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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Monday, January 27, 2014

“A constitution to be offered to the people”

Here’s an unusual discussion of the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 between two New Yorkers, published in (of all places) The Cincinnati Miscellany in 1846.

That Ohio periodical stated, “The following letter, published now for the first time, was written by Gen. [Alexander] M’Dougal [shown here] to Judge [William] Goforth of New York, afterwards one of the first settlers of Columbia” in the Northwest Territory:
Fish Kill, February 7th, 1780.

My Dear Sir:—

This will inform you that I have been at quarters here, since the 6th of December last, in order to get rid of an old complaint of the stone. The symptoms have so far yielded to medicine, as to render them more tolerable than they were.

I have seen the report of the committee of the convention of Massachusetts Bay of a constitution to be offered the people for their approbation. From some sentences in it, I think they have not wholly lost sight of an establishment [i.e., state support for one favored religion]. I am inclined to believe this was occasioned by their dread of the clergy; for if the convention declared against such a measure, they would exert themselves to get a negative put on it when it should be proposed to the people. But independent of this subject, I think the people will not approve of it, or any other form, which gives energy to the government or social security to the people. To give security to a people in the frame of a government, they must resign a portion of their natural liberty for the security of the rest. There is a large county in that state that will not suffer a court of justice to sit to do any business. These very people have become so licentious that they have taken flour by force of arms from a magistrate in this state, who was retaining it here according to law to supply the army, which has been frequently distressed for the want of that article. From this specimen you may form a judgment what kind of constitution will suit that people. There is a great deal of good sense among them; but I have my doubts of its having effect in the frame of govemment.

I want some small articles from your town. I shall be much obliged to you to inform me how much higher dry goods are than they were before the war for hard money? What can the best leather breeches be bought for in like specie? Your old subaltern is well.

I wish to hear from you by post on the subject of my request as soon as possible.

I am, dear sir, your humble ser’t,
ALEX. M’DOUGAL.

Judge W. Goforth, New York.
Massachusetts towns did end up approving that constitution of 1780, which is still the basis of the state government today. However, I believe the approval came only after the legislature defined the rules in a fashion that Samuel Eliot Morrison later called “political jugglery.”

TOMORROW: What exactly did that mean?

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