Governor Spotswood completed the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, and all governors or their deputies lived there until Lord Dunmore fled in 1775
Source: Wikipedia, Governor's Palace (Williamsburg, Virginia) (photo by Larry Pieniazek)
The London Company chose the top administrator of the private corporation's business affairs in Virginia, until the company charter was revoked in 1624. The First Charter issued by King James I in 1606 required creation of a council to manage affairs in the colony. From 1607-109 the leader of the council at Jamestown was called the "president." The Virginia Company's leaders in London helped to craft the language of the Second Charter issued by the king in 1609, and it clearly empowered the company to appoint a "governor" in Virginia.1
When Virginia was a royal colony between 1624-1776, kings and queens in London appointed Virginia's governor.
The governor received instructions from royal officials London, and was advised in the colony by a council composed of twelve of Virginia's most wealthy and prominent leaders. Members of the Council served for life, shaping the policy of multiple governors. Through the "advice" of the Governor's Council, the Virginia gentry maneuvered to implement policies that benefitted the wealthy landowners in the colony regarding tobacco inspection, land grants, trade with Native Americans, and other issues.
The Governor's Council, like the House of Burgesses, was a constraint on the ability of individual governors to implement policy. The members of the Governor's Council were typically selected by the governor in residence and reflected the social and conomic power of different families in the colony, but appointments were technically made by the king or queen in London. Some appointments were made by the king/queen based on recommendations by London merchants rather than from recommendations made by the governor or his deputy serving in Virginia.
Even laws passed by the General Assembly, but opposed by key Virginia families, were repealed by the Privy Council in London. Governor Spotswood recognized that export of poor quality tobacco lowered the total value of the tobacco crop exported from Virginia, and that unfair interactions with Native American tribes threatened expansion of the colony due to unrest in the frontier contact zone. He succeeded in getting the General Assembly to regulate tobacco and Native American trade, only to see officials in London disallow the Tobacco Inspection Act and the Indian Trade Act. Throughout the colonial period, lobbying royal officials was an effective technique for undercutting the power of the appointed governor.2
The Governor and the dozen members on his council served as the "upper house" of the General Assembly after 1643. The office of governor included judicial as well as legislative and executive responsibilities. The General Court - the highest court in Virginia, hearing cases involving major issues and the death penalty for whites - consisted of the governor and the Governor's Council.
There were vacancies in Virginia after a governor died or failed to arrive on time. In those cases:3
In addition, royal appointee Governor Berkeley stepped aside between 1652-1660 during the English Civil War. Parliament sent a military force to Virginia and the General Assembly elected the governor. Once it was clear Charles II would be restored to the throne, Berkeley resumed his position as governor.
colonial governors struggled with the General Assembly to implement royal guidance on growing, inspecting, and shipping tobacco
National Park Service, Tobacco and the Atlantic World - panel four of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network exhibit
Implementing royal policy transmitted from London required cooperation from the colonists in Virginia, since the colonial leaders controlled much of the wealth and led the militia. It was rare for royal troops to be positioned in Virginia, other than a guardship in Hampton Roads to protect against pirates and foreign raids, and most colonial revenue was controlled by the House of Burgesses or local governments.
The power of the governor varied based on personalities as well as economic/political conditions in England and Virginia, but the gentry serving in the House of Burgesses and on the Governor's Council prevented the governor from governing through edicts. In 1635, Governor John Harvey was "thrust out," forced to leave Virginia and sail back to London.
Harvey lost an early argument with the council regarding his authority:4
Governor Harvey tried to shift colonists towards products other than tobacco - but without success
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown, 1630s: Harvey's Industrial Enclave (painting by Keith Rocco)
Harvey was "too fond of money, and not particular as to how it came to him," treated the Virginia gentry with arrogance, and chose to implement guidance from London to support the new colony in Maryland despite its economic impact on powerful Virginia fur traders and land speculators. The end of Governor Harvey's rule came when he tried to arrest political opponents and hang them for treason. The governor lacked troops or allies to implement his plan. His opponents physically forced the governor to board a ship to return home. The official colonial records note:5
Harvey returned to Virginia as governor, as a demonstration by King Charles I that royal officials could not be forced out by colonists, but the king failed to "strengthen his hand," by default empowering the Virginia leaders. Sir Edmund Andros also was "suspended" by the General Assembly in 1695 and 1697, then recalled by officials in London in response to the complaints of Virginia leaders.6
Governor William Berkeley was the longest-serving governor of Virginia, in office from 1642-1677 (with a gap between 1652-1660, during the English Civil Wars). Berkeley exercised his powers as governor to the fullest extent, gaining substantial wealth for himself in the process. His mansion house, Green Spring, was the center of political activity and described as "the finest seat in America & the only tollerable place for a Govenour...."7
no governor has served in office in Virginia longer than William Berkeley (27 years, counting his two terms)
Source: Library of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley
Governors determined when the General Assembly would meet (elections were not scheduled on a regular basis). Gov. Berkeley evidently liked the burgesses who had been elected in 1661 after he was restored to office. He blocked new elections for the next 15 years, simply adjourning ("proroguing") the General Assembly after a session and recalling the same burgesses, rather than authorize elections for new representatives.
