Sunday, April 14, 2019

Episode 092: State Constitutions, Part 2

Last week we looked at the first five colonies to produce state constitutions.  Today we will continue that look at the remaining colonies, beginning with Pennsylvania and continuing on in the order in which states adopted their first constitution.

So far, the colonies we reviewed followed a similar pattern.  A royal governor refused to let the legislature meet to discuss issues, typically the flashpoint being appointment of delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774.  The local patriots would get in a snit about this and form their own quasi-legislature to get work done.  Over the next two years or so, the royal government would become increasingly irrelevant until the provincial government took over and formed its new constitution.  That pattern generally continues through each colony.


Pennsylvania followed a similar path, but with a slightly different dynamic.  As a proprietary colony, Pennsylvania did not have a royal governor.  Way back in 1691 King Charles II had granted Pennsylvania to William Penn as his personal property.  Penn ruled as governor until his death in 1718, at which time he willed Pennsylvania to his three sons.  By 1775 Pennsylvania passed to William’s grandson John Penn, with his cousin, also named John Penn holding a minority 25% stake in the colony.

Because the proprietors were not royal appointees, they did not have to worry much about the King replacing them for their policies.  Sure, the King could tear up the colonial charter if things got too out of hand, but the Penns were not just political appointees.  They literally owned the colony. At the same time, Governor Penn did not have to listen to the people or face reelection.  He would remain governor until death, unless of course there was some sort of revolution that overthrew the entire political structure by force.
Gov. John Penn
(from Wikimedia)

Pennsylvania also had a legislature dominated by Quakers and other pacifists.  These groups opposed armed revolution on religious grounds.  Even though Quakers had become minority of the colonial population, they retained control of the legislature, mostly because legislative districts were not evenly divided based on population, and greatly benefitted Quaker communities in and around Philadelphia.

In 1774, it came time to pick delegates for the First Continental Congress.  When Governor Penn dragged his feet on the issue, local patriot committees, known as Associators, voted to meet as a provincial committee in July 1774. They met for the purpose of choosing delegates to the Continental Congress, choosing a mix of conservative and radical delegates, reflecting divisions within the colony.

That fall, voters sent a more radical group of representatives to the Assembly, but the radical committees still operated separately from the colonial Assembly.  After Lexington, the Associators converted themselves into militias ready to go to war.  The Assembly, still full of moderates, gave them quasi-legal status under a Committee of Safety which helped finance and regulate the new radical militias.

These moves made for incremental reform.  In 1775 and early 1776, the Quakers as a group began to remove themselves from politics, not wanting to be attacked as Tories, but also not wanting to support a war.  Radicals took their places in government, shifting the colony radically to the left.

In May 1776, the Second Continental Congress encouraged all colonies, who had not already, to set up Provincial Congresses if the traditional legislatures were not meeting the needs of the public.  The radicals in Pennsylvania took this opportunity to call for a Provincial Congress in June.  Only people approved by Associator committees could vote for delegates and one of the conditions was that voters had to repudiate formally any allegiance to the King.  Therefore any moderates and conservatives could not vote.

The radical Committee of 100 pressured the Pennsylvania Assembly to withdraw its instructions to Pennsylvania delegates to the Continental Congress to reject independence.  The Assembly continued to assert power.  It did withdraw its instructions, but did not instruct to vote for independence either.  The delegates were left to do whatever they wanted. The internal fighting in the Assembly became such a problem that they stopped meeting entirely by August.

The radical convention in July set about creating a new constitution for Pennsylvania, but also began to engage in a series of rather radical power grabs.  They disarmed any Pennsylvanians who had not joined the Associators.  They implemented price controls, created offenses against the State, compelled citizens to take loyalty oaths, and assumed control of the courts and elections.

Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776
(from Rollins College)
The new constitution, which took effect in September 1776 was the first written after the Declaration of Independence and was by far the most radical of all the colonies.  First, it granted the vote to all free men 21 or older.  It eliminated any property requirements, thus allowing the rabble to choose legislators.  It also created a single body legislature to make all laws.  There would be no upper house, though the people would elect an executive council, that would run the government. The Assembly and Council would elect a president annually to serve as the head of the Council.  But the president had no independent authority outside of the council.  There was no single chief executive.

