Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 117 / Number 2
Codification in Virginia: Conway Robinson, John Mercer Patton, and the Politics of Law Reform
- Christopher M. Curtis
, pp. 141 –180
This article examines the process of the crafting and enrolling of the 1849 Code of Virginia as a means to assess the influence and consequences of law reform on the democratic development of a slave state. It understands the codification project as the key episode of a substantial process of law reform that occurred in Virginia during the decade of the 1840s, and which culminated with the Reform Constitution of 1851. It argues that these law reforms represented a necessary precondition for the adoption of modern democratic models of citizenship and representative government in the Reform Constitution. Codification also entrenched Virginia’s public commitment to slavery. The essay focuses on Conway Robinson and John Mercer Patton, the appointed revisors to the Code, and identifies their intended design for it by examining the historical and intellectual influences that informed their understanding of the project. It then turns its attention to the legislative process of enrolling the Code, which was conducted during a special session at Fauquier White Sulphur Springs during the summer months of 1849. There, the fate of the entire codification project became tied to a political debate over the appointment authority of flour inspectors. This debate foreshadowed the serious questions of democratization raised in the constitutional convention the following year and demonstrated the encroachment of party politics on the process of law reform as well as the centralization and standardization of law required by a modern democratic state.