James Madison Papers

Rules of the Constitutional Society of Virginia, [ca. 14 June] 1784

Rules of the Constitutional Society of Virginia

Editorial Note

Philip Mazzei appears to have been instrumental in the formation of the short-lived organization known as the Constitutional Society of Virginia. Allegedly conceived when “some members of the Assembly proposed to revise the Constitution” of Virginia, the society was born during the session of the General Assembly in Richmond in June 1784. In his memoirs Mazzei asserted that he had organized the society, which included the state’s leading public men, and claimed that he was urged by his fellow members to become its president, but because of his impending return to Europe, he “nominated Mr. John Blair, who was unanimously elected by a voice vote” (Marraro, Memoirs of Philip Mazzei, p. 285 n. 6).

[ca. 14 June 1784]

We, the underwritten, having associated for the purpose of preserving and handing down to posterity, those pure and sacred principles of Liberty, which have been derived to us, from the happy event of the late glorious revolution, and being convinced, that the surest mode to secure republican systems of government from lapsing into tyranny, is by giving free and frequent information to the mass of people, both of the nature of them, and of the measures which may be adopted by their several component parts, have determined, and do hereby most solemnly pledge ourselves to each other, by every holy tie and obligation, which freemen ought to hold inestimably dear, that every one in his respective station, will keep a watchful eye over the great fundamental rights of the people.

That we will without reserve, communicate our thoughts to each other, and to the people, on every subject which may either tend to amend our government, or to preserve it from the innovations of ambition, and the designs of faction.

To accomplish this desirable object, we do agree to commit to paper our sentiments, in plain and intelligible language, on every subject which concerns the general weal; and transmit the same to the Honorable John Blair, Esq; whom we hereby constitute President of the said Society, with powers to congregate the members thereof, either at Richmond, or Williamsburg, whenever he may suppose that he has a sufficient quantity of materials collected for publication. It is farther agreed, that it shall be a rule of the said Society, that no publications shall be made till after mature deliberation in the convocation, it shall have been so determined, by at least two thirds of the present members.1

John Blair, B. Randolph,
James Madison, James Marshall,
Robert Andrews, Richard Henry Lee,
James M’Clurg, William Lee,
John Page, Ludwell Lee,
James Innes, William Grayson,
Mann Page, Francis Corbin,
James Madison, jun. Philip Mazzei,
Patrick Henry, Wilson C. Nicholas,
Thomas Lomax, John Nicholas,
Edmund Randolph, John Taylor,
William Short, J. Brown,
William Fleming, Richard B. Lee,
John Breckenridge, Spencer Roane,
Archibald Steuart, Alexander White,
Joseph Jones, James Monroe,
William Nelson, jun. Arthur Lee.

At a meeting held on the 15th of June, 1784.

Resolved, that the following declaration be added to the paper originally signed by the members, viz.

“The Society being persuaded, that the liberty of a people is most secure, when the extent of their rights, and the measures of government concerning them are known, do declare that the purpose of this institution is to communicate by fit publications such facts and sentiments, as tend to unfold and explain the one or the other.”2

Printed copy (DLC: Rare Book Room). Evans description begins Charles Evans, ed., American Bibliography … 1639 … 1820 (12 vols.; Chicago, 1903–34). description ends 18756. From an undated pamphlet, Minutes of the Meeting of the Constitutional Society, which may have been prepared under the direction of Philip Mazzei. A broadside copy (NCU) is reproduced in Schiavo, Philip Mazzei, p. 159.