Ending the "Long Assembly" with new elections in 1676 did not prevent Bacon's Rebellion. Berkeley faced down one threat when Nathaniel Bacon brought his forces to the statehouse, but was soon forced to flee Jamestown to safety on the Eastern Shore. Once the rebellion was crushed and Berkeley restored to office, he demonstrated the full range of executive authority in his retribution. He seized property and hanged 23 rebels, including the former governor of North Carolina (William Drummond).
Between 1706-1768, the appointed governor stayed in England and allocated a portion of the office's income to pay a Lieutenant Governor, who would cross the Atlantic Ocean and serve as governor in Virginia. Sir Jeffery Amherst was officially the governor between 1759-1768, but he arranged for Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier to serve as his deputy and "Governor" Fauquier lived in the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg.
Fauquier County is named after Francis Fauquier, the last Lieutenant Governor to serve in colonial Virginia
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Fauquier died in 1768, during the controversies regarding taxation in the colonies. When Amherst refused to move from England to Williamsburg and exert British authority in person, he was dismissed from the position of governor. The last two colonial governors, Lord Botetourt and Lord Dunmore, came to Virginia in person, but were unsuccessful in reconciling Virginia to royal rule. Lord Dunmore was forced to flee from the Governor's Palace in 1775 as the American Revolution broke out.
The House of Burgesses led the revolution against the colonial governors. When Lord Botetourt dissolved the legislature in 1769, the burgesses reassembled down the street in the Raleigh Tavern and adopted the Non-Importation Act. In 1774, after Lord Dunmore dissolved the legislature when it showed support for the rebellious port of Boston, the burgesses once again ignored the royal requirement that the governor had to call for a meeting of the representative assembly and that the governor could force an end such meetings. That 1774 meeting, also in the Raleigh Tavern, was the first of five Virginia Conventions in 1774-76. They organized military resistance and maintained government services until independence, when a new General Assembly was created with a House of Delegates and State Senate.
During the colonial period, the Virginia gentry had relied upon the House of Burgesses to block actions of the royal governor and to implement policies preferred by the Tidewater planters. In 1776, at the start of the American Revolution, the General Assembly wrote a constitution that made the legislature the dominant branch of government.
The legislators who created that first Virginia constitution took advantage of the change in government to minimize the authority granted to the office of governor. The 1776 constitution separated the executive branch from the legislative and judicial branches. The position of governor was stripped of the old colonial authority to call and dissolve the legislature, and the governor was not empowered to veto bils passed by he General Assembly.
After declaring independence from Great Britain and proclaiming the new constitution to be in effect, the General Assembly elected Patrick Henry as the first governor of the new Commonwealth of Virginia.
Raleigh Tavern seved as the alternative for the House of Burgesses to meeting in the Capitol, when governors Botetourt and Dunmore dissolved the colonial legislature
For the 76 years between the establishment of Virginia as an independent state and the adoption of the 1851 constitution, the General Assembly chose the governor. Henry was elected as the first governor after independence in part because his opponents desired to see him serve in the governor's office rather than in the legislature. He was "pushed upstairs" to reduce Henry's ability to shape policy through speeches in the new General Assembly.
Patrick Henry was elected the first governor after Virginia declared its independence in 1776, and placing him in that executive position minimized his power in the state government
Source: Library of Congress, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Patrick Henry delivering his great speech on the rights of the colonies, before the Virginia Assembly, convened at Richmond, March 23rd 1775, concluding with the above sentiment, which became the war cry of the revolution
Henry was the first post-colonial governor to live in the Governor's Palace, between 1776-79. Thomas Jefferson was the last. The state capital was moved to Richmond in 1780, and the "palace" burned to the ground in 1781. (Colonial Williamsburg built a replacement structure during the Great Depression.)
