Thomas Jefferson Papers

Bill for the Revision of the Laws, [15 October 1776]

Bill for the Revision of the Laws

[15 October 1776]

Whereas on the late change which hath of necessity been introduced into the form of government in this country it is become also necessary to make corresponding changes in the laws heretofore in force, many of which are inapplicable to the powers of government as now organised, others are founded on principles heterogeneous to the republican spirit, others which, long before such change, had been oppressive to the people, could yet never be repealed while the regal power continued, and others, having taken their origin while our ancestors remained in Britain, are not so well adapted to our present circumstances of time and place, and it is also necessary to introduce certain other laws, which, though proved by the experience of other states to be friendly to liberty and the rights of mankind, we have not heretofore been permitted to adopt; and whereas a work of such magnitude, labour, and difficulty, may not be effected during the short and busy term of a session of assembly:

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly of the commonwealth of Virginia, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That a committee, to consist of five persons, shall be appointed by joint ballot of both houses (three of whom to be a quorum) who shall have full power and authority to revise, alter, amend, repeal, or introduce all or any of the said laws, to form the same into bills, and report them to the next meeting of the general assembly.

And to prevent any delay which may happen in the proceedings of the said committee, by the death or disability of any member thereof, Be it farther enacted, That if either of the said members should die, refuse to act, or be disabled by sickness from proceeding in the said work, it shall be lawful for the remaining members to appoint some other person in his stead and place, which person so appointed is hereby declared a member of the said committee, in like manner as if he had originally been appointed by joint ballot of both houses.

And be it farther enacted, That the said committee shall have power to meet at such times and places as they shall think proper for the purpose of proceeding on the said revisal, to appoint a clerk for their ease and assistance in the work, and to send for any copies of records to the clerk in whose custody they are, which such clerk is hereby directed forthwith to transmit to them.

Provided, That such bills so to be prepared and reported by the committee of revisors shall be of no force or authority until they shall have gone through their several readings in both houses of assembly, and been passed by them in such manner and form as if the same had been originally introduced without the direction of this act.

Text from Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends ix, 175–7; no MS of the Bill as reported or amended has been located. TJ later said that “Early … in the session of 76 … I moved and presented a bill for the revision of the laws” (Autobiography, Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends i, 57–8).

This Act is the basis for the work of the revisal of the laws of Virginia in which TJ was engaged for the next three years (see under 18 June 1779). On 12 Oct. Bland, TJ, and Starke were appointed a committee to bring in a bill for the revision of the laws; Bland reported the Bill 15 Oct.; it passed the House, apparently without amendment, 17 Oct., and TJ carried it to Senate, where five amendments were offered on 24 Oct.; the most important of these increased the number of revisors from three to five, making any three a quorum; all were agreed to by the House on 25 Oct., save for the fifth amendment, which added these words: “and also to send to any of the United American States for the system of laws in force there, if thought necessary.” Senate receded from this amendment and passed the Bill 26 Oct. (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1776, 1828 edn., p. 10, 13, 14, 16, 26, 28). On 5 Nov. the House resolved “That Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Mason, and Thomas Ludwell Lee, esquires, be appointed a committee to revise the laws of this commonwealth.” The balloting for these nominees was carried out in accordance with the terms in the Virginia Constitution of 1776 providing for joint ballots: each House exchanged lists of nominees; each voted separately; the ballot box of each was carried to the conference room and there opened by a joint committee. To receive the highest number of ballots in both houses for such an important task and in competition with the names of three of the most distinguished legal minds in America—Pendleton, Wythe, and Mason, all of whom were TJ’s seniors—was assuredly a high tribute to his stature as a leader in the reformation of the laws. For the apportionment of the work of revision, the Report at length submitted by the Committee, and TJ’s appraisal of the Committee’s work, see George Mason’s “Plan settled by the committee of Revisors, in Fredericksburg, January, 1777” (partly printed in Rowland, Mason, i, 276–7); Report of the Committee of Revisors, 18 June 1779, below; TJ, Autobiography (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends i, 58–69); Notes on Virginia, Query xiv.

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