1For sketches of most of these signers, see the brief biographies in Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (8 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , vols. I–VII. Archibald Steuart was of course Archibald Stuart of Botetourt County. The first-mentioned James Madison was undoubtedly the president of the College of William and Mary, JM’s second cousin. The newer faces in Virginia politics belonged to John Breckinridge (1760–1806), a graduate of William and Mary College who served in the House of Delegates, first as a Botetourt County representative and later from Montgomery County. Admitted to the bar in 1785, he moved to Kentucky in 1792 and became the attorney general and a state legislator. He was involved in the resolutions of 1798 passed in protest to the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1805, but resigned to become Jefferson’s attorney general (Lowell H. Harrison, John Breckinridge: Jeffersonian Republican [Louisville, 1969], pp. 72–88; Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, eds., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918, and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond, 1918). description ends , pp. 13, 17, 20). James Marshall must have been a misprint for John Marshall, then a Fauquier County delegate and a close friend of the society’s organizers. Ludwell Lee (1760–1836), a son of Richard Henry Lee, was educated in England, returned to Virginia in 1780, and served on Lafayette’s staff during the Peninsular campaign against Cornwallis. He attended William and Mary College, where he studied law under Chancellor George Wythe, and may have been in Richmond in 1784 as a spectator rather than a participant in public business. Lee later served in the House of Delegates as a representative from Prince William and Fairfax counties, 1787–1790, and Fairfax County senator, 1792–1800 (Cazenove Gardner Lee, Jr., Lee Chronicle, ed. Dorothy Mills Parker [New York, 1957], pp. 280–81). The John Nicholas who signed the rules was probably the John Nicholas, Jr., of Buckingham County who served in the May 1784 session of the House of Delegates. However, Wilson Cary Nicholas had an older brother, John Nicholas (1757–1819), who probably was not politically active at this time. Wilson Cary Nicholas (1761–1820) left William and Mary College to serve in the Continental army, where he rose to command of Washington’s Life Guard. He later settled in Albemarle County, which he represented in the House of Delegates from 1784 to 1789 and from 1794 to 1800. In 1788 he was a member of the state convention that ratified the federal Constitution, and became an important supporter of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions in 1798–1799. Nicholas was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1799 but resigned in 1804 to become customs collector at the port of Norfolk. In 1807 he helped organize JM’s bid for the presidency, then retired from public life because of ill health. Nicholas became active again in public affairs in 1814, when he was elected governor of Virginia, and during three terms as the chief executive he was instrumental in helping Jefferson establish the University of Virginia (Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, eds., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918, and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond, 1918). description ends , p. 412; Edgar Woods, Albemarle County in Virginia, pp. 90, 290–91). John Brown (1757–1837) was an Augusta County senator from 1784 to 1787 who had attended the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and later William and Mary College. Brown, a commissioned officer in the Revolution, studied law and moved to Kentucky ca. 1786. He served as a Virginia delegate in the Continental Congress, 1787–1788, and in the House of Representatives until 1792, when Kentucky was made a state (a movement in which Brown was a key figure). Kentucky sent him to the U.S. Senate (1792–1805) and thereafter he practiced law in his adopted state. Brown shared with JM a particular interest in navigation rights on western waters and the adoption of the federal Constitution (Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, eds., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918, and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond, 1918). description ends , pp. 21, 22, 25, 27; Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution, pp. 250, 347–48, 350). Richard Bland Lee (1761–1827) was a newly elected delegate from Loudoun County to the House, where he served intermittently until 1800, except for his three terms in Congress (1789–1795). JM appointed Lee as a claims adjuster after the War of 1812, and from 1820 until his death he was judge of the Orphans’ Court of the District of Columbia (Lee, Lee Chronicle, pp. 86, 174, 314; Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, eds., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918, and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond, 1918). description ends , p. 20, and passim). Spencer Roane (1762–1822) of Essex County studied law at William and Mary College and was admitted to the bar in 1782. After serving in the House of Delegates (1783–1784), Roane was a state senator and member of the Council of State but is principally remembered as a judge of the General Court (1789–1794) and the state Supreme Court of Appeals (1794–1822). Roane opposed JM in the Richmond convention of 1788 over adoption of the federal Constitution, but they later agreed on the propriety of the Virginia resolutions. Roane is noteworthy for his later advocacy of the states’ rights doctrine (JCSV description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (4 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , III, 165, 448–579; JM to Jefferson, 4 Dec. 1788 [DLC]; Tyler, Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, II, 61–62). Alexander White (1738–1804) was a graduate of Edinburgh University and a former student of law at the Inner Temple (1762) and Gray’s Inn (1763). He returned to Virginia in 1765 and launched a career that eventually made him a leading lawyer in the northern valley counties. In 1772 he represented Hampshire County in the House of Burgesses. His patriotism was suspected during the Revolution, but he nonetheless was returned as representative of Frederick County to the House of Delegates (1782–1786, 1788, 1799–1801). One of JM’s ablest allies. he worked for the adoption of the federal Constitution; but the political views of the two men came to differ, and it was as a Federalist that White served in Congress (1789–1793). From 1795 to 1802 he was one of three commissioners appointed to lay out the new capital at Washington, D.C. (Hugh Blair Grigsby, The History of the Virginia Federal Convention of 1788 [2 vols.; Richmond, 1890–91], II, 71–73; DAB, XX, 85).

2These rules were reprinted in the Va. Gazette description begins Virginia Gazette, or, the American Advertiser (Richmond, James Hayes 1781–86). description ends , 23 Apr. 1785, and Pa. Packet, 25 May 1785, with an addition to the minutes omitted in the DLC pamphlet:

“As the intention of this society is to be useful to the community, and not merely to shew a desire of being so, Resolved, That it is expected that each member should send to the President, every six months, an essay or problem on some political thesis of importance, which it is hoped will be confined to the subject thereof; and that any one failing in this duty, be informed by the Secretary, that two essays or problems will be expected from him during the next six months; and that any member, on a second delinquency herein, shall not thereafter be considered as a member of this society.

Resolved, That candidates to become members of the society shall be nominated by a member at a meeting preceding his election or rejection.”

These resolutions were adopted on 15 June 1784. His memory dimmed by time, Mazzei recalled “several meetings, held at the president’s home in Williamsburg.” However, the minutes indicate that meetings were held on 11, 15, and 28 June, when Mazzei read a paper on sumptuary laws to the eight assembled members. At the 11 June meeting JM had been appointed to a six-member committee formed “to draw up rules for the organization of this Society.” The rules were signed at the meeting on 15 June. On that date JM was appointed to another committee charged with drafting permanent rules, but with the society little was destined to be permanent. The well-intentioned committeeman who proposed the resolution calling for semiannual essays may have helped push the society toward its grave.

As long as Mazzei remained in the U. S. he continued to promote the society and to seek new members, even beyond the bounds of Virginia. There is no doubt that Mazzei was long on promises and short on delivery, but he continued to write political essays which he hoped would be published in Virginia newspapers (Mazzei to JM, 3 June, 15 June 1785). Blair in the Va. Gazette, 23 Apr. 1785, called for a meeting on 24 May at Anderson’s tavern in Richmond. The supposition is warranted that the May meeting, if ever held, ended not in praising Mazzei’s brainchild but in burying it.

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