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.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Massachusetts Got Its Constitution

Yesterday I quoted a letter from Alexander McDougall discussing the Massachusetts Convention of 1780 (shown courtesy of Springfield Technical Community College).

Here’s how Samuel Eliot Morison described the ratification of that document in A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts, published in 1917.
The mode of ratification adopted by the Convention was peculiar. Profiting by the experience of 1778 [when voters strongly rejected the legislature’s draft constitution], it did not submit the Constitution as a whole to popular vote. Instead, it asked the adult freemen to convene in their town meetings to consider and debate the Constitution clause by clause, to point out objections, if any, to particular articles, and to send in their returns to the secretary of the Convention, with the yeas and nays on every question. The people were then asked to empower the Convention at an adjourned session on June 5 to ratify and declare the Constitution in force if two-thirds of the voters were in favor of it, or, if not, to alter it in accordance with the popular will as expressed in the returns, and ratify it as thus amended. . . .

On June 5 the Convention convened for its fourth and last session at the old Brattle Street Church in Boston. . . . A committee was appointed to canvass the returns and report the result to the Convention. This committee adopted a system of tabulation which to-day would be called political jugglery. The towns had not voted on the Constitution as a whole, but article by article; and in many cases they proposed a substitute for an article they objected to, and voted on that instead of on the original. These votes on amended articles were either thrown out or counted as if cast for the original article. Hence it was made to appear that every article of the Constitution had well over a two-thirds majority, although a fair tabulation would have shown only a bare majority for at least two.
This sort of manipulation in Boston didn’t help relieve the unrest in the western counties which had made MacDougall doubt that Massachusetts would accept any sort of government. Nonetheless, the state constitution took effect, John Hancock took office as the first governor since Thomas Gage, and we still govern ourselves on the basis of that document. We even proudly boast that our constitution was a model for the federal Constitution adopted later in the decade.


G. Lovely said...

"...a fair tabulation would have shown only a bare majority for at least two."

Any idea which two?

J. L. Bell said...

Ronald M. Peters wrote another study of the 1780 Massachusetts constitution in 1978. He calls Article III of the Declaration of Rights the most controverisal, passing only because the convention totaled the "approved" and "approved if revised" votes.

The article was about religion and education. It allowed for a state establishment of religion, and it allowed any sort of Christian—even Catholics—equal citizenship. Thus, it might have prompted objections from both those who wanted to separate church and state and those who wanted to maintain the Protestant orthodoxy.

Peters also wrote that the returns from the towns were so "haphazardly collected and tabulated" that it's impossible to make a definite count of voters or even towns. But he says many towns reported unanimous approval of most articles, and even a bare majority for that troublesome Article III.

In sum, Peters is much more positive about this political moment than Morison.

G. Lovely said...

Wow. I just read Article III and I've gotta say, it could use a little re-write.

J. L. Bell said...

That article is a big reason why the federal Constitution's First Amendment starts out as it does. The First Amendment promised to keep Congress away from state religious establishments like Massachusetts's.