Between 1776-1830, governors served 1-year terms and there was a maximum limit of three consecutive terms. Governors were elected to three-year terms between 1831-1851, and governors could not be re-elected immediately after completing a term. The 1851 constitution changed the term of office to four years and continued the ban on immediate re-election, but allowed the voters (rather than the General Assembly) to elect the governor. Governor Joseph Johnson, who served between 1852-56, was the first Virginia governor to be elected directly by the people, 244 years after English colonization began at Jamestown.8
The Virginia constitution has been revised several times since 1851, but the 4-year governor's term and the ban on consecutive elections have not been altered since then.
In the colonial era after Virginia became a royal colony, multiple governors were appointed to serve a second term. Sir Francis Wyatt was the first governor appointed by the king in 1624, and he served for two years. He was appointed governor again in 1639 and served for three years. In the gap between those terms, Sir John Harvey was governor from 1630-1635 and (after being temporarily "thrust out") between 1637–1639.
Sir William Berkeley also experienced an involuntary gap, due to the English Civil War, between his terms in 1642-1652 and 1660-1677. Berkeley is Virginia's longest-serving governor to live in Virginia. Berkeley had 27 years in office; next closest was Sir William Gooch with 22 years. The Earl of Orkney was technically governor for 27 years between 1710-1737, but he stayed in England the entire time and arranged for three lieutenant governors to represent the crown in Williamsburg.
Francis Nicholson served as the lieutenant governor in Virginia from 1690-1692, then as full governor from 1698–1705. Edmund Jenings was the "acting" governor in 1706–1708, due to his leadership position on the Governor's Council after Gov. Edward Nott died in office. Jenings was then lieutenant governor, resident in Virginia, from 1708-1710.
The man appointed to replace Edward Nott as governor sailed to Virginia and planned to be serve as the resident governor in Williamsburg, but he was captured while on the trip by the French. Queen Anne then chose a new governor, but the Earl of Orkney started the pattern of staying in England and sent Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood to the colony.
James Monroe was elected to three one-year terms as governor between 1799-1802, and then elected again by the General Assembly in 1811. He resigned that year to serve as Secretary of State for President James Madison.
Since 1851, Virginia has elected one governor to serve a second term - or elected three governors to second terms, depending upon how you choose to count.
There is no question that Governor Mills Godwin served two terms. He was first elected in 1965 and served between 1966-70. After a gap of four years out of office, and a switch from the Democratic to Republican parties, he was elected a second time and served a full second term between 1974-78.
Term limits in the 1851 constitution blocked Gov. Mills Godwin from being eligible for re-election to a second term in 1969 or in 1977. After Kentucky changed its constitution in 1992, Virginia became the last state to prohibit governors from serving two consecutive terms.10
The 1861-65 Civil War created the unique period when Virginia had two governors simultaneously. If you consider both the Confederate and Unionist governments of Virginia to have been legitimate during the Civil War, then both Gov. William "Extra Billy" Smith and Gov. Francis Pierpont served portions of their second terms in the 1860's.
John Letcher and William "Extra Billy" Smith were governors of Confederate Virginia, while Francis Pierpont was governor of Unionist Virginia (primarily Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun, Accomac, Northampton, and Norfolk).
Governor Francis Pierpont served as Unionist governor from 1861-1868
Source: Campfire and Battlefield - An Illustrated History of the Campaigns and Conflicts of the Great Civil War, Francis H. Pierpont
John Letcher was elected governor in 1859, and was in office when Virginia seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America. Letcher's predecessor, Henry Wise, ignored the fact that he was no longer governor and, in April 1861, organized the seizure of the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the navy yard in Portsmouth.
In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, William "Extra Billy" Smith was elected governor of Confederate Virginia. He served as governor for the ever-shrinking portion of Virginia under Confederate control.
Smith had been elected governor for the first time by the General Assembly in 1845, and had completed his 3-year term between 1846-49. (His nickname reflected his ability to create additional routes for mail delivery, and thus additional fees, when he had contracts to deliver the US Mail.) In 1863, he was elected by the voters in the Confederate portion of Virginia to serve a 4-year term. Smith did not complete that second term; he resigned formally in May, 1865 after the Confederacy was defeated.9
In 1861, after Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy, those who supported staying in the Union formed the Restored Government of Virginia. A convention in Wheeling elected Francis Pierpont to be the governor of the Restored Government of Virginia. On May 28, 1863, voters in the counties accepting the authority of the Restored Government of Virginia (essentially counties in the Alleghenies, west of the Shenandoah Valley) re-elected Gov. Francis Pierpont to a 4-year term. That election occured just before West Virginia was declared to be a separate state.
