During the American Revolution Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly agreed to remove the seat of government from Williamsburg to Richmond. From 1780 until 1788 the Assembly met in two commercial buildings near the Richmond riverfront until a new Capitol could be constructed on Shockoe Hill. In 1784 Thomas Jefferson went to Paris as the U.S. Minister to France. In 1785 Jefferson designed a new Capitol, with help from French architect Charles-Louis Clerisseau, to house all three branches of Virginia’s government in Richmond. The Capitol was begun in 1785 and required 13 years to build from cornerstone to completion, with occupancy occurring in the third and fourth years of construction.
Virginia’s Capitol is the second oldest working statehouse in America and the first Roman temple style public building in the New World. Beginning in 1788, the Capitol has been home to the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest English-speaking representative legislature still meeting in the Western Hemisphere.
The Capitol has been the scene of many historical events of importance to Virginia and the nation. In December 1791 the Virginia General Assembly, meeting inside the Capitol, ratified the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. This historic vote made our first ten amendments the law of the land.
The Old Senate Chamber in the south end of the Capitol is part of a once larger chamber designed by Thomas Jefferson as court room space for the judiciary. Virginia’s General Court and the Supreme Court of Appeals met here between 1789 and 1840. Lawyers Patrick Henry and John Marshall argued important court cases here. After interior modifications, the Senate of Virginia met here from 1840 to 1861 and from 1865 to 1904. Another remodeling completed in 1906 created the space seen today.
The Old House Chamber located in the north end of the Capitol was used by Delegates for lawmaking between 1788 and 1904. Federal courts also met in various rooms of the Capitol from the 1790s until the 1820s. In 1807 Chief Justice John Marshall presided over the treason trial of Aaron Burr in the Old House Chamber. The jury found Burr “not proved to be guilty” according to the evidence shown them. Twenty-two years later, Marshall and James Madison attended an important political convention meeting in this room to revise Virginia’s State Constitution, with James Monroe presiding. Five of Virginia’s six state constitutions have been created inside the Capitol, including the current Virginia Constitution of 1971.
Eight days before the American Civil War began, the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1861, meeting near the Capitol, voted to stay in the Union. Five days after the Civil War began, the Virginia Convention reversed course and voted in a stormy session held inside the Old House Chamber to secede from the Union. On April 23 the Convention unanimously agreed to the commissioning of Robert E. Lee as commander of the military forces of the Commonwealth. Virginia officially joined the Confederate States of American in May of 1861.
The Capitol in April of 1865
From May 1861 to April 1865 Richmond served as the capital of the Southern Confederacy and Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol served as a meeting place for both Virginia’s General Assembly and the Confederate Congress. Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens were inaugurated as the Southern president and vice president on the Capitol grounds in February 1862. In April 1865 the Confederacy collapsed and the Capitol narrowly escaped destruction when much of Richmond burned. President Lincoln visited Capitol Square on April 4, two days after the departure of President Davis from Richmond.
The passage of the 13th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, expanded the electorate and opened up the political process to African Americans. There were 24 African American delegates elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868. At least 92 African Americans served in the Virginia General Assembly between 1869 and 1890. Five of these elected lawmakers served in both the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia. Ten had previously served as members of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868.
On April 27, 1870, the Capitol was the scene of the “Capitol Disaster.” The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, meeting on the third floor, was about to render a verdict in a case that attracted too many spectators. The balcony and floor of the crowded courtroom collapsed into the empty hall of the House of Delegates on the second floor. Sixty-two people were killed and another 251 injured. The Governor and General Assembly reoccupied the Capitol in October 1870 after the necessary repairs were completed, but the Court was relocated to another building and never returned to the Capitol.
Over the years, the Capitol has served as an imposing location for the public to pay their last respects to appointed officers of government, prominent elected officials and military heroes lying in state. These diverse public figures have ranged from General Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson to Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell, the first African American to preside over the Virginia Supreme Court.
In 1904 a decision was made to renovate and enlarge the Capitol. John Kevan Peebles, a graduate from the University of Virginia, submitted the winning design comprised of an east wing for the House and a west wing for the Senate. These classical wings opened in 1906 as compatible additions to Jefferson’s original Capitol and remain in use today.
Virginia women obtained the right to vote in 1920. The first women to serve in the House of Delegates were Sara Lee Fain for Norfolk City and Helen Timmons Henderson for Buchanan and Russell counties, both of whom were elected for the 1924 session. The first women to serve in a Virginia Constitutional Convention as delegates (seven in total) did so in October 1933. That Convention met in the Old House Chamber for one day and repealed Prohibition. The first woman elected to the Senate of Virginia was Eva F. Scott in 1980.
In January 1990 the Capitol and surrounding public square provided the setting for the inauguration of Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected African-American Governor. Mary Sue Terry (the first woman elected to executive office in Virginia) was inaugurated for her second term as Attorney General on the same day.
Every four years (except for 1864 and 1868) the Electoral College of Virginia has met in the Capitol to certify the Virginia votes cast in presidential elections.
In war and peace the Virginia State Capitol has endured as a symbol of Virginia’s representative government and a reminder of important American principles. The Capitol has been designated a National Historic Landmark and has been nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage List. The Capitol is also on the Virginia Landmarks Register and on the National Register of Historic Places.