The constitution set term limits for legislators.  They could serve no more than four out of every seven years.  Legislators also could not pass laws in a single session, except in emergencies.  Legislatures would have to publish a law, then wait until after the next annual election before they could enact it.

It also required that all legislators take a religious oath: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.”  This permitted the seating of member of just about any Christian sect, but not beyond that.

A bill of rights that guaranteed freedom of worship, and protected the civil rights of all who acknowledged some belief in God.

It also protected the right of pacifists not to be forced to bear arms, though they might be required to pay the State some compensation if they did not heed a call to arms.  It guaranteed basic due process, right to counsel, to confront witness, to have a speedy jury trial, and a right against self-incrimination.  It also granted jury trials in civil suits.

The constitution also recognized a right against search and seizure without specific warrants, a right of free speech and free press, the right to bear arms, and the right to assemble to petition or instruct their representatives in government.  It also included a right to move between states and for people to “form a new state in vacant countries, or in such countries as they can purchase.”

The new Constitution would remain in place until 1790.


The royal colony of Maryland followed the most common pattern.  The royal governor shut down the legislature in 1774.  Patriots created their own quasi legislature known as the Annapolis Convention to run the colony.  The Convention met nine times over the next two and a half years, selecting delegates to the Continental Congress, supporting trade restrictions in early sessions.  After Lexington, delegates voted to create their own army.  They also began calling themselves the Association of Freemen.  In July 1776 they agreed to create their own Constitution, which they did at a Convention that fall.  They completed their work in November.  Again, the constitution took effect without any ratification by public vote.

Royal Gov. Robert Eden
(From Wikimedia)
The Constitution itself was pretty traditional. It created a House and Senate as well as a governor elected by both houses.  Voters elected their representatives directly each year but voted for electors who would choose senators every five years.

Property requirements limited voting, though free blacks who met those requirements could vote.  Only Christians, though of any sect, could hold office.

A declaration of rights included freedom of speech and press, freedom of worship, the right to maintain a militia, and basic due process rights.

The Maryland Constitution remained in place until 1851, though it saw numerous amendments.  The constitution allowed the legislature to pass amendments, as long as they passed through two different sessions.  One of the early amendments took away the right of free blacks to vote in 1809.

North Carolina

North Carolina followed the traditional colonial route to statehood and created a pretty traditional constitution.  The Royal Governor refused to call the Assembly into session in 1774 because he knew they would cause trouble.  Patriots formed a Provincial Congress which met in August to choose delegates to the First Continental Congress and to support colonial boycotts.  The Provincial Congress met five times over the next two and a half years, each time getting more aggressive and eventually creating its own army.

The Provincial Congress began work on a temporary constitution in April, but never could pull the trigger on enacting it.  It was not until October 1776 that the people elected a more radical group of delegates who enacted the new constitution.  The Congress declared the constitution in force as of December, without any sort of popular ratification.

NC Constitution, 1776
(from UNC)
Like most other colonies, North Carolina's constitution began with a declaration of rights, guaranteeing the right of the people to create their government and elect representatives, separation of powers, due process, protection from warrantless searches, freedom of the press, right to bear arms, the right of assembly, the freedom of worship, and others.

The Constitution divided the legislature into a House and Senate, both subject to annual elections.  To vote or hold office one had to be a freeman and own a certain amount of land.  Voters also had to be at least 21 years old.

The legislature held the power to appoint judges and other court officers, as well as generals and field offices of the state’s army and militia.  The legislature also elected a governor for one year terms, and limited to serve no more than three out of six years.  The legislature also elected a seven person Council of State to advise the Governor.

The Constitution banned clergyman from serving in the legislature or Council of State.  It also mandated that “no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”  It also barred the establishing of any specific state church or denomination.

The Constitution also banned debtors prison, established a public school system, allowed foreigners to become citizens after one year, and barred the private purchase of Indian lands.

North Carolina’s Constitution remained in place until an 1835 constitutional convention made numerous amendments, including the direct election of the Governor.


Georgia was one of the last colonies to jump on the patriot bandwagon.  It did not send delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774.  When a provincial congress met in January 1775 to decide whether to send a delegation to the Second Continental Congress, they could not agree to a delegation.

