Using Virginia Governors' Records, 1776-1998 (Research Notes Number 11)
Archival records survive for every governor of Virginia, telling the history of the Old Dominion from its establishment as a commonwealth in 1776 to the present. These are the second oldest continuous series of state records held by the Library of Virginia. Although a certain number of records have not survived because of wars, politics, and the passage of time, many do exist for researchers to use. The fragmentary original records of Virginia’s royal governors are scattered among research repositories in the United States and Great Britain. Very few are held by the Library of Virginia.
These records richly document Virginia government and the life of the commonwealth’s citizens from the Revolutionary War to the late twentieth century. Events in Virginia history and government ranging from the momentous to the mundane are chronicled in letters, reports, lists, legal documents, petitions, proclamations, appointments, applications, messages, and other types of documents. Records prior to 1868 are arranged chronologically and variously indexed. A box-by-box folder listing is available for the years 1868–1998. (Additionally, a number of other state records directly relate to the Governor’s Office, but are not part of that record group.) While these records are commonly referred to as Governor’s Papers, they are actually titled Office of the Governor, Letters Received, 1776–1906, and Letters Received and Sent, 1906–1998.
The broad power held by the royally appointed governors led the framers of the Virginia Constitution of 1776 to create an office lacking much of that power. The governor was elected annually by the General Assembly and largely acted with the advice of the newly-created Council of State, composed of members elected by the General Assembly. The duties included appointing local officials such as justices, sheriffs, coroners, inspectors, and militia officers from names recommended by the county courts; granting clemency to those convicted of crimes; signing official documents such as land grants, proclamations and appointments; activating the state militia if necessary; approving expenditure of state money; and corresponding with officials inside and outside of Virginia.
These duties remained essentially unchanged until just prior to the Civil War. The governor’s term was lengthened to three years in 1830. A new constitution abolished the Council of State in 1851, made the governorship a popularly elected office, and established a non-consecutive four-year term. The governor gradually assumed administrative and statutory authority, including veto power. In 1927 a reorganization of Virginia government established the governor as its chief administrative officer with power to appoint and dismiss most department directors. A further reorganization in 1970 established the cabinet system of departments with the governor at its head. The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen a proliferation of boards and commissions whose members the governor appoints.
The records of Virginia’s governors reflect the issues of the moment for each term of office, the framework of Virginia government then in place, and broadly mirror Virginia society and culture of the era. They are also reflective of the many trends in Virginia economic, political, and social history over more than two centuries. Papers exist for each Virginia governor, and the quantity of records is often related to significant events that occurred during the term. The volume of records increases appreciably during the twentieth century with the expansion of Virginia government, while the substantive nature of the records has decreased due to increased electronic communication and the legal exemption of papers. These records are most useful to students of Virginia history, government, and culture, as well as local history researchers.
Almost every substantive issue related to Virginia government is reflected in these documents, and many others are to be found there as well. The papers are of limited value to genealogical researchers, but they contain numerous documents related to specific individuals such as requests for pardons, appointments, and reimbursement. Indeed the largest number of documents are letters from individuals within and without Virginia written about every conceivable Virginia event and issue.
For the first several decades after 1777, the governor’s papers reflect all aspects of Virginia’s participation in the Revolution, the cession of western lands once part of Virginia, and relations with the newly formed national government. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, records concern the 1800 Gabriel slave conspiracy, the War of 1812, and the Nat Turner slave revolt of 1831. Beginning in 1832, the secretary of the commonwealth began keeping an executive journal recording correspondence received by the governor and actions taken by him. This system of record-keeping continued until 1866. The governor’s papers for the late eighteenth century and the first six decades of the nineteenth include solicitations or recommendations for appointments to state government offices, petitions for clemency for persons convicted of crimes, proclamations, and correspondence with local and state officials concerning administrative matters.
Papers for the pre-Civil War period include topics related to slavery and John Brown’s raid. From 1776–1861 there is much correspondence from counties now part of West Virginia. The papers for the Civil War years, 1861–1865, are numerous and concern many aspects of Virginia’s participation in that conflict. Researchers should note that there were two Virginia governments during these years, the regular Richmond government and the "restored" or unionist government which sat in Wheeling and Alexandria. There is a set of documents for each.
