State Constitutions

State Constitutions followed the
Declaration of Independence

This article on the first State Constitutions provides information about the the reasons and attitudes towards creating the new State Constitutions following the Declaration of Independence

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  • Original 13 State Constitutions
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 State Constitutions: Congress advises all the colonies to form governments for themselves

State Constitutions
On April 18, 1775 the American War of Independence began. The 13 original Colonies asked Congress to take charge of the Continental army and the conduct of the war. Congress began to act as advisor as the Colonies changed into States. On May 15, 1776 Congress advised all the colonies to form governments for themselves. Legislative assemblies in the formerly British colonies began writing and adopting new constitutions to become sovereign and independent states.

The New State Constitutions
Eleven of the original 13 colonies drafted at least one State Constitution as part of the process of changing into states. Connecticut and Rhode Island initially opted to continue to use their colonial Charters as "State Constitutions". By 1780, every state had a written constitution. The new State Constitutions reflected the mood of the times. The Americans had travelled down a long Road to Revolution with Great Britain as their ruler controlling the laws and taxes of the colonies enacted by the British Parliament outside of America effecting life and trade in the 13 colonies leading to the Causes of the American Revolutionary War.

State Constitutions - New Ideas and New Ideals
The Laws and Acts of Parliament benefited the British but not the colonies and, to compound this, Americans were not afforded the same rights as the British people, nor did they have any representatives in the British Parliament to represent their points of view. The opportunity to draft the first State Constitutions allowed Americans to govern the new states in a way that reflected revolutionary thinking and including new ideals and new ideas. Some of the 'framers' of the State Constitutions also took the opportunity to reflect their strong anti-British sentiments.

The New State Constitutions
The strength of feelings towards Great Britain and anti-British sentiments are reflected in the following preamble to the State Constitution of Georgia:

"The conduct of the legislature of Great Britain for many years past has been so oppressive on the people of America that of late years they have plainly declared and asserted a right to raise taxes upon the people of America, and to make laws to bind them in all cases whatsoever, without their consent; which conduct, being repugnant to the common rights of mankind, hath obliged the Americans, as freemen, to oppose such oppressive measures, and to assert the rights and privileges they are entitled to by the laws of nature and reason..."

The framers of the Constitution of Georgia refer to themselves as:

"...representatives of the people, from whom all power originates..."

State Constitutions - The Declaration of Independence
The new State Constitutions were important to the American colonists as they provided the opportunity to impose their own deeply held values and revolutionary ideals. The State Constitutions gave Americans to opportunity to 'right the wrongs' they had experienced under British rule and ensure that they were replicated in their establishments. Many State Constitutions also reflected the sentiments of the 1776 Declaration of Independence that stated that governments obtained their power from the consent of the people and that:

"All men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;
these are unalienable rights - rights that government cannot take away."

Signing the Declaration of Independence

Signing the Declaration of Independence

State Constitutions - Individual and Natural Rights
The State Constitutions protected the individual and natural rights of Americans defined as:

 "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"

The State Constitution of Pennsylvania declared:

 "All men are born equally free and independent."

State Constitutions and the Bill of Rights
The theme of protecting the individual and natural rights of Americans continued with a bill of rights. 'A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' is an example. A summary of the requirements to protect the individual and natural rights of Americans were as follows:

  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of speech & Freedom of the Press
  • The Right to Trial by Jury
  • A search warrant for property searches

The State Constitutions - British Influence
These fundamental and democratic rights are still guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The 1689 English Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta established a democratic basis for the English people by restricting the power of the governing body (the Monarchy). These famous documents:

  • Limited the powers of the king
  • Laid the basis for due process of law which led to Trial by Jury
  • Prohibited the king from taking property or taxes without consent of the Great Council or Parliament

Many principles of these documents influenced and continued in the the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Articles of Confederation, the 1791 US Bill of Rights and in the U.S. Constitution.

State Constitutions - Summary
The State Constitutions took heed from history, the flaws in British laws and the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence. These led to a number of new ideas that Americans, across the newly established states, included in their State Constitutions. A summary of the most important inclusions are as follows:

  • Each of the State Constitutions should be written down
  • The Basic rights of the people should be constitutionally protected
  • All men are created equal
  • Power comes from the people
  • A Separation of powers

Many of the 'framers of State Constitutions were to play important roles in the 'Birth of the Nation' and were later honored in history with the titles of Founding Fathers.