Following Lexington, Georgia patriots began organizing militarily and seized colonial gunpowder.  A second provincial congress met in July 1775.  It finally approved a delegation to the Continental Congress, and set up a standing Council of Safety to enforce colonial trade bans with Britain.  By the end of 1775, the Provincial Congress had control of most of the colony, forcing the Royal Governor to flee in January 1776.

Georgia Constitution of 1777
In May 1776, the Congress drafted a rudimentary constitution, simply called “Rules and Regulations” which created a President and Council of Safety selected by the unelected Provincial Congress, to run the colony.  It also appointed a Supreme Court and gave the President authority to appoint lower magistrates.

At the same time, the Provincial Congress began work on a more permanent constitution, which it enacted in February 1777.  The new constitution created a unicameral legislature, meaning it was not divided into two houses.  The people elected legislators annually, with the vote limited to free white males with property.  The legislators would then select a governor and council from among its own members.  The Governor could only serve for one term out of three.

The Georgia Constitution lasted only twelve years, until the State created a new one based more closely on the then newly adopted US Constitution.

New York

New York’s Tory population contributed to the colony’s slow trajectory toward independence and statehood.  The Royal Assembly had sent delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774, thinking it would slow down radical call for boycotts against Britain.  When that backfired, the Assembly rejected the Congress’ recommendations and refused to send delegates to the Second Continental Congress in 1775.

The New York radicals then held a provincial convention in New York City in April 1775 to choose their own delegates to the Continental Congress.  The convention lasted only three days to select delegates.  It did not attempt to govern the colony.  The radicals only created a Provincial Congress after Lexington, when they met in May to begin organizing militia and taking control of the colony’s weaponry.  Otherwise, the Congress was quite moderate.  It instructed its delegates at the Continental Congress to seek an accommodation with Britain, and opposed the patriot invasion of Canada.  A second Provincial Congress, which met from December 1775 until May 1776 fought with General Charles Lee, whom Washington had sent to organize New York for a possible invasion.  A third Congress which met in May and June of 1776 instructed its Continental Congress delegates to oppose independence.

Announcement of NY Constitution of 1777 (from Newsday)
Finally in July 1776 the Provincial Congress convened in White Plains to create a state constitution.  It also allowed its delegates to support independence belatedly at the Continental Congress.  In August, the Congress tasked a committee to write a constitution, but after the British Army invaded New York, the task of drafting a constitution got delayed.  The finished draft did not arrive until March 12, 1777.  The Provincial Congress approved the Constitution without a popular vote.  It went into effect in April.

The New York Constitution differed from earlier state constitutions.  It started off with its own declaration of independence, which quoted liberally from the Continental Congress’ declaration.  It created a legislature divided into an Assembly and Senate.  Assemblymen served one year terms.  Senators served four year terms.  It limited the right to vote to adult male property owners.

Unlike most other constitutions, New York created a governor elected by the people rather than the legislature.  He would also serve a three year term. The Governor had power to revise laws passed by the legislature and to end a legislative session.  He appointed judges and other government officials, without even approval from the legislature.  In other words, New York would have a strong executive, not easily under the legislature’s control.


Now, you would think Massachusetts, which was front stage in the early fighting and a leading proponent of Independence would have been a leader in creating a Constitution as well.  But it did not get around to creating one until 1780,

Instead, a Provincial Congress ran Massachusetts for six years, from 1774 when Governor Gage shut down the Assembly, until 1780 when it finally adopted a new constitution.  During that time, the Provincial Congress pretty much operated like the old colonial assembly, except it did not bother to seek the approval of the Governor for anything.

The state did try to enact a constitution in 1778. It was the first state to submit its proposed constitution to the people, and the people rejected it.  In 1779, it held another convention and once again submitted it to the people who this time approved it.  The Constitution finally became effective in October 1780.  Since this was so much later than the other colonies, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on its details now.  But it is the only constitution to remain in effect to this day, never having been replaced.