When West Virginia became a separate state in July, 1863 and Wheeling was no longer located in Virginia, Pierpont moved the governor's office to Alexandria. Once Gov. Pierpont moved to Alexandria, he left behind in West Virginia most of the voters who had chosen him. His authority was ignored in all areas occupied by the Confederates, and in the areas occupied by Union forces (such as Hampton Roads) he also had difficulty getting military officers to acknowledge his role.
After the Federal army captured Richmond in 1865, Governor Pierpont moved to his third state capital and served as Provisional Governor of Virginia during the first years of Reconstruction. In 1867 Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act; Virginia lost its status as a state and became Military District One. Pierpont's term expired at the end of 1868, civilian government finally was displaced finally in 1868 by military officials. General John Schofield forced Pierpont out of office and appointed Henry H. Wells as the civilian governor.
Confederate governors occupied the mansion in Richmond, while Governor's Pierpont's office (right) was at 415 Prince Street in Alexandria
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia’s Executive Mansion (left image)
In 1849, 70 years after the capital moved to Richmond, the General Assembly gave the governor his own office on the third floor of the Capitol. Today, the portraits of the most recent 16 Virginia governors adorn the walls on that floor, including two portraits of Gov. Godwin to reflect his two separate terms. The location, above the second-floor chambers of the House of Delegates and State Senate, is reflected in the current state constitution (emphasis added):11
The main offices for the governor and his staff, plus Cabinet secretaries, moved to the Patrick Henry Building in 2005 after the former home of the Virginia State Library and Supreme Court of Virginia was renovated.
The governor still retains a suite of rooms there, but control over that space has been contentious. In 2014, the Capitol Police unlocked the office doors and allowed the clerk of the House of Delegates to physically deliver a copy of the state budget. That delivery initiated the 7-day clock for the governor to act on the budget, and was part of the partisan bickering between the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the Democratic governor.
The governor's office described the event as a breach of security and officially notified the Capitol Police that the governor's office was off-limits. However, the Capitol Police work for the General Assembly and do not report to the governor.
Unlike the Virginia State Police, the Capitol Police are not part of the Executive Branch. The decision to separate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches in the 1776 Constitution created a new form of government, but the tension between governors and legislatures goes back to the beginnings of colonial Virginia.12
The political parties were scrambled after the Civil War, but the election of former Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee in 1885 as governor started the dominance of the Democratic Party in Virginia. All 21 governors elected between 1885-1965 were Democrats, until Republican Linwood Holton won the office in 1969.13
Some Lieutenant Governors have run for governor and been elected to full 4-year terms, but no Lieutenant Governor has become governor due to the death of the incumbent governor. The last Virginia governor to die during his term in office was George William Smith in 1811, before the office of Lieutenant Governor was created.
since 1849, the governor has had an office on the third floor of the state Capitol
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia State Capitol - Third Floor Virtual Tour
Smith was a member of the Council of State when Gov. John Tyler Sr. resigned to become a Federal judge. The General Assembly then chose Smith to be governor. Three weeks into Smith's term, he was with a packed crowd watching a play at the Richmond Theater. The building caught fire, and the governor reportedly escaped - but then re-entered the theater to rescue his family, and died with 71 other people. The General Assembly then elected James Monroe to replace Gov. George William Smith.14
since Lord Botetourt died in 1770, the only other Virginia governor to die during his term was Gov. George William Smith in the Richmond Theater Fire on December 26, 1811
Source: Disastrous History, The Richmond Theater Fire
In 1989, Virginia became the first state to elect a black man as governor. (P. B. S. Pinchback had been appointed as governor of Louisiana in 1868.) Voters in Richmond had elected Wilder as a State Senator in 1969, a "first" since Reconstruction. His election as Lieutenant Governor in 1985 broke the color barrier for election to a statewide office in Virginia.
He earned support from traditional Democratic leaders during his service in the State Senate, then won the nomination for Lieutenant Governor after rivals concluded that challenging Wilder would antagonize the African-American voters and cost them victory in the general election. He campaigned initially in southwest Virginia and rural areas, gaining valuable publicity by appearing in person at places where segregation had been common. Key traditional Democratic leaders endorsed him, emphasizing his military career (Wilder won the Bronze Star in Korea) and his status as a Democratic candidate.
