J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How the Governor’s Council Was Elected in 1780

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780, drafted largely by John Adams, kept the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court from the colonial charter, and created a new upper house, the state Senate.

But it also kept the original upper house, called the Council, to advise the governor (originally John Hancock, show here) and approve all judicial appointments, Continental military appointments, and emissions of money.

Back in 1780, the Council was chosen in two stages. According to Chapter 1, Section 2, Article 1:
There shall be annually elected [on the first Monday in April], by the freeholders and other inhabitants of this commonwealth, qualified as in this constitution is provided, forty persons to be councillors and senators, for the year ensuing their election…
A later clause restricted voters in that election to “every male inhabitant of twenty-one year of age and upwards, having a freehold estate of the value of sixty pounds.” In contrast, a larger number of men—everyone able to pay the poll tax—could vote for members of the lower house. This reflected Adams’s abiding belief that government was a balance of the One, the Few, and the Many, which in turn reflected his preference for dividing groups by three.

The next step came on the last Wednesday in May. Chapter 2, Section 3, Article 2 says:
Nine councillors shall be annually chosen from among the persons returned for councillors and senators, on the last Wednesday in May, by the joint ballot of the senators and representatives assembled in one room; and in case there shall not be found, upon the first choice, the whole number of nine persons who will accept a seat in the council, the deficiency shall be made up by the electors aforesaid from among the people at large; and the number of senators left shall constitute the senate for the year. The seats of the persons thus elected from the senate, and accepting the trust, shall be vacated in the senate.
In sum, wealthy voters chose men they thought were worthy of being state senators or Council members. The full legislature then chose from among those men which nine should be on the Council. If any of those men refused, preferring to serve in the state senate, the legislature could fill the holes with others. The only restriction was that the Council couldn’t include two people from the same senatorial district. And the trade-off for voters who had a councilor from their district was having one fewer senator that year.

It was possible under this system for a Council member never to have been chosen by the voters—but he would still be put into office by representatives of the voters. That’s somewhat analogous to the Electoral College as originally envisioned (though that institution never worked right under stress).

The 1780 constitution was more progressive than the royal charter that preceded it in several ways. It broadened the franchise for voting for assembly members, made more offices elected rather than appointed, and tried to equalize representation among different towns and districts. The legislature could override the governor’s veto with a two-thirds roll-call vote. In 1783, the state’s top court interpreted the constitution to make slavery unenforceable. Nevertheless, that original constitution was written to limit the power of the voting public, and the Governor’s Council was meant to be made up of the elite of the elite.

In 1855, Massachusetts revised its constitution along more progressive lines, and voters started electing members of the Governor’s Council directly. That small body’s limited power meant that fewer and fewer voters paid attention to its members, even though each represents a much larger district than any state senator. And now the state legislature is considering whether maintaining that body makes sense.


Anonymous said...

I've seen at least two historians credit George Washington for adding the phrase "so help me god" to the Presidential oath after he was sworn in on April 30,1789. However, Adams' 1780 Constitution contains the exact same phrase. Is there any evidence that Washington was aware of the 9 year old Mass. Declaration of Rights when he was sworn? Was that common language used in other state constitutions at the time?

J. L. Bell said...

The Continental Congress, U.S. Congress, and state governments specified various oaths over the Revolutionary period. Some conclude with “So help me God.” Others don’t. There doesn’t seem to be any consistent pattern.

Washington probably had little idea of the Massachusetts constitution, but he surely knew the “So help me God” phrase. He also knew that not all government oaths required it, and as chair of the Constitutional Convention he knew well what was in that document.

The evidence from 1789 strongly suggests that Washington did not add “So help me God” to the oath included in the U.S. Constitution. There are detailed descriptions of the event that don’t use those words, and no contemporaneous accounts that do. That fits with Washington’s care about following the Constitution.