Image courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
An artist’s rendering of the buildings where members of the General Assembly met during the Revolutionary War
Benedict Arnold, the traitor, left the temporary meeting spaces for the General Assembly alone when his raiding party swept into Richmond in January 1781. His crew of cavalrymen and German mercenaries torched tobacco stores and other warehouses nearby, but not the wooden buildings at 14th and Cary streets where legislators met.
Historians Harry M. Ward and Harold E. Greer Jr., in their excellent Richmond During the Revolution, speculate a non-aesthetic reason: The buildings belonged to merchant William Cunninghame, a British loyalist from Glasgow, Scotland.
The General Assembly first sat there in May 1780, taking its first week just to convene.
“They kept trying to get a quorum,” Virginia Capitol historian Mark Greenough explains. “They’d get together and say, ‘No, there’s not enough of us,’ and then go away and come back the next day, and so on.”
Perhaps for this reason, statesman Richard Henry Lee tasked someone to go to the city dock and take a bell from a vessel of the Virginia state navy. “This was used to summon laggard lawmakers,” Greenough says.
Discussion about moving the government from Williamsburg began in 1746 and occasionally flared up because representatives from the far-flung western counties desired less travel time. War prompted concerns for a navigable river and most important, distance from the British. The location was decided in 1779, though Richmond apparently won by a single vote over another site in Henrico County.
Richard Adams, a delegate from Richmond who owned most of present-day Church Hill, believed that his friend Thomas Jefferson was in favor of putting the capitol there. When Jefferson didn’t, Adams cut his connection with him. However, Adams continued to promote setting the Virginia statehouse on his donated properties.
Richmond’s 1780 population of around 1,000 could fit into Carytown’s Byrd Theatre. The city’s 200 houses were, with two exceptions, made of wood. It was a messy, muddy frontier town.
The only places large enough to seat the General Assembly’s 170 delegates and 124 senators were the warehouses of William Cunninghame, the Scottish merchant.
The property, confiscated by the General Assembly on March 6, 1780, consisted of four lots with a dwelling house, storehouse, warehouse and assorted dependencies.
These adjoining structures were known between 1780 and 1788 as the Public Buildings and not the Capitol. In later years, only the larger of the two main buildings was remembered and referred to as the Old Capitol.
The General Assembly met each spring and fall. German physician Johann David Schoeph, visiting Richmond in 1783, didn’t think much of the buildings, the legislature’s rules of order (or lack thereof) or the wide variety of dress — from Indian leggings to trousers and short coats. The members rarely paid quiet attention for more than five minutes but instead wandered around, gabbing about horse racing, the theater and runaway slaves. A bellowing sergeant-at-arms was constantly summoning members to the floor. Schoeph singled out the oratory of “a certain Mr. Henry,” as in Patrick, who exhibited a “high-flown and bold delivery, [and] deals more in words and not reasons.”
Arguably the most important law ratified in the temporary quarters was the Jefferson-penned Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, or the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, affirmed on Jan. 16, 1786. The idea for the bill had been kicked around since 1776, and James Madison helped muscle it through. The act formed the boilerplate for the religious freedom clause in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It also set a precedent for the right of individuals to practice whatever religion they chose, or none, without civic penalty.
After the Virginia State Capitol opened in 1788, the Public Buildings first reverted to their commercial purposes and were eventually dismantled. The larger storehouse remained standing until the late 1850s.
A tavern called the House of the Rising Sun later stood on the property. In 1915, the city — at the request of the Commonwealth’s Daughters of the American Revolution — placed a headstone-like memorial on the corner.
The nonprofit Council for America’s First Freedom, formed in 1984, began refining its goals in 2003 toward constructing a First Freedom education and memorial center at 14th and Cary. An excerpt from the act remains painted on the western parking lot wall, but a mock-up of the main warehouse attached to the brick deco Liberty Press building vanished with the building’s October 2008 demolition.
A proposal is working its way through the city government for two Marriott hotels with meeting and exhibit space to house the First Freedom Center, plus a courtyard and a monument.