David Watson Reflects on Government and the Upcoming Revision of Virginia's Constitution, 1829

[Richmond Enquirer, March 24, 1829:]


24th March, 1829.

TO WM. MADISON, Esq. Chairman, &c.

SIR--I have received a communication of the 23d inst, signed by you as Chairman of a "Delegation from the counties of Spottsylvania, Louisa, Orange and Madison, assembled at Orange Court-house, to consult and recommend, four suitable characters to represent this Senatorial District in the approaching Convention for amending our State Constitution," &c. and informing me, that the Delegation have selected me as one of the four, deemed by them most suitable to receive their recommendation; and they request to be informed, through their Chairman, whether they have my assent to make known to the people of the district, that, if elected, I will obey the call of my country, by repairing to the post assigned to me, &c.

Considering this communication as evidence that at least a respectable portion of my fellow citizens of the district desire my services in the approaching Convention, I authorize you, sir, to make it known, most respectfully, to our district, that should the choice of the people assign me a place in this important service, I will repair to it, (if in sufficient health) with a strong sense of the faithful duties I shall owe to the will, and to the interest of those whose immediate representative I may be, and to the general and lasting welfare of all the people of our State.

Perhaps, Sir, before I conclude this communication, justice and candour to the District, require me to say, that the ill state of my health, with other personal concerns, have, for some years past, withdrawn my attention almost entirely from public affairs; and at this time, I have no desire whatever to re-commence a pubic agency in them. But, nevertheless, should the partiality of our District require my services, no personal considerations, except such as are unavoidable, shall prevent me from a faithful and zealous discharge of my duty.

Very respectfully, your ob't serv't.



[Richmond Enquirer, April 7, 1829:]




To the people of Spottsylvania, Louisa, Orange

and Madison.

FELLOW-CITIZENS--You will probably be informed, thro' some other channel, that I have been included in a recommendation lately made by a deputation of gentleman assembled at Orange Court-House, to consult and recommend four persons deemed suitable to be voted for as representatives of our Senatorial District, in the approaching Convention for altering our State Constitution; and that I have given my assent to the recommendation, and authorised it to be made publicly known, that should the people of our district choose me for one of their representatives, they may rely upon all that my abilities of mind and body can do to serve them faithfully and usefully. Upon an occasion of this kind, it is justly due to the district, and to myself, to state that for several years past, the ill state of my health, and other personal concerns, have withdrawn my attention almost entirely from public affairs, and at this time, [with?] regard to personal inconveniences, I have no desire whatever to have a public agency in them. But, while I consider the late recommendation from Orange Court-house merely as evidence of the wishes of a respectable portion of our fellow-citizens, I can truly say, that it is the frequent proofs I have received of the prevalence of this wish, in various parts of the district, and especially in my own county, that has induced me to set aside all personal and private considerations, in favour of the wishes of those who may desire my services.

From persons situated as I am, in the habit of strict retirement from all concern in public affairs, and not personally known to a considerable portion of the district, it is, perhaps, justly due to the people, that they should know beforehand the opinions of those to whom they may give their suffrages, upon at least some of the most important points which are expected to come under the consideration of the Convention. It is not in my power, at present, to go largely into this subject, nor do I suppose it will be deemed necessary.

The point which seems to be the most interesting, and which, for some years past, has held the most conspicuous place, in the discussions concerning our Constitution, is the all-important Right of Suffrage. It is, and long has been, my opinion, that in a country like Virginia, possessing an extent of territory sufficient to sustain a population capable of defending and preserving its sovereignty and independence against foreign powers, the owners and cultivators of the soil ought to be the political masters and rulers of the country. Their occupations produce the surest and most essential means of subsistence, comfort, and independence to society; and experience has well established the opinion, that their pursuits and habits are more congenial to virtue and morality, than those of any other class of persons. And in times of great public danger and trial, I consider their patriotism, naturally arising from ownership of the soil, and local attachment, as more to be relied on than that of any other class of society. And the peculiar nature of their property, and the stability of their residence, renders them more directly and certainly liable to the burden of legal contributions to the public treasury.

But, I by no means consider these reasons sufficient to justify the exclusion of all other classes from all share of political power. But, I would require of them strong and bona fide guarantees “of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community.” And I consider the most obvious and practicable guarantees to consist in local residence, and in not only the assessment, but the actual payment, of valuable, and not merely colourable, contributions, for the support and maintenance of the government and independence of the republic.

The state of public opinion with regard to the right of suffrage, at this time, suggests the observation, that in framing, or altering a government for a free and intelligent people, as Virginians at present must be admitted to be, I think much respect is due to the opinions and feelings of the different classes of society; for, no matter how perfect in principle and form any government may be, if a large portion of the people, (tho’ it be a minority,) be dissatisfied with it, and likely to continue so, that is not a good government for that people. And in altering our state constitution, at present, I should not think it wise to lose sight of the principle, but to yield something to it, wherever it would not evidently jeopardize the peace and liberty of the society.

With regard to the legislative department, the most important in every government, there is but one observation which I think it material to make here. Tho’ I think that our present number of delegates would very well bear some diminution, I am in favour of a numerous representation. It may be slower and more expensive in its operations, but “in a multitude of counsellors there is more honesty, and more safety.” I would have the number to be so great as to preclude the majority from having any personal or private interest in the multiplication of offices, and in the distribution of the loaves and fishes.

With the executive department of our government, I am very well satisfied as it now stands, and is now chosen. I am decidedly opposed to a strong executive, with extensive powers and patronage. It renders the election of a governor, a scene of strife, intrigue, and corruption. And if his powers be limited and moderate, there is no necessity for, or advantage in, his being chosen immediately by the people. I am opposed to multiplying elections unnecessarily immediately on the people. It gives occasions to factious and designing office-seekers, to stir up jealousy and discontent among them, and keep them in continual fermentation, till the most prudent, industrious, and worthy citizens become harassed and disgusted with elections, and leave them on too many occasions, to be made, or decided, by the most unworthy part of the electors. Let the people have a prompt and efficient control over their legislators, and let the legislature control every thing but the constitution. It adds importance and respectability to the office of legislator, and makes the people more careful and select in their choice.

The judiciary department requires the greatest delicacy and accuracy in its construction. I should be in favour of rendering ours much more, and more directly responsible, that it is a present.—Taking care to preserve them as independent as possible in their judicial opinions, I would make them more efficiently and directly responsible for neglect of official duty.

Before I conclude this imperfect address, I will briefly advert to one important point which must press painfully upon the mind of every one who meditates upon, and feels a deep interest in, the improvement of our constitution. It is the want of a common and equal interest between the Eastern and Western parts of our state, arising from the great inequality in the local distribution of an important description of property. I think this inequality, together with the large surplus of taxes now paid, and likely to continue to be paid, by the Eastern people, beyond even their present relative weight in the legislature, will justify them in contending, that the principle of “taxation and representation” shall be recognised in the constitution, in some form and degree as safe and liberal to each party as practicable.

At present, I am unable to extend these observations further, or make them more particular, even if it were necessary, which I presume it is not, as the people will have it fully in their power to decide upon and correct the acts and doings of the Convention. They are respectfully submitted to the consideration of the people of our district by their ob’t serv’t, DAVID WATSON.

[selection and transcription by Noel G. Harrison, NPS]

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