In American Revolutionaries in the Making, Professor Charles S. Sydnor examines the political structures and processes in Virginia in the latter half of the eighteenth century. His goal is to understand how those structures and processes brought about the large number of highly capable leaders who were important to the formation and leadership of the United States in the revolution and early days of independence. He uses familiar names such as Washington and Jefferson, but also James Madison and John Marshall, veterans of the process, to reveal the path to elected office.
The way elections were conducted in the eighteenth century is much different than they are today. Men would announce their intention to stand for office shortly before the election date, and then gain support through social events and general meetings. On the date of election, as established by the local judge, the candidates would stand in front of the assembled voters and watch as individuals came forward to publicly announce their votes.
Professor Sydnor describes three steps along the pathway to power in colonial and revolutionary Virginia that brought these men to the top.
Justices of the Peace were the first public office held by almost all of these men. This office was quite different from anything in the current age. Each county had from 10 to 30 Justices, who collectively formed the County Court. This court not only heard cases of civil and criminal law but also constituted the primary governing body of the county with executive and legislative as well as judicial powers. Justices were commissioned by the Governor...
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...76 on, the House selected Virginia 's governors and representatives to the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and, later, its US senators. Selection for this third career step was based on proven skills in writing, debating and leadership.
The political practices in colonial Virginia are clearly not relevant to today 's world for two reasons: It would be impossible to base elections on first-hand knowledge of the candidates when the population has grown to its present size and, more importantly, it would require severely limiting the voting franchise. However, it is useful to remember that limited democracy and the multi-leveled selection process which used different criteria at each level produced an incredibly talented and effective leadership for both Virginia and the early United States. Can we say as much about today 's candidates for high office?
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