State Constitutions - Each of the State Constitutions should be written down
Americans believed that each of the State Constitutions should be written down. It might seem incredible that this concept was such a leap when developing the State Constitutions but the British Constitution was not contained in a written document. The British have an "unwritten" constitution. It is based on the set of laws and principles under which the country is governed but there is no single constitutional document. Most of the British constitution is embodied in written documents such as parliamentary procedures, laws, court judgments, treaties and royal prerogatives. The framers of the State Constitutions believed that publishing these written documents would make it harder for state governments to violate basic principles.

State Constitutions - Basic rights should be constitutionally protected
Americans believed that basic rights of the people should be constitutionally protected. The written documentation of the State Constitutions would help to achieve this important goal. Some of the newly formed states, notably Massachusetts, committed part of their constitutions to “A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants” of their states. This was later reflected in the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.  

State Constitutions - All men are created equal...
Americans included the belief that 'All men are created equal', an idea expressed in the Declaration of Independence. However, this was a 'Utopian' ideal, a vision of what life should be, not what it was in reality. The framers of the State Constitution understood this, but in reality they did not favor absolute equality. The poor inhabitants of the newly formed states were not able to vote - State Constitutions established property requirements for voting. Women were not allowed to vote. And the economic success of the plantations in the Southern states were dependent on slaves.

State Constitutions - Power comes from the people
Americans believed that power should come from the people. They had endured the rule of powerful governors and the British monarchs and had no intention of being dominated by another form of executive power. The people were to hold the power over their own lives and destinies so the power of any future governors would be significantly curbed.

State Constitutions - Separation of powers
Americans believed that there should be a separation of powers in order to ensure fairness and and impartiality. State Constitutions therefore separated executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Under this model, the governance of a state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility so that no branch has more power than the other branches.

  • State Constitutions - The Legislature
    • The legislature is an assembly with the power to pass, amend and repeal laws
  • State Constitutions - The Executive
    • The executive is the part of government that has sole authority and responsibility for the daily administration of the state and executes the law
  • State Constitutions - The Judiciary:
    • The judiciary, which is also known as the judicial system, is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state and provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes.

The separation of powers system, included in State Constitutions, was not a new idea. It dated back to the Romans. It was favored as it was designed to distribute authority away from the executive branch to preserve individual liberty and prevent and forms of tyranny. The governor, or any other executive officer, was forbidden from serving in the legislature and the courts were protected from executive control. Pennsylvania so detested the potential power of an executive that they chose not to have a governor.

The State Constitutions and the US Constitution
Many elements of the State Constitutions were used to frame the Constitution of the United States of America. Among the features of the Constitution taken from state constitutions are such names as President, Senate, House of Representatives. Other features taken from the State Constitutions were provisions for a census, for the veto, for the retirement of one third of the Senate every two years, for impeachment and that money bills shall originate in the House. The concept of the annual message or address should be presented to the people. It is now called the State of the Union annual address that is now presented by the President of the United States to the United States Congress.

State Constitutions

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The Dates of the First State Constitutions
The following chart details of the dates that the first New State Constitutions. The words of these documents are very powerful as they not only document procedures but they reflect the depth of feelings of Americans who were in the midst of fighting for their independence from the British in the American Revolutionary War. Changes in political ideas, changes in the conditions of life  have necessitated the people to alter, amend and often remake their State Constitutions.

The First State Constitutions

Constitution of DelawareSeptember 21, 1776
Constitution of GeorgiaFebruary 5, 1777
Constitution of MarylandNovember 11, 1776
Constitution of MassachusettsMarch 2, 1780
Constitution of New HampshireJanuary 5, 1776
Constitution of New JerseyJuly 2, 1776
Constitution of New YorkApril 20, 1777
Constitution of North CarolinaDecember 18, 1776
Constitution of PennsylvaniaSeptember 28, 1776
Constitution of South CarolinaMarch 26, 1776
Constitution of VirginiaJune 29, 1776
Charter of Rhode IslandJuly 15, 1663
Charter of ConnecticutApril 23, 1662

The First State Constitutions

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