Record-keeping for the governors changed in 1866. The secretary of the commonwealth filed records related to official action taken by the governor, such as appointments, resignations, pardon requests, and executive orders. All other correspondence was maintained by the governor’s office. There are few records of Virginia’s governors from 1871–1902, which was a period of fierce partisanship. A total of four cubic feet exist for eight governors.
The early twentieth century saw a gradual increase in both the power of the governor and the size and influence of state government. Federal government power also expanded, as did its interaction with Virginia government. The quantity of papers for Virginia’s governors increased concurrent with these trends. The defining events and movements of the century as they impacted Virginia are well represented in these documents. World War I, the Depression and New Deal, World War II, the Civil Rights movement, urbanization, and the expansion of higher education are some of the important topics discussed. As a result of two Virginia constitutions, 1902 and 1970, and other statutory changes, the role of Virginia’s governor became preeminent in state government by the 1970s. As they have done since 1776, the papers reflect the constantly changing face of Virginia history and government.
Letters sent to the governor for the period 1776 to 1870 are arranged in strict chronological order, first by year and then by month within the year. There are several indexes to portions of records for this period. Copies of letters received by the governor for the period 29 June 1776–30 November 1784 are available at Governor's Letters Received, July 1776 to November 1784 and are fully searchable. They are also on microfilm and available for interlibrary loan. Printed texts for many of these letters also appear in Henry A. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia, 1776–1784 (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1929–1929, 3 vols.). Papers for the years 1799–1802 and 1 November 1814–31 December 1816 are also on microfilm. Abstracts and transcripts of selected documents from 1776–1865 are found in William P. Palmer, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 1777–1865 (New York: Kraus Reprint Corp., 1960–1969, 11 vols.).
Researchers should be aware that the Journals of the Council of State, 1776–1850 (microfilm) and the Executive Journals of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, 1832–1865 (originals) are rough indexes to correspondence received by the governor. Letters sent to the governor for the years 1871–1997 are arranged by the name of the individual governor and then numerically by box. An in-house guide lists the title of each folder in each box. Original governor’s papers and guides to them are requested and served in the Archives Research Room at the Library of Virginia, where special rules governing usage apply. They should be requested by year(s) and or month(s).
The Library holds a number of records related to the Office of the Governor. Noteworthy are the Executive Letter Books, 1780–1860 (microfilm), 1874–1877, 1890–1893, and 1902–1906 (originals), which are copies of the Governor’s outgoing correspondence. Also of importance are the Executive Papers and Journals of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, 1866–1998, the papers related to official action taken by the governor. These include requests for pardons, executive orders, appointments (including notary publics), resignations, proclamations, warrants, oaths, and miscellaneous papers. Other related records include recommendations for appointments of local officeholders (Civil Appointments, 1779–1826) and militia officers (Militia Commission Papers, 1777–1858). With the 1972 creation of the cabinet system, Virginia government was organized by executive branch departments. The correspondence and data files of the directors of these departments are additional sources of information concerning the administrations of Virginia’s governors for the years 1972–1998.
The Library also holds collections of personal papers for several of Virginia’s governors. These include James Wood (1741–1813, Accessions 28960 and 29579, Misc. Reel 559), Littleton Waller Tazewell (1774–1861, Accession 24194, Misc. Reels 670–681), James Lawson Kemper (1823–1895, Accession 24692), Andrew J. Montague (1862–1937, Accession 22001), Henry C. Stuart (1855–1933, Accession 29206), George C. Peery (1873–1952, Accession 35134) and A. Linwood Holton (1923– , Accessions 28253 (includes material related to Virginia Harrison Holton), 28327, 30221, 31535 and 31626). Additionally, there are personal papers for a number of other Virginia governors. There are also many printed sources available at the Library concerning Virginia’s governors. A useful one is Edward Younger and James T. Moore, eds., The Governors of Virginia, 1860–1978 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982). Also of interest are a number of biographies of individual governors and numerous printed state documents related to their administrations.
The Archives Reference Services staff will be glad to assist researchers with inquiries concerning the contents and use of these papers.