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Creating New State Governments Previous
Digital History ID 3223

 

Of all the achievements of the Revolutionary era, among the most influential and long-lasting was the invention of the modern idea of a written constitution. This is a document that enumerates and limits the powers of government and safeguards the rights of the people.

Americans were the first modern people to regard a constitution as something separate from and superior to statute law. As such, a constitution could not be drafted by a legislature. It had to be produced by the people themselves. A constitution had to be drafted at a special convention, and then ratified by popular vote. The Massachusetts constitution, written by John Adams in 1780, is the oldest written constitution in continuous existence.

As early as the 1780s, judges on the state level began to rule that certain legislative acts were unconstitutional, because they violated provisions of the state constitution. Massachusetts courts ruled that slavery was illegal in the state because it violated its constitution.

The new state constitutions were intended to embody republican principle. The new state constitutions increased the size of state legislatures (to make them more representative). In many states, representatives were elected annually. Based on their experience with royal governors, the new constitutions strengthened the powers of the legislatures and weakened the powers of governors. Pennsylvania eliminated a governor altogether and instead set up an executive committee.

The new constitutions also sought to eliminate other vestiges of a monarchical society. Taxation was made more progressive and official monopolies were prohibited. The new constitutions also reformed inheritance laws. They outlawed primogeniture--where a father left his property to their eldest son--and entail--in which property was left to a specific line of descendants.

A guarantee of religious freedom was viewed as an essential element of republican liberty. Every state constitution written between 1776 and 1800 included protections for religious freedom.

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