Wilder won in 1985 by 52-48%, but the governor's race four years later was so close that it involved a recount. While governor, he sought the nomination of the Democratic Party for president but gained no traction.
In 1990, Wilder was sworn in by fellow Richmonder and Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, who had been chairman of the Richmond School Board during "massive resistance" but opposed closing public schools to maintain segregation of the races. During preparations for Wilder's inauguration, the Newport News Daily Press interviewed a black businessman in Richmond and recorded his prophetic statement:15
in 1990, Governor Wilder was sworn in as governor on the south steps of the State Capitol (Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell on right administered the oath)
Source: Library of Virginia, Douglas Wilder Was Inaugurated Governor of Virginia, January 13, 1990)
No Virginia governor has been forced out of office since William Smith and Francis Pierpont in the 1860's. In 2013, Gov. Robert McDonnell was accused of corruption, trading his influence in exchange for gifts and funding from the owner of a company trying to create a drug from tobacco. Near the very end of his term, McDonnell declined an offer from Federal prosecutors to resign in exchange for a lenient sentence and he finished his four years in office in January, 2014.
That same year the governor and his wife were both convicted in Federal court and later sentenced to jail. The Richmond Style Weekly wryly noted that the only Virginia governor to be convicted of corruption included in his official portrait the statue of George Washington next to the state capitol building:16
The Virginia State Penitentiary with the electric chair for executions was moved to the Greensville Correctional Center and the most violent inmates are now kept at "super-max" prisons built in Wise County. Gov. McDonnell and his wife were sentenced in a Federal court and would be incarcerated in a Federal prison. Even if the state penintentiary was still located in downtown Richmond, they never would have been sent there.
Gov. Robert McDonnell (shown here in his official portrait) is the only Virginia governor to be convicted of corruption
Source: Roanoke Free Press, Governor Bob McDonnell’s official gubernatorial portrait)
Only five offices in Virginia are elected through statewide votes - Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, plus the two Senators who serve in the US Congress. The Republican and Democratic parties nominate slates for the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, but Virginia voters regularly "split their tickets" and elect members of different parties to those three offices.
The Lieutenant Governor has the constitutional responsibility to preside over the State Senate. On the rare occasions that there is a tie vote in the State Senate, the Lieutenant Governor gets to break the tie - and may choose to vote in opposition to the governor's preference.
In those five statewide races, every vote from every part of the state has equal value; the total popular vote determines the winner for those offices.
It is irrelevant if a candidate for governor wins the majority in the 95 individual counties or 39 separate cities in Virginia. What matters is the total votes, statewide, for each candidate. There is no equivalent in statewide races to the Electoral College in presidential races, so there is no advantage for a candidate to win a particular town, city, or county. Candidates for governor campaign across the state, but spend most of their time and advertising money in the metropolitan areas with a high number of voters.
In modern times, the Republican candidates are winning the rural jurisdictions, Democratic candidates are winning the urban centers, and the suburbs determine who wins the election. Post-election maps show a majority of the state colored red, to indicate Republican majorities in most jurisdictions. The number of votes in the blue-colored cities and densely populated counties for Democratic candidates may exceed the number of total Republican votes, even though the area colored blue is relatively small.
Votes count, not acres. Republicans who win the majority of low-population jurisdictions in Virginia will not celebrate victory, if the Democratic opponent wins more votes overall.
in the 2005 governor's race, Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore won a 73% margin in his home territory of Scott County while the Democratic victor Tim Kaine won by only 60% in Fairfax County - but Kaine gained 163,644 votes in Fairfax County and Kilgore earned only 6,016 votes in Scott County
Source: Wikipedia, Virginia gubernatorial election, 2005)
in the 2013 governor's race, the successful Democratic candidate won only one county (Montgomery) west of the Blue Ridge
Source: Wikipedia, Virginia gubernatorial election, 2013)
governors have ruled Virginia from five separate capitals at 1) Jamestown, 2) Williamsburg, 3) Richmond, 4) Wheeling, and 5) Alexandria
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Gov. John Letcher, from Rockbridge County, served as governor between 1860-64 when Virginia seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy
Source: Library of Virginia, John Letcher (1813–1884)
since 1813, Virginia's governors have occupied the same structure
Source: Library of Congress, Governor's Mansion, Capitol Square, Richmond