Pennsylvania Constitution September 28, 1776

Pennsylvania Constitution Transcript

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Sample page of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 Sample page of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776

Record Group 26: Records of the Department of State, Basic Documents. Iron gall ink on laid paper, 17 pages, bound. 18 3/4" x 15 1/2".

In 1776, Pennsylvania adopted a new constitution that has been described as the most democratic in America. This constitution was the heart of a popular revolt against the existing government, one that had been brewing for months. Since the era of William Penn, the province had been governed under a succession of instruments known as frames of government. These documents restricted voting to men of property and assured domination by a largely Quaker ruling class. As immigration reduced the relative numbers of Quakers, their alliance with businessmen, members of other religions, and pietistic Germans continued to return governments whose policies frustrated a growing numbers of people living on the expanding frontier.

Concerns for security, coupled with a resentment of increasing Parliamentary exercise of dominance, caused the creation of local committees (some calling themselves Associators, because Congress had called for a " Continental Association, others "committees of correspondence", "Sons of Liberty", and similar titles) who sought changes in the relationship between the colonies and the mother country. The presence of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia since 1775 spurred the efforts of the anti-establishment forces. The old Assembly had sent delegates to the Continental Congress, but they had been instructed to vote against any proposal for independence. As sentiment began to build in the Continental Congress for a complete break with England after the publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense in January 1776, members of the Continental Congress took a great interest in Pennsylvania's internal affairs.

When an election held in May of 1776 returned the old guard Assemblymen to office, the Continental Congress responded by issuing a call for a new form of government "sufficient to the exigencies of affairs." Opponents of the Assembly demanded a convention be called to "take the sense of the province." Associators and Committees of Correspondence met throughout the province to vote their support for more aggressive action and to send delegates to a convention. The Assembly tried to meet this challenge by changing their instructions to the delegates to the Continental Congress, but events overtook them. In late June, the new convention representatives met in Philadelphia and by July 8 elected delegates to write a new state constitution. Deliberations began one week later under the chairmanship of Benjamin Franklin. While it appears that George Bryan, James Cannon, and Benjamin Franklin were the principal authors of the new constitution, others such as George Clymer, Timothy Matlack and even Thomas Paine might have been involved in its creation. Influenced by the language of the Stamp Act congress, the First Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence, the authors crafted a document that proclaimed in detail the rights of citizens and expanded the voting franchise to all tax paying free men. Power resided in a unicameral legislature whose members were elected to one-year terms. Government was to be administered by a twelve-member Supreme Executