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State Constitutional Glossary

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Connecticut and Rhode Island revised their colonial charters (granted in 1662 and 1663) in 1776 to eliminate references to royal authority. In both states the governor, deputy governor, and council (which served as the upper house of the legislature) were annually elected by the freemen. The lower house of the legislature was elected by the towns twice a year in Connecticut and annually in Rhode Island. There was no executive veto in either state, and in both states judges were annually chosen by the legislature. Connecticut adopted its first state constitution in 1818, Rhode Island in 1842.


A convention elected for the purpose of framing a new government adopted a declaration of rights on September 11 and a constitution on September 20, 1776. The declarations of rights, similar to those adopted in Virginia and already framed in Pennsylvania, was declared to be unalterable. The constitution established a bicameral legislature elected by adult male taxpayers, with the house of assembly serving for one year and the council serving for three years. A president was elected by a joint ballot of the legislature for three years and was advised by a four-member privy council, with each chamber choosing two members. There was no executive veto. Judges were chosen by the legislature and served for good behavior, while other officials were appointed by the president and council. Officeholders were required to be Christians. While some articles of the constitution were declared unannulable, others could be changed by five-sevenths of the assembly and seven-ninths of the council.


A convention elected in October 1776 to draw up a plan of government adopted a constitution on February 5, 1777. Legislative power was vested in a unicameral assembly, elected annually, whose members were required to be Protestants owning 250 acres of land or £250 of property. The assembly annually elected a governor, who served for only one year out of three and had no veto or pardoning power, an advisory executive council, chosen from among the assembly members, and a state chief justice. Clergymen were forbidden to sit in the legislature, and the Anglican church was disestablished. The constitution protected the free exercise of religion unless “it be repugnant to the peace and safety of the State,” freedom of the press, the right to trial by jury, and the principle of habeas corpus, while forbidding excessive fines or bail. Amendments could be made only by a convention petitioned for by a majority of the voters in a majority of the counties.

In November 1788 a convention framed a new state constitution, which was ratified and amended by subsequent conventions in January and May 1789. The new constitution created a house of representatives, elected for one year, and a senate, elected for three years; the governor, elected by the legislature for a two-year term, could veto legislation, but his veto could be overridden by a two-thirds majority in both chambers.


A convention elected for the purpose of framing a new government adopted a declaration of rights and a constitution on November 9,1776. The declarations of rights contained provisions similar to those of the Virginia and Pennsylvania declarations, as well as a prohibition against bills of attainder. The constitution established a bicameral legislature, with the house of delegates elected annually by voters with 50 acres freehold or £30 property and the senate indirectly elected by an electoral college. Delegates were required to own £500 property and senators £1,000; all officeholders were required to be Christians. Money bills could be accepted or rejected by the senate but not altered by them. The governor and a five-member council were elected by a joint ballot of the legislature. There was no executive veto, but the governor and council did appoint judges, who served for good behavior, as well as other state officials. Changes to the constitution could be made by a majority of the legislature voting in two consecutive sessions.


A specially elected convention submitted a constitution, drafted mainly by John Adams, to the towns for ratification on March 2, 1780; it was approved and went into effect on October 25, 1780. The first article of its declaration of rights proclaimed that “All men are born free and equal” and have “natural” and “unalienable” rights regarding life, liberty, and property (in several cases tried in 1781 and 1783, Massachusetts judges and juries found slavery incompatible with this article; in 1790 the census reported that there were no longer any slaves in Massachusetts). Article II protected religious “profession or beliefs” against persecution, while Article III allowed the legislature to mandate public support for Protestant denominations, effectively continuing the establishment of the Congregational church. Other articles required that reasonable compensation be given for property taken for public use, protected individuals against being compelled to accuse or furnish evidence against themselves, prohibited unreasonable searches and seizures, bills of attainder, cruel and unusual punishments, ex post facto laws, and excessive fines and bail, guaranteed criminal defendants the right to confront witnesses and to trial by jury, and established the right of the people to assemble, instruct their representatives, and petition the legislature. The “Frame of Government” established a senate and a house of representatives, both elected annually by males over 21 who earned £3 a year from freehold property or had £60 in total property. Senators were required to have £300 freehold or £600 total property, representatives £100 freehold or £200 property. The senate was apportioned among districts according to assessed value of taxable property, while the house of representatives was apportioned according to population. All money bills originated in the house, but could be altered in the senate. The governor, elected annually by the voters, was required to have £1000 freehold, and, like the senators and representatives, had to be a declared Christian. Legislation could be vetoed by the governor, but a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers could override his veto. The governor appointed all judicial officials and sheriffs, with the advice and consent of nine counselors jointly elected by the legislature from among those chosen to be senators. Judges served for good behavior. A new constitutional convention would be called in 1795 if two-thirds of the electors voted in favor of amendment in a referendum.