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A Brief History of the Constitution of 1780 and a Narrated Timeline

Timeline of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780
by Robert J. Brink, Executive Director, Social Law Library

But we had a people of more intelligence, curiosity, and enterprise, who must all be consulted, and we must realize the theories of the wisest writers, and invite the people to erect the whole building with their own hands, upon the broadest foundation. — John Adams

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 is the oldest written, still-governing constitution in the world. Yet it was the last of the original thirteen states to be adopted. It took four years to forge a document to satisfy the people of Massachusetts.

The process of constitution-making in Massachusetts gave life to what was then the revolutionary concept of “We the People,” a phrase traceable to the Preamble of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and, later, made famous as the inspirational first words of the United States Constitution.

The Massachusetts Constitution was the first, for instance, to be created by a “constitutional convention” composed of delegates selected for the sole and limited purpose of forming fundamental law. Exceptional for the times, it also was submitted for popular approval, requiring a two-thirds vote for final ratification. These features put the philosophy of social-contract theory into genuine practice. As the Preamble explains, “The Body-Politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each Citizen, and each Citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain Laws for the Common good.”

Although it was not the first state constitution to include a bill of rights, the Declaration of Rights in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 is notable because of its unequivocal statement, in Article I, that: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” For many who participated in the four-year debate leading to the Constitution’s adoption, this declaration was intended to abolish slavery in the Commonwealth. Relying on Article I, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did just that in 1783—the first state court in the country to abolish slavery by judicial decision.

Drafted by John Adams, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 also had the most well-developed doctrine of separation of powers. It provided for a genuine system of checks-and-balances: a two-house legislature, a strong executive with veto power, and an independent judiciary with life tenure. “It is the right of every citizen,” Article XXIX of the Declaration of Rights states, “to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.” Indeed, the reassuring guarantee that ours is “a government of laws and not of men” first appears in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. It has become a birthright of all Americans.

In its essential features, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 served as the leading model for the United States Constitution. Those features—the constitutional convention, popular ratification, the bill of rights, and the separation of powers with an independent judiciary—continue to provide an inspiring model for large parts of the world.

Stable Government Since 1691
In 1691 the Charter of Massachusetts Bay established Royal Government, with a considerable degree of liberty and self-government that lasted until the Revolution.

Governor and Council:
Appointed by the King, the Governor had an absolute veto over acts of the legislature, and appointed military and judicial officers with the advice and consent of the Council, which was elected annually by the House of Representatives and the outgoing Council.

House of Representatives & General Court:
The General Court consisted of the Governor, the Council, acting as the upper branch, and the House of Representatives, representing the townspeople of Massachusetts Bay. Common usage of the term, General Court, implied the legislature. Towns with forty or more freeholders sent one Representative to the House, those with 120 or more freeholders could send two, and Boston was allowed four. The General Court appointed the Treasurer and other officials, controlled the purse (even the Governor’s salary) and generally represented the interests of the colonists over those of the Crown.

Town Meetings:
The 1691 Charter left the strong local government that had evolved during the 17th century unchanged. Town meetings assessed town rates, made regulations, declared themselves on public questions, elected town officials and sent representatives to the General Court. Town by-laws and actions of town officials came under the purview of the General Sessions of the Peace, a county court also known as the Quarter Sessions and made up of all the justices of the peace for the county. It was administrative (i.e., assessed county taxes, licensed tavern keepers, attended to roads and bridges) and functioned as a criminal court. The Court of Common Pleas, comprised of justices of the peace, heard civil matters.

Boston Tea Party
December 16, 1773
Sons of Liberty protested “no taxation without representation” and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, which incited tea parties in other colonies.

Parliament Retaliates
May and June, 1774
The five Coercive Acts, sometimes called the Intolerable Acts, closed Boston Harbor to all commerce, provided for British officials accused of crimes to be tried in England or Nova Scotia, summarily replaced the Council with Royal appointments to serve at the King’s pleasure, and allowed the Governor to quarter troops in Boston. General Thomas Gage was also made Governor and given greater powers to appoint and remove judges, sheriffs (which appointed juries) and other local officials without the consent of the Council. These acts changed the basic structure of government that had existed since the 1691 Charter.

