New York State’s Birthday and First Constitution

New York State’s Birthday and First Constitution

Bruce W. Dearstyne

Social studies and history teachers routinely cover the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in their courses. But every state also has a “birthday” (the day it got started as a state) and its own state constitution. The origins of states and their first constitutions can be very useful teaching tools, adding a new dimension to students’ historical insight and understanding.

New York State is an outstanding example. April 20 is New York’s Birthday! That was the date in 1777 when the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York, an ad hoc group elected the previous year to guide New York’s Revolutionary War efforts and develop its first constitution, finished work on that document.

The story of New York’s first state constitution is a dramatic one. New York had moved from steadfast loyalty to Britain to reluctant rebelling colony to a full-scale push for independence through the actions of three Provincial Congresses, the first elected in 1775, to guide New York in the growing alienation from Britain. The “Convention of Representatives” had been elected the year before as New York’s fourth Provincial Congress. Meeting initially in White Plains, they authorized New York’s representatives to the Continental Congress to approve the Declaration of Independence in early July, then, to keep out of reach of British forces, fled north to Fishkill and finally to Kingston where they completed their work. Along the way, they changed their name from Provincial Congress to Convention of Representatives of the State of New York. 

When they began their work it wasn’t entirely clear just what a “state” was. People knew about colonies/provinces (New York had been one), and nations or nation-states as they were sometimes called (such as Britain). There were few precedents of models to draw on. Other colonies-becoming-states were writing their own first constitutions. The Articles of Confederation, which would link the new states together, was not completed until November 1777. The U.S. Constitution was a decade in the future. The creative New York drafters drew on their own experience in colonial government, their knowledge of European writers on the concepts of natural rights and representative government, and  a few American leading-edge advocates such as Massachusetts’ John Adams. But mostly they drew on their own creativity and improvisation.

The delegates worked in haste and approved the final draft of their document, which still had strikeouts and marginal notes when they signed it. There was no time to make a clean copy before sending the document to the printer. They took a day off but the next day, April 22, the convention’s secretary mounted a flour barrel outside the court house where the group had worked and read it aloud to Kingston citizens.

New York State had in effect proclaimed itself into existence.

The document began by quoting the Declaration of Independence. This connected New York with the other colonies asserting their independence. It stated that the convention acting “in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State doth ordain, determine, and declare that no authority shall on any pretense whatever shall be exercised over the people or members of this State, but such as shall be derived from and granted by them.” In 1777, a document purporting to represent the consensus and will of the people, and their right to govern themselves,  was a startling, radical departure from the past.

The original copy of the first constitution is preserved in the State Archives.   The Archives has provided a scanned version at https://digitalcollections.archives.nysed.gov/index.php/Detail/objects/10485.You can read it online in typed form at the Yale Law School Avalon Project. William A. Polf’s 1777:  The Political Revolution and New York’s First Constitution, also available online, provides a good introduction. It is also described in Peter Galie, Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York and in my book, The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History.

The 1777 constitution is just over 5000 words in length, It outlined the structure and purposes of state government but did not provide much detail.

It created a two-house legislature — one house, the Assembly, to be more numerous and more broadly representative of the people, and the other, the Senate, to be smaller and more attuned to the interests and property. That basic structure is still in place today.

It declared that “the supreme executive power and authority of this State shall be vested in a governor” who “shall take care that the laws are faithfully executed.” That wording is similar to what exists in the current State Constitution. But the 1777 writers had had enough experience with the King of England and some colonial governors who had over-asserted their power that they hedged the authority of New York State’s governor. Instead of giving the governor veto power over bills passed by the legislature, they created a “Council of Revision” consisting of the governor, chancellor, and judges of the supreme court with veto power. Rather than giving the governor sole appointment power, they vested that in a “Council of Appointment,” consisting of the governor and four senators chosen annually by the Assembly,  to approve all appointments.

The document made only a brief reference the courts; fleshing that out later would require legislative action. Voting rights were restricted to men who met certain property-holding or other requirements.

The Constitution was not very long but it was a sound beginning. Hastily-organized elections were held in the spring and summer. The first legislature assembled in Kingston in September and got to work. The newly-elected governor, General George Clinton, had to await a lull in the fighting to come to Kingston, take the oath office, make  the first gubernatorial address, and then hurry back to lead troops again.

The fledgling government did not have tranquility for long. It had to flee as British troops arrived and assaulted and burned Kingston on October 16. The legislature soon re-assembled in Poughkeepsie and resumed work. By then, patriot forces had defeated British incursions from the west (at Oriskany, August 6), the east (at Bennington, on August 16) and the north (at Saratoga, October 17, a major victory that became the turning point of the Revolution).

1777 turned out to be something of a “miracle year.” New York State was here to stay. The new constitution endured without major changes until 1821.

There are many ways of approaching the use of the first State Constitution in social studies and history courses. Some possibilities:

*It is an inspiring, against-the-odds story. It is a story of people determined to control their own collective affairs through representative government.  At the beginning of 1777, the odds of New York’s success did not seem great. By the end of the year, New had written a constitution, established a government, held elections, fended off invasions from three directions, and survived invasion and destruction of its capital.

*It represented compromise and consensus. The writers had a number of disagreements and varying viewpoints and perspectives going into the process. But along the way they put aside their differences, compromised, and came together to develop a consensus document. That process is worthy of study now, when too often it seems difficult to reach agreement on divisive political issues.

*It was successful, flexible, and enduring. The first constitution proved to be a viable framework for years when New York grew remarkably fast. Even when the first major revisions came in 1821, the structural changes were relatively modest. The revisions abolished the Council of Revision and the Council of Appointment and replaced them with procedures more similar to what we have today.

*It left important work undone. The convention discussed abolishing the horrible practice of slavery but in the end it did not. That had to await legislation in 1799 and slavery was not formally abolished until 1827. Restrictions on men’s voting rights were gradually abolished in ensuing decades. Women finally got the right to vote in 1917. The constitution had no bill of rights other than protection of freedom of religion. The legislature enacted a bill of rights in 1787 and they were embodied in the 1821 constitutional revision. Since then, the constitution has been revised, updated, changed, and amended many times. That is a reminder that constitutions are subject to update and change over time, with voters’ approval.

*It was influential. The New York constitution includes some of the principles that were embodied in the U.S. Constitution a decade later, 1787. New York led the way in a sense. That is not surprising because New York patriot Gouverneur Morris was one of the principal writers of the New York document and a decade later, then a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania, he was also one of the writers of the U.S. Constitution.

*It is a source for teaching about self-government, constitutional law, and civic responsibilities. The constitution could be a source for deepening students’ understanding of self-government and their roles and  responsibilities as citizens. Educating for American Democracy , a recent report on civics education, notes that students need more study of “the social, political, and institutional history of the United States in its founding era, as well as the theoretical underpinnings of our constitutional design. The state constitutions and the federal 1787 Constitution, as amended, form diverse peoples and places into an American people: one overarching political community.”

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