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In the fall of 1779, John Adams was home in Massachusetts during a respite from his diplomatic responsibilities in Europe. While he was there, Adams drafted the state constitution that built on the constitutions and experiences of other states, using them as a model of success and failure. The resulting Massachusetts Constitution was a balanced constitution.
Royal authority had collapsed in Massachusetts in 1775, and the state was governed by a provincial congress under the 1691 colonial charter. The legislature had drafted a constitution in 1778, but the sovereign people of local townships had rejected it.
The people of Massachusetts concurred with other Americans that written constitutions were perpetual fundamental law made by the representatives of the people at popular conventions called for that purpose. The Massachusetts legislature, however, was an ordinary lawmaking body that was not invested with the authority to create such a constitution.
In early 1779, all free men over 21 were eligible to vote for delegates to a special constitutional convention which began meeting in September. The constitution would need ratification by two-thirds of those same men to become fundamental law. This was an expression of the principle of popular sovereignty, or the will of the self-governing people.
The convention called a drafting committee which then appointed a subcommittee of James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams to write the constitution. Bowdoin and Samuel Adams deferred to John Adams to complete the task. Adams finished his assigned work and submitted it to the convention which made revisions and submitted it to the people for ratification in March 1780. It was adopted in June.
The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was comprised of the familiar principles of the American Founding especially those found in the Declaration of Independence. The preamble asserted that the sovereign people formed a social compact with each other to create a republican government whose purpose was to protect the natural rights of the people. They had a right to alter that government for one that best protected their safety and happiness.
The first part of the constitution was a declaration of rights. All men were born free and equal with inalienable rights including life, liberty, and property. The constitution stated that worshipping God was a right of conscience as well as a duty. In order to promote ordered liberty, virtue, morality, and happiness, the constitution simultaneously instituted a limited establishment of the Christian religion. Public money would support the Congregationalist Church, but dissenters could allocate their taxes to their own denominations.
Other principles of the Massachusetts Constitution were popular sovereignty, free and regular elections, and no taxation without consent. Fundamental rights that were protected included the rights of the accused, property rights, and the right to bear arms.
The text of the constitution was rooted upon the principles of separation of power and checks and balances. Those principles found expression in three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. The bicameral legislature was divided into two houses based upon the negative experience of Pennsylvania with only one house. The governor and lieutenant governor ruled with the advice of a nine-member council. The governor could veto laws, but the legislature could override the veto by a two-thirds vote. The third branch was an independent judiciary.
The representatives and senators of the General Court legislature and the governor were elected annually. All free men over 21 could vote if they held a certain amount of property because of the prevailing view that propertyless men were dependent upon others and could not render an independent vote. The state judges served for life and during good behavior. Although the state constitutional convention removed a religious test for office, legislative and executive officials had to take an oath to the Christian religion.
The Massachusetts Constitution was predicated on the belief that, “wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, [was] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” Therefore, the public would support public schools, literature, seminaries, science, agriculture, arts, and trades. This public encouragement would “countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.”
The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was drafted and adopted with the aid of examples and experience in other states. It contained its share of paradoxes such as religious liberty coexisting with religious establishment and broad democratic principles but property requirements for voting and officeholding. The constitution, however, represented the republican principles of the American Revolution and Founding as fundamental law.
Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.
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