Why were these early state constitutions important

"Every man and every body of men on Earth,
possess the right of self-government."
-- drafter of the Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson, 1790

The success of the Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to give legal form to their ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. As early as May 10, 1776, Congress had passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments "such as shall best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents." Some of them had already done so, and within a year after the Declaration of Independence, all but three had drawn up constitutions.

The new constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas. None made any drastic break with the past, since all were built on the solid foundation of colonial experience and English practice. But each was also animated by the spirit of republicanism, an ideal that had long been praised by Enlightenment philosophers.

Naturally, the first objective of the framers of the state constitutions was to secure those "unalienable rights" whose violation had caused the former colonies to repudiate their connection with Britain. Thus, each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights. Virginia's, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles: popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of fundamental liberties: moderate bail and humane punishment, speedy trial by jury, freedom of the press and of conscience, and the right of the majority to reform or alter the government.

Other states enlarged the list of liberties to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition. Their constitutions frequently included such provisions as the right to bear arms, to a writ of habeas corpus, to inviolability of domicile, and to equal protection under the law. Moreover, all prescribed a three-branch structure of government -- executive, legislative, and judiciary -- each checked and balanced by the others.

Pennsylvania's constitution was the most radical. In that state, Philadelphia artisans, Scots-Irish frontiersmen, and German-speaking farmers had taken control. The provincial congress adopted a constitution that permitted every male taxpayer and his sons to vote, required rotation in office (no one could serve as a representative more than four years out of every seven), and set up a single chamber legislature.

The state constitutions had some glaring limitations, particularly by more recent standards. Constitutions established to guarantee people their natural rights did not secure for everyone the most fundamental natural right -- equality. The colonies south of Pennsylvania excluded their slave populations from their inalienable rights as human beings. Women had no political rights. No state went so far as to permit universal male suffrage, and even in those states that permitted all taxpayers to vote (Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia, in addition to Pennsylvania), office-holders were required to own a certain amount of property.

Why were these early state constitutions important
The New Hampshire constitution of March 1776, one of the first state constitutions

On January 5th 1776, days before the first editions of Common Sense were published in Philadelphia, something surprising happened in colonial New Hampshire. The local assembly there declared its independence from Great Britain and enacted the first American constitution. This was due, in some part, to necessity – the New Hampshire governor John Wentworth had been forced to leave in 1775 and now, without a governor, there was confusion about who held executive and legislative authority. In drafting this new constitution the New Hampshire politicians reflected on decades of conflict with governors, and placed supreme power in the hands of the legislature (there was no governor or president, no independent judiciary and no bill of rights; sovereign power was placed in the hands of a legislature which was to be popularly elected every year). Though this constitution was simplistic and would ultimately fail, it lasted for the duration of the Revolutionary War. More importantly, it provided a precedent for future constitutions, both state and federal, even though it preceded the Declaration of Independence by six months.

Inspired by New Hampshire’s example and frustrated by the continuation of the war, other states began to follow suit. On March 26th, South Carolina became the second province to pass a state constitution. In May 1776 the second Continental Congress authorised all colonies to establish their own provincial or state governments. This opened a floodgate for constitutional drafting and legislation. Virginia passed its own state constitution on June 29th, followed by New Jersey (July 2nd), Delaware (September 21st), Pennsylvania (September 28th), Maryland (November 11th) and North Carolina (December 18th). Georgia followed suit on February 5th 1777, followed by New York on April 20th. Vermont, originally part of New York, passed its own state constitution on July 8th.

Although these constitutions contained many innovations, they also incorporated inequitable aspects of the new society. All state constitutions, bar those of New York and Virginia, determined that only Protestants could hold public office. Many of the state constitutions also placed property qualifications on the franchise (in other words, only those who owned a minimum amount of property were entitled to vote). Perhaps unsurprisingly, women, slaves and natives were also excluded from voting. And some states required elected officials and assemblymen to possess significant amounts of property before they could stand from office. There were other undemocratic features of these new constitutions. In Maryland, where conservatives held sway in the assembly, there was no secret ballot: voting was to be conducted by voice and in public, leaving voters open to pressure and intimidation.

A historian’s view:
“Congressional delegates viewed state government formation as both a cause and an effect of revolution. Leaders like John Adams saw the creation of state governments as de facto state declarations of independence: the mere existence of independent state governments would sever American ties to Great Britain. But urgency about the need for government increased when royal authority collapsed after Lexington and Concord. Provincial congresses and conventions filled the governmental breach left by departing royal officials, but because [these were] temporary, extra-legal expedients, they hastened to establish regular governments to secure civil order and foster independence.”
Marc W. Kruman

Pennsylvania enacted perhaps the most democratic constitution of the time. There was no governor, just a one-house legislature; this assembly was formed by annual elections and individuals were prevented from serving more than four years out of every seven. Elections were held by secret ballot and all free men over the age of 21 could vote, provided they paid some form of tax. Laws passed by the legislature could not be enacted until one year after they had been made available for public reading. The aim of this constitution was to allow a continually revolving legislature where incompetent or underperforming politicians could be easily removed, as well as maximising public participation in decision-making. Despite its idealism, the Pennsylvania constitution was criticised by within the state and throughout America, mainly by business interests who hated the instability and inflexibility it created.

Citation information
Title: “State constitutions”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/state-constitutions/
Date published: February 4, 2015
Date accessed: November 21, 2022
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.

What was the importance of the state constitutions?

The state constitutions provide for all forms of state and local government finances, establish the state and local tax systems in force, and designate the range of civil liberties to be protected under state law.

What was the importance of the state constitutions following the revolution?

A basic goal of the new state constitutions was to curb the kinds of abuses that provoked the Revolution. The British had lacked a written constitution; many Americans felt that a written constitution would be harder to violate.

What was the main focus of the first state constitutions?

Naturally, the first objective of the framers of the state constitutions was to secure those "unalienable rights" whose violation had caused the former colonies to repudiate their connection with Britain. Thus, each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights.

What did all early state constitutions have in common?

A common feature of the first state constitutions was popular sovereignty.