General Court Dissolved
June, 1774
General Gage dissolved the General Court when the people of Massachusetts rebelled against the changes to government and the British occupation.

Three Provincial Congresses
October, 1774 to June, 1775
Ninety representatives nevertheless met in Salem and organized themselves into a Provincial Congress because General Gage’s action was “unconstitutional, unjust and disrespectful.” Three Provincial Congresses, wholly without legal status, governed Massachusetts until June, 1775.

Lexington & Concord
April 19, 1775
Things got worse. The Provincial Congress deposed General Gage as Governor, because he ordered British troops to secure the gun powder in Concord and seize Samuel Adams and John Hancock, rumored to be in Lexington.

John Adams Harangues
Continental Congress

May, 1775
Without a Governor, and with the General Court dissolved, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress turned to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia and requested “explicit advice” about “the taking up and exercising the powers of government.”

“I embraced with joy the opportunity of haranguing on the subject at large,” John Adams later wrote, “and urging Congress to resolve on a general recommendation to all the States to call conventions and institute regular governments.” Critics called Adams’s call “a machine to fabricate independence.”

But, still hoping for reconciliation with the King, the Continental Congress recommended that Massachusetts Bay elect a new House of Representatives, which would also elect the Council, and wait for the King to appoint a new Governor who would govern according to the Charter of 1691. In June and July of 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress implemented the Continental Congress’s advice.

Joseph Warren wrote to Samuel Adams and to John Adams lamenting the lost opportunity to adopt “a constitution worthy of freemen.”

Berkshire Constitutionalists Drop the Pretense
December, 1775
Insistent that the 1691 Charter was dissolved by war, the Berkshire Constitutionalists defied its continuing validity by closing the courts in disobedience. Pittsfield protested that if the pretense is “adopted by the people we shall perhaps never be able to rid ourselves again” of British rule. Since the suspension of government, they had been in a State of Nature and “lived in peace, Love, safety, Liberty and Happiness.” Strockbridge declared: “When we deviate from the established rules, we are lost in the boundless field of uncertainty.”

All Provinces to Establish New

May, 1776
From Philadelphia, the Continental Congress advised all the provinces to establish new governments. The Massachusetts General Court ordered that courts be run under the name of the “Government and People of Massachusetts Bay.”

July 4, 1776
On a bright morning in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Difficult and Dangerous Business
1776 to 1780
It would take the next four years for Massachusetts to adapt the consent of the governed from a political theory to a political process. To John Adams this was “most difficult and dangerous business,” with more peril in the experiment in self-government “than from all the fleets and armies of Great Britain.”

Who Drafts a Constitution?
September, 1776
The House of Representatives petitioned the towns requesting permission to “enact” a constitution in consultation with the Council.

Concord Calls for a “Convention”
October 22, 1776
Concord objected, arguing that the General Court was not competent, because a constitution should secure the people in their rights against the government. A constitution that is both enacted and “alterable by the Supreme Legislative is no Security at all.” Concord was the first to call for a special “Convention,” not part of the General Court, for the sole task of framing a constitution. Other towns expressed similar sentiments. Attleborough asserted that “the End of Government is the Happiness of the People; so the Sole Power & right of forming a Plan thereof is essentially in the People.”

Numerous towns demanded ratification by the people, whether the constitution was drafted by the legislature or by the novel idea of a convention.

Legislature Frames Constitution
of 1778

The House of Representatives ignored the dissident towns and, with the Council, drafted the Constitution of 1778. It did, however, submit it to the people as a whole, with adoption to take effect with two-thirds approval.

Constitution of 1778 Rejected
The towns decisively rejected the General Court’s constitution by a six-to-one margin. Theophilus Parsons, who drafted the influential Essex Result, agreed with the farmers in Pittsfield that a State of Nature was surely preferable. Not only was there not a constitutional convention, but the failed draft of 1778 did not have a bill of rights, it condoned slavery, did not ensure the separation of powers, & etcetera.

