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State Constitutions? – Why would each state need a constitution when we have the United States Constitution? What would it mean for the states to be run by their citizens rather than royal rule?
“Americans are the heirs of a constitutional tradition that was mature by the time of the national Constitution,” writes Donald Lutz in The Origins of American Constitutionalism.” Beginning with “proto-constitutions” such as the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrim Code of Law and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, Americans had spent more than 150 years learning and perfecting the art of constitution-writing — and the thirteen state constitutions which were in effect when the national constitution was ratified in 1788 were an important step in that process. “It would not be putting the matter too strongly to say that the United States Constitution, as a complete foundation document, includes the state constitutions as well.” Tragically, Americans, whose knowledge of their national constitution is dismal enough, show even less interest in those of their own states. This is doubly tragic when you consider that American lives are arguably more affected by the laws of their state than by federal law.
As to what it would mean for the states to be run by their citizens rather than royal rule, some colonies had not known “royal rule” for quite some time. The charters of 1662 (Connecticut) and 1663 (Rhode Island) had given each of these colonies permission to elect their own governors rather than live under governors appointed by the king, as was the rule elsewhere. In fact it was the “self-rule” aspects of these charters that persuaded the two states to not construct new constitutions after July 4th 1776, finding instead that they could continue operating under the structure of these charters as independent states. Even in those colonies operating under royal appointees, those governors rarely interfered in the affairs of their elected legislatures, making Parliament’s “Intolerable Acts” of 1774 even more intolerable.
Every government, every organization for that matter, has a constitution, whether one has been purposely created for it or not; this is simply a fact of voluntary association. Until a written constitution is drafted to guide it, any organization will, over time, adopt formal or informal rules to guide the organization and its affairs. These rules comprise a constitution, often an unwritten one.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines “Constitution” as “The organic and fundamental law of a nation or state, which may be written or unwritten, establishing the character and conception of its government, laying the basic principles to which its internal life is to be conformed, organizing the government, and regulating, distributing, and limiting the functions of its different departments, and prescribing the extent and manner of the exercise of sovereign powers.”
America had a constitution in 1776, or at least so thought Jefferson when he complained in the Declaration: “[The King] has combined with [Parliament] to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws.” (Emphasis added). “Our constitution,” not “our constitutions” (which could have pointed to the several state constitutions by then in force). While the colonies certainly lacked a common, written constitution, the last 150+ years of successful collective self-government had resulted in the informal incorporation of many features of government which combined to comprise an unwritten constitution – which Jefferson claimed was being violated.
“Reading properly and carefully, one can glean from a constitution the balance of political forces, a structure for preserving or enhancing that balance, a statement of the way people should treat each other, and the values that for the basis for the people’s working relationship, as well as the serious, remaining problems in the political order.”
In July 1776, when the thirteen united colonies claimed their independence and became “free and independent states,” they had a long relationship with self-governance –Virginia, the oldest colony, since 1619; and the autonomy they enjoyed would not be so easily given up to a Parliament which, in 1766, had claimed for itself the right to legislate for the colonies “in all matters whatsoever.”
By 1776, each colony was operating under a charter from the King of England, some royal, some proprietary, which defined its leadership/governing structure and the rights to be enjoyed by the colony’s inhabitants. Virginia’s 1606 charter, for instance created a thirteen-member governing council in Virginia shadowed by another thirteen-member council back in England. The colony’s citizens were to enjoy “all liberties, franchises and immunites within anie of our other dominions to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and borne within this our realme of Englande”
On May 10th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress issued a resolution encouraging any of the colonies who had not already done so to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”  Sent out on May 15th after a prologue had been added, the resolution arrived too late for several colonies. The previous January, New Hampshire had unilaterally enacted a new constitution, the first to do so. South Carolina had followed suit on April 12th. On May 4th, 1776, the legislature of Rhode Island, sensing the mood of the country, passed a bill that replaced an act of allegiance to the king with an oath of allegiance to the state – effectively declaring their independence. As previously noted, Connecticut’s “Fundamental Orders,” adopted in 1638 while the state was still an English colony, included no overt allegiance to England. It would not be until 1818 that Connecticut would get around to drafting a new constitution. Virginia had already issued its call for a constitutional convention, to assemble in Williamsburg on May 5th. Their new constitution was enacted 5 days before Jefferson’s Declaration was approved in Philadelphia.
