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Forging a New Nation, State Constitutions

natural rights philosophy, man committee, constituent power, Continental Congress, bills of rights

In May 1776, even before declaring national independence, the Second Continental Congress told the states to draw up constitutions to replace their colonial regimes. A few ordered their legislatures to draw up constitutions. By 1777, however, the states had recognized the people as the originators of government power. State constitutions were written by conventions elected by the voters (generally white men who held a minimum amount of property), and in a few states the finished constitutions were then submitted to voters for ratification. The Americans (white men who owned property, that is) were determined to create their own governments, not simply to have them handed down by higher authorities.

Without exception, the states rejected the unwritten constitution of Britain—a jumble of precedents, common law, and statutes that Americans thought had led to arbitrary rule. The new American states produced written constitutions that carefully specified the powers and limits of government. They also wrote the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence into bills of rights that protected freedom of speech and of the press, guaranteed trial by jury, forbade searching without specific warrants, and forbade taxation without consent. Seven states appended these to their constitutions; some of the other states guaranteed these rights through clauses within their constitutions.

These first state constitutions, although all republican and all demonstrating distrust of government power—particularly of the executive—varied a great deal. In Pennsylvania, radicals wrote the most democratic constitution, in 1776. It established a unicameral (one–house) legislature to be chosen in annual secret-ballot elections that were open to all male taxpayers; the executive was a 12–man committee without real power. Nearly all of the other states adopted constitutions with two–house legislatures, usually with longer terms and higher property qualifications for the upper house. They had elective governors who could veto legislation, but who lacked the arbitrary powers of prerevolutionary executives. They could not dissolve the legislature, they could not corrupt the legislature by appointing its members to executive office, and the legislature could override their vetoes.

In these revolutionary constitutions—drawn up hurriedly in the midst of war—Americans were groping toward written constitutions with clearly specified powers. These constitutions featured limits for legislatures, executives, and the courts, with a clear separation of power among the three. They also guaranteed the citizens certain inalienable rights and made them the constituent power. On the whole, state constitutions reflected fear of government (and particularly executive) tyranny more than they reflected the need to create forceful, effective government.

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