Constitutionalists Demand Action
August 26, 1778
The Berkshire Constitutionalists continued to agitate for a true constitutional convention, and kept their courts closed “rather than to have Law dealt out…without any Foundation to support it, for…we should before this time have had a Bill of rights, and a Constitution.” On August 26, the eighteen towns that met in Pittsfield threatened to join with another state if a special constitutional convention were not called.

General Court Asks the People
February to June, 1779
The General Court petitioned the towns in February of 1779 whether they First “chuse, at this time, to have a new Constitution or Form of Government made” and Second whether they should authorize “a State Convention, for the sole purpose of forming a new Constitution.” In June, the General Court issued a call for the election of special delegates for a convention because “a large majority of the inhabitants” from more than two-thirds of the towns “think it proper to have a new Constitution.”

Historic Constitutional Convention
September 1, 1779
A Constitutional Convention, separate and independent from the General Court, convened on September 1, 1779 at the Old Meeting House in Cambridge for the singular purpose of forming a new constitution. “There never was an example,” John Adams noted proudly, “of such precautions as are taken by this wise and jealous people in the formulation of their government. None was ever made so perfectly upon the principle of the people’s rights and equality.” Indeed, the Convention not only heard the views of elites and activists, but 312 delegates spoke for almost every town in Massachusetts.

The Convention gave life to the phrase, “We the People,” and, as such, has been recognized as perhaps “the greatest institution of government which America has produced, the institution which answered, in itself, the problem of how men could make government of their own free will.”

War and Winter
The Convention worked during the severest winter in sixty years and during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War. The British captured Charleston, the worst American defeat of the war. By the Spring of 1780, weary of both war and winter, General Washington’s troops threatened mutiny at his camp in Morristown, New Jersey. The winter also took its toll on the Convention, for the delegates from Western Massachusetts were unable to attend in large enough numbers for their favored “democratical” proposals to succeed. Some have suggested that this left a residue of resentment that years later contributed to Shays’ Rebellion.

John Adams Drafts the Document
On September 4, 1779, the Constitutional Convention elected a committee, with members from each county, to prepare a draft Declaration of Rights and a Frame of Government. The task was delegated to a three-member subcommittee of James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams, the last of whom was selected to draft the document. He finished his work in October. The draft constitution was submitted to the full Convention on October 28, 1779, which debated it until November 12, with John Adams present, and then again from January 27 to March 1, 1780, without him. The Convention made several important changes to Adams’s draft.

March to June, 1780
Copies of the Constitution and an Address, a rationale to improve its chances because of the repudiation in 1778, were submitted to the towns for ratification by a two-thirds majority. Even with optimism about the war for independence at a low point, at least 188 towns responded.

The Convention reconvened on June 7 to consider the response of the towns and ultimately ratified the Constitution on June 15. The next day, a proclamation by James Bowdoin, President of the Constitutional Convention, announced that the Constitution would go into effect on the last Wednesday of October, 1780 at the first meeting of the General Court.

Samuel Adams Writes to John Adams
On July 10, 1780, Samuel Adams wrote to John Adams, that most passionate and influential advocate for constitutional government: “This great Business was carried through with good Humour among the People.”

Constitutional Government
Begins Following an election, at the first meeting of the General Court on October 25, 1780, John Hancock took his constitutional oath of office as the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Supreme Judicial Court held its first official sitting on February 20, 1781.

Auspicious Omens
On November 12, 1780, the Massachusetts Line, comprised of the military officers still fighting the war of independence, addressed the General Court. Considering themselves “as citizens in arms for the defense of the most invaluable rights of human nature,” the officers were at “a loss to find the terms sufficiently expressive of our veneration and gratitude for the illustrious Convention” and “highly respect and approve” of the resulting Constitution. Still at war, but with “grateful hearts,” they nevertheless felt the “most auspicious omens” for the future.

The Last Word
The last word of this timeline goes to John Adams who marveled that he had “been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government, more than air, soil, or climate, for themselves and their children!”

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