Connecticut and Rhode Island

I’ve yet to mention Connecticut and Rhode Island constitutions.  That is because they never created ones in this era.  Connecticut did not write a constitution until 1818. Rhode Island waited until 1843.  Not coincidentally, these were also the only two colonies that had elected governors during the colonial era.  As a result, the voters happily operated under their colonial charters, even after they became independent states.  They had no interference from Britain in the administration of their government.


Now I know going through every State is a lengthy and sometimes repetitive process.  But I think these first attempts at self-government say a great deal about what the people, or at least the patriot leaders in each state, wanted.  Most of the colonies kept government structures largely similar to what they had in the colonial era.

The biggest change for most was giving more authority to the legislature and having a relatively weak chief executive who would be dependent on the legislature, not the other way around.  Most made an effort to create a bill of rights, in an attempt to identify and protect the rights which had forced them to seek independence from Britain.

These Constitutions typically were not about making major social, economic, or political changes.  They largely kept the existing systems intact, other than removing the authority of the King over its government.  They moved that sovereign authority to the people, but did not give the people much direct control over the government.

Few extended the right to vote beyond those who already had it under the colonial system.  Those that did often took back those rights within a few years.  None of the Constitutions ended slavery. The Massachusetts Constitution did not explicitly ban slavery, though the State Supreme Court interpreted it to end slavery three years after its enactment.

Overall, the framers of these constitutions did not want to reinvent the system.  They wanted to make sure the system under which they had always thrived before the recent troubles remained largely the same.  They did not want the King or Parliament to start eroding the power they had enjoyed as neglected colonies.  But neither they largely did not want to share power with the poor, women, native Americans, or blacks.

Even though the republican ideals on which the constitutions were based led to the intellectual conclusion that they should expand power to the whole people, it would take generations for the government structure to live up to that ideal.

Next Week: We return to New York, where Gen. Washington has to deal, not only with an impending invasion, but with Tory conspirators plotting his murder.

- - -

Next  Episode 93: The Dave Mathews Band Breaks Up

Previous  Episode 91: State Constitution, Part 1

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Further Reading


Birth of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:

Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1776:

Maryland Constitutional Conventions:

Constitution of Maryland, 1776:

North Carolina Provincial Congresses:

NC Government During the American Revolution - 1774 and 1775:

NC Government During the American Revolution - 1776:

Constitution of North Carolina, 1776:

1776 Rules and Regulations of the Colony of Georgia:

Constitution of Georgia, 1777:

Constitution of  New York, 1777:

Homans, George C. “John Adams and the Constitution of Massachusetts.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 125, no. 4, 1981, pp. 286–291. (free to read online with registration).

Constitution of Massachusetts 1780:

Fea, John The Pennsylvania Constitution VIDEO, C-span, 2017.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The proceedings relative to calling the conventions of 1776 and 1790: the minutes of the convention that formed the present constitution of Pennsylvania, together with the charter to William Penn, the constitutions of 1776 and 1790, and a view of the proceedings of the Convention of 1776, and the Council of Censors, John S. Wiestling, 1825

Proceedings of the conventions of the province of Maryland, held at the city of Annapolis, in 1774, 1775, & 1776, J. Lucas & E. K. Deaver; Annapolis, J. Green, 1836.

Candler, Allen (ed) The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia, Vol. 1, Franklin-Turner Company, 1908.

Frothingham, Louis Adams, A Brief History of the Constitution and Government of Massachusetts, Harvard Univ., 1916.

Lincoln, Charles Z. The Constitutional History of New York from the Beginning of the Colonial Period to the Year 1905: showing the origin, development, and judicial construction of the constitution, Vol. 1, The Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Co., 1906.

Nash, Frank The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 and its Makers, Univ. of North Carolina, 1912.

Schouler, James, Constitutional Studies, State and Federal, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1897.

Thorpe, Francis Newton The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the State, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America, Comp. and Ed. under the Act of Congress of June 30, 1906. (Vol 1-7) Govt. Print. Off, 1909.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Adams, Willi Paul The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary EraRowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Broadwater, Jeff George Mason, Forgotten Founder, Univ. of NC Press, 2006

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Tarr, G. Allen Understanding State Constitutions, Princeton Univ. Press, 1998  (book recommendation of the week).

Ryerson, Richard Alan The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765-1776, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

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