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A convention elected in July 1776 for the purpose of framing a plan of government approved a state constitution on September 28, 1776, that included a declaration of rights, similar to the one adopted in Virginia but adding a statement that the people have a right to freedom of speech. Legislative powers were vested in a unicameral general assembly, elected by all male taxpayers over 21 and by non-taxpaying sons of freeholders over 21 (the widest suffrage adopted by any state). The assembly was elected annually and no member could serve more than four years in seven; delegates to the Continental Congress were also subject to rotation in office. Assembly members were required to believe in one God and the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments. Whenever possible, proposed laws were to be held over to the next session to allow for public discussion before their final enactment. A 12-member executive council was to be elected by the freemen, and two of its members were to be chosen as its president and vice-president by a joint ballot of the assembly and council. The council had no veto power. Supreme court judges served for seven-year terms. Every seven years an elected council of censors would review the actions of the state government and determine if the constitution has been violated. A two-thirds vote of the censors could propose amendments and call for a new convention to consider them, but the assembly had no power to change the constitution.

After its adoption the constitution became the focus of a continuing political struggle within the state between its “Constitutionalist” supporters and “Republican” opponents. The first council of censors, elected in October 1783, began meeting in November to review the state government. Amendments to the 1776 constitution advocated by the Republicans included creating a bicameral legislature, establishing a single executive with a limited veto, appointing judges for terms of good behavior, and abolishing rotation in office. Although the Republicans outnumbered Constitutionalists on the council, they did not have the two-thirds majority required to call a new convention.

In September 1789 the Republicans succeeded in having the assembly call a new constitutional convention. It met from November 24 until February 26, 1790, and drafted a constitution which established a bicameral legislature, replaced the executive council with a governor elected by the voters and possessing a limited veto, and tenured judges for good behavior. It also contained a new bill of rights, which included a provision on freedom of the press, drafted by James Wilson, that allowed juries in libel cases to determine both facts and law. The new constitution was adopted on September 2, 1790.