Articles

Massachusetts State Constitution

September 28, 2019


Even after independence, or especially after independence, Boston remains a revolutionary place. And one of the most
significant achievements of this generation is the creation of
the Massachusetts Constitution, which is the oldest functioning written
constitution in the world. Now, initially the old
provincial assembly, which the governor had suspended in 1774, kept meeting as a provincial congress
and simply declared the office of governor vacant once we had declared
independence in July of 1776. So, this Provincial Congress
continues to meet, continues to be elected as a Provincial Congress, meeting
in the Old State House in Boston. But then, the Provincial Congress is calling
on people to pay taxes and to go into the military, and in fact over the course of the war
almost a third of the man who serve in the Continental Army will come from
Massachusetts. The people start asking what gives the
Provincial Congress the power to enlist us in the military or ask us for
taxes? And the Provincial Congress has said that the office of
governor is vacant, well what gives them the power to do this? They’re operating under the Charter of 1691. The charter was granted by the British
monarch, we no longer recognize the authority the monarch. Where does their authority come from? So,
in 1778 the Massachusetts assembly drafted a new constitution, they said this will be the
fundamental law of Massachusetts. They sent it to the towns of
Massachusetts for ratification, and much to their surprise the people in
the towns rejected it. They said that this body, the Provincial
Congress, does not have the authority to pass a constitution. A constitution is a fundamental law
that derives from the sovereign power the people of the Commonwealth. You can’t
have a legislative body drawing up a Constitution which is the fundamental law. So, in the
fall of 1779 a constitutional convention is elected, this convention will
represent the sovereign power of the people of Massachusetts and will be
able to devise a fundamental law. It’s fortunate for us
that John Adams happened to be in town at the time, he had come home on a six-month
leave from his job as a minister in Europe. He comes home, is
elected by the voters of Braintree to be one of their delegates to this
assembly, this convention which assembled in Cambridge. Adams goes to the convention, there are about
three hundred other people there, and they formed a committee to draw up
a constitution, and as Adams said, the committee put him on a subcommittee, the subcommittee
was John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin, and then
the subcommittee created a sub-subcommittee which
consisted of John Adams to draft a constitution. And this Constitution creates the, or devises the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and it
begins with a declaration of rights, the fundamental rights that people
will enjoy, and the purpose of government is to
protect these rights. It also creates a system of government, a balanced system. Adams
believe there had to be a balance between rich and poor, as well as between the executive and
legislative power. He thought that the government works
best when there are checks on the different branches of government. So, the Massachusetts example: we have
an assembly that represents the towns, in fact the people of the towns needed to have a moderate
income to vote, you had to pay a pound in taxes every year, the equivalent to about forty dollars today. It is a property requirement but not an onerous one, it really is meant
to represent a middle-class as we might configure it today. And to be a
member of the assembly you had to have an estate worth at least 100 pounds in the town you represented, and each
town would have one representative for every 150 taxpayers, or “ratable polls.” Everyone in
Massachusetts paid a one pound per person head tax, so for every person in town
paying this tax, or for every 150 people paying
this tax you have one representative in the
assembly. So, the assembly would be quite large but
would be very broadly representative of the people in the towns. To balance this, there
would be a state senate, the senate would represent property. In
order to be a member of the senate you had to have an estate worth 600 pounds, that is six times what you would need to be
a member of the assembly. This body was to represent property, because
Adam saw that those with property and those without
property, or with less property, formed different interests. And if you simply let the rich people
trample over the poor people that wouldn’t be a suitable government,
nor if you simply let the poor people overwhelm the rich people, because both have a certain role in society. The senate would represent property, there would be 40 senators and senatorial
districts were determined by tax levies, so there would be eight senators from
Suffolk County, which is where Boston is, eight from Essex
County, where Salem is, one from Barnstable County, Berkshire
County. The counties that contributed less in tax
revenues would have fewer senators. So this
balance is the rich against the poor, and Adams wrote that the “Great art of law giving is balancing the
rich against the poor in the legislature.” In addition, there will be governor
someone who will govern. The governor will be elected directly by
the people, and Massachusetts is the only state to have
the governor elected by a popular vote. He is supposed to be a balance against parochial interests of the senators and the representatives. The governor has to be very rich person, he has to have an estate
worth 1000 pounds, ten times what it would take to
be a member of the assembly. And the idea is a really rich person is
not as susceptible to bribery as someone with less means. And the governor
also has to be a professing Christian. Now, most of these property
qualifications have been dispensed with over the two centuries and more since the Constitution was created. So, Massachusetts creates a
government with the fundamental idea of balancing different interests in the society, and
Adams also wrote that the “You have to balance
the executive again the legislative branch because
their natural rivals, whichever doesn’t have control over the
other will ever be the lamb in the paws of the wolf.” Periodically politicians denounced
gridlock, typically if their party doesn’t control the other
branch of government they say you should give us control. Adams thought the gridlock with a good thing, it was
an essential thing to protect liberty. And so the Massachusetts Constitution
has this balance and these fundamental checks, it
recognizes that people have interests but also isn’t going to give your
interest predominance in this system. So, it’s a very carefully
constructed government which recognizes that people
have interests which they might pursue to the detriment of the liberty of others. So it’s a marvelous achievement of 1780, creating this system of government with also a judiciary, a legal system, or a judicial system, and it also calls on the legislature to
cherish education and says not only the college at Cambridge,
but the grammar schools in all the towns, wanting in educated citizenry
here for this new commonwealth being created. So, the Massachusetts Constitution,
created in 1780, is still the fundamental governing system in Massachusetts with a three-part system, a governor, assembly, and a
judiciary. The governor, elected in 1780 for a
one-year term by a popular vote had a veto over
legislative acts, the only governorship created in the
1770s-1780s who had a veto, also the only one who was
popularly elected, and it does in some way become a
model for the United States Constitution which is created seven years after the
Massachusetts Constitution.

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