the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, made very little change in the suffrage, admitting only "householders." The governor's council was eliminated, but the number of elective offices was not expanded. The unequal system of representation in the legislature was addressed by a compromise giving more seats to the west—mostly the Shenandoah Valley—without creating a rational plan for the future.

During this period, Virginians could vote for their legislators, congressmen, and electors in the presidential elections. They voted yearly in the spring for legislators, every two years for their members of Congress, and every four years for presidential electors. At first they voted for the electors themselves, because they were not willing to say whom they might vote for. The freeholders voted at the polling place closest to their home—a polling place that was often a court house but sometimes a local store. These Virginians voted viva voce, so we have poll books in some counties for some elections to supplement the statistics taken mostly from newspapers.


  • Dabney, Virginius. Virginia: The New Dominion (1971)
  • Heinemann, Ronald L., John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent Jr., and William G. Shade, Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007 (2007).
  • Salmon, Emily J., and Edward D.C. Campbell, Jr., eds. The Hornbook of Virginia history: A Ready-Reference Guide to the Old Dominion's People, Places, and Past 4th edition. (1994)
  • Official State of Virginia Site
  • Library of Virginia
  • Virginia Historical Society


The Anti-Federalists were never a political party as is thought of in modern times. It was a coalesced group of voting interests that were united in their opposition to the Constitution.

"The Antifederal objections to the Constitution fall into four categories. First, some attacked it for violations of the Whig theory. Such criticisms came particularly from merchants, lawyers and large landowners who believed in Whig ideology themselves, and represented a sort of right wing, non-agrarian Antifederalism. Second, almost all of the new plan's opponents accused it of excessive centralization: these were the localists. Third, some critics attacked the Constitution as leading toward monarchy or aristocracy rather than democracy: these comprised the left wing. Finally, the agrarians feared that the commerical, creditor, or large propertied interests would benefit at the expense of the farmers." (Jackson T. Main, History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher. p. 153.)

"Strictly speaking, Antifederalism ended with the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, without ever producing a party in any modern sense. During the next few years the term continued as a word of opprobrium, employed by the Federalists to demean whoever opposed the men or policies of the new government. In some states, opposition nearly ceased. In others, however, former Antifederalists remained strong and even gained ground, especially where they had developed a local political organization: they composed a majority or a strong minority in such states as New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, and appeared elsewhere for the first time, as in New Jersey. Although they still lacked an inter-state organization and suffered a serious loss of strength during the election of 1788-1789, bitterly fought in certain areas. Presently, in Congress, they supported amendments and opposed various policies of the Federalists. The close relationship between the Anti-Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans may be traced through a continuity both of men and ideas. At least seven-eighths of those known to have opposed the Constitution in 1787-1788 became Republicans." (Main, p. 166)

"Despite the intensity of Anti-Federalist opposition to the Constitution, no Anti-Constitution party emerged after ratification. With the demise of the second-convention movement, Anti-Federalists turned their attention to seeking office under the new government. Federalist efforts to discredit Anti-Federalists turned their attention to seeking office under the new government. Federalist efforts to discredit Anti-Federalists only diminshed the likelihood of a distinctive Anti-Federalist party's emerging. Instead, Anti-Federalists set about becoming a loyal opposition. A number of other factors facilitated this transformation. The rapid adoption of the Bill of Rights, even if it failed to satisfy many Anti-Federalists, deprived them of an important rallying point. Reverence for the principles of constitutionalism and a belief that, when properly amended, the new frame of government would effectively protect liberty further weakened the chances of an Anti-Federal's party forming. The respect accorded George Washington, the new president, also worked against continued opposition. When coupled with renewed econimic prosperity, all of those factors helped promote the formal demise of Anti-Federalism. Yet, though Anti-Federalism did not generate an Anti-Constitution party, the term 'Anti-Federalist,' the various texts produced by the Anti-Federalists during ratification, and the alternative constitutional discourses that shaped Anti-Federalism did not simply disappear. The emergence of a court faction among Federalists caused many former supporters of the Constitution to rehtink the original Anti-Federalist critique. The efforts of former Federalists, most notable James Madison, and former Anti-Federalists, such as William Findley, were crucial to the creation of a Democratic-Republican opposition. That loyal opposition drew important ideas and rhetorical themes from Anti-Federalism and adapted them to the exigencies of political conflict in the 1790s." (p. 170-171)

Additional Sources:

  • History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher.
  • The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828. Saul Cornell. Chapel Hill, 1999, University of North Carolina Press.