Guest Essayist: Samuel Postell

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The seventeenth state to enter the Union, known as “The Buckeye State,” Ohio ratified the U.S. Constitution on March 1, 1803. The current Ohio State Constitution in use was adopted in 1851.

The study of state constitutions is perhaps the most important study that Americans can undertake, yet the most neglected. Understanding the constitution of the state within which one holds residence is important for two reasons. First, because understanding the laws closest to oneself equips one to become a citizen in the truest sense, one who participates in the city with his fellow citizens and engages in the community. And second because the state constitutions, in preserving the past while being layered by amendments of the present, reveal the history and development of the American regime.

Ohio’s state constitution is paradigmatic in the latter sense. The Buckeye State was the 17th state to join the Union, and it was accepted to statehood in 1803. The year in which Ohio was accepted to statehood is important insofar as it forms the essential character of the Ohio Constitution: joining a mere 27 years after the nation declared independence, and a mere 14 years after the Federal Constitution’s ratification, it preserves much of what was original to the Union itself. However, the Ohio Constitution, being ratified after the election of 1800, just after the first major shift in party control, gives Ohio an important place in the new notions of politics that developed during Jefferson’s term as president. Jefferson himself referred to the election of 1800 as the “revolution of 1800”, and considered it in many respects more important than the revolution of 1776 because it marked a dedication to a more democratic mode of politics.

Nevertheless, Ohio’s Constitution was decidedly anti-revolutionary. For example, the original 1803 Ohio Constitution was a work of brevity; the entire 1803 Constitution is shorter than “Article VIII: Public Debt and Public Works” which was added in 1851 and amended various times throughout the 21st century. Further, the 1803 Ohio Bill of Rights mirrors the philosophy and form of the constitutions of the original 13 states. For example, the Bill of Rights begins by setting forth the ends of government, emulating the Declaration of Independence: “That all men born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights… every free republican government, being founded on their sole authority, and organized for the great purpose of protecting their rights and liberties, and securing their independence.” Like other state constitutions, point 3 of the Ohio Bill of Rights aims to protect the “natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience” and asserts

“But religion, morality and knowledge being essentially necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of instructions shall forever be encouraged by legislative provision not inconsistent with the rights of conscience.”

Thus, Ohio, like other States of the Union at the time, saw establishments such as religious schools absolutely necessary and conducive to free government. Like other states of the Union, the original Ohio Constitution saw religious establishments and public schools dedicated to advancing Christianity as perfectly consistent with separation of church and state. What the state did reject as inconsistent with separation of church and state was coercion, forced attendance to a certain church, and religious tests for office.

In addition, the original Ohio Constitution embraced the republican spirit of the entire country by adopting a structure which empowered the Congress and weakened the governor. The 1803 Ohio Constitution established a bicameral House consisting of a Senate and a House, called the “General Assembly.” Section 1, Article 16 reads “bills may originate in either house, but may be altered, amended or rejected by the other.” Article 2, however, gives the governor of the state no power to alter, amend, or reject legislation. Additionally, the Congress has the power of impeachment. The Governor, on the other hand, only has the power to propose general elections to fill vacancies in the Congress, and he may call a special session, on the condition that he openly declare before the members of Congress the reason for convening them. In other words, the Governor had little to do with the creation of the laws of the state, he merely wielded the power of enforcement.

However, over time the Ohio Constitution has departed drastically from its original form. The most clear departure from the original constitution was the 1912 Ohio Convention. The most striking contrast between the Constitutional Convention held in 1802, and the convention held in 1912, was the national attention that each convention garnered. At the time of Ohio’s original convention, it was widely held as a principle of federalism that the federal government ought to allow people of a territory to craft a constitution for their own governance. By 1912, the understanding of federalism had shifted and all eyes were on the Ohio Convention of 1912. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryant, William Howard Taft, and even California’s Governor Hiram Johnson addressed the convention in order to advise it.

The convention assembled to rewrite the constitution, but after much debate they settled on proposing several amendments. In the end 41 were proposed and 33 were accepted and added to the constitution after a special election that allowed the people to vote upon the proposed amendments. Most of these amendments aimed at fixing the constitution because it was believed by many to be “outdated” and “inefficient.” The most important of the amendments accepted were the “line item veto” and the “initiative and referendum.” These and similar reforms were grafted onto many of the original constitutions of the states throughout the progressive era and drastically changed the way in which the people in the states, and therefore the nation, governed itself. Unlike the original constitution which left little room for the enervated governor to operate, the line item veto greatly increased his power by giving him the authority to reject certain parts of a bill passed by the legislature without vetoing the entire bill. Similar amendments providing a line item veto were adopted by 43 of the states throughout the progressive era. However, the initiative and referendum is perhaps the most pronounced change from the original constitution. The initiative and referendum gives the people of the state the power to overturn or even pass laws by popular ballot, entirely circumventing the legislative process.

In short, the changes to the Ohio Constitution mirror the changes of the nation. As Ohio has weakened the legislature and expanded the executive power while affording the power to the people through the initiative and referendum, so has the nation chipped away at the federal legislature and empowered the executive. The progressive era fostered many reforms which sought to make the people more directly participate in their government, and strengthened the executive in order that he represent the will of the people. These changes first took place in states such as Ohio, but slowly began to penetrate the nation and become the new norm. All in all, the original Ohio Constitution differs drastically from the constitution which governs Ohio today, so much so that one may conclude that the state adopted an entirely new form of government in the year 1912.

Sam Postell is a Graduate Student at the University of Dallas and a former literature teacher at a high school in Dallas Texas. He has two book chapters under publication with the University of Missouri Press, one on the Missouri Compromise, and another on Henry Clay as Speaker of the House. He is currently working on a book on Henry Clay’s Political Thought

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