Responding to Congress’ resolution, the other colonies began to take action: Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New Jersey all enacted new Constitutions later that year.
Georgia and New York put new constitutions in place the following year, Massachusetts in 1780.
These first state constitutions “were the most detailed and legally binding collective expression of the revolutionaries’ political ideas in 1776.” Often overshadowed by the Constitution of 1787, the state constitutions are a rich treasure trove of republican and democratic principles.
Why were the state constitutions still needed after the U.S. Constitution went into effect twelve years later? Simply because the formation of a new national government did not eclipse the state governments, in fact it relied upon the states to continue to provide the vast majority of governmental services within each state, which the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution obliquely reminds us: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Eleven of the original thirteen state constitutions contained specific protections for individual rights. While a state document cannot deny a right secured in the national document, in some cases the states secure rights for their citizens which are not mentioned or are elucidated differently in the national document. For instance, Pennsylvania and a few other states make it clear that “the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state,” significantly clearer than the confusing wording of the U.S. Second Amendment. (Emphasis added). The North Carolina constitution secures a right for its citizens to “instruct their representatives,” and requires that jury decisions be unanimous (as do several other state constitutions). Maryland secures a right for its citizens of “resistance, against arbitrary power and oppression.” Delaware’s first constitution (enacted September 10,1776) outlawed slavery in the state.
In many cases, these first state constitutions take the opportunity to explain principles of government which the Framers of 1787 apparently thought were so “self-evident” as to not require mentioning. For example, the Virginia Declaration makes the following statements (here paraphrased) not found in the U.S. Constitution:
- That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have inherent rights that they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity.
- That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people.
- That magistrates should be at all times amenable to the people.
- That elected officials should be returned to the body of the people to feel, once again, their burdens.
- That government is instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community.
- That a majority of the community has a right to reform, alter or abolish their government.
- That no individual or group is entitled to exclusive or separate benefits or privileges from the community.
- That citizens should evidence a permanent common interest in, and attachment to, their community before being allowed to vote.
Today, a Massachusetts legal organization cautions: “Some of the protections bestowed by the [Massachusetts ] Declaration of Rights duplicate those enumerated in the Bill of Rights, while others confer greater protection of individual liberties. Too few Massachusetts criminal defense attorneys utilize the additional protections afforded to Massachusetts citizens under the Declaration of Rights in defending their clients. A criminal defense lawyer who fails to specifically cite the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights in objections at trial or issues raised on an appeal may needlessly consign his client to a prison cell.”
Another advantage of the state constitutions lies in their generally being easier to amend than the national constitution. As a consequence, the state constitutions are amended far more frequently. The entire constitution of a state can often be replaced more easily (Georgia and Louisiana are each currently operating under their ninth state constitution since 1776).
For those interested in further study of the 50 state constitutions, the NBER/Maryland State Constitutions Project provides searchable access to almost 150 versions of these documents. The best comparative treatment of the state constitutions, including to what extent they incorporated the leading principles of republican government, is found in Willi Paul Adams’ masterpiece: The First American Constitutions; Republican Ideology and the Making for the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era.
State constitutions perform an important role in the governance of America’s 320 Million citizens and play a critical role in making federalism work. We couldn’t get by without them.
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes a weekly essay: Constitutional Corner which is published on multiple websites, and hosts a weekly radio show: “We the People, the Constitution Matters” on WFYL AM1140. Gary has also begun performing reenactments of James Madison and speaking with public and private school students about Madison’s role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).
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 Donald Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1988, p.5.
 Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th Edition, accessed at:
 Lutz, p. 3
 The American Colonies Act 1766, aka The Declaratory Act, explained at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaratory_Act
 1686 Virginia Charter
 Willi Paul Adams, The First American Constitutions; Republican Ideology and the Making for he State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era, Rowman & Littlefield, Pub, New York, 2001, Preface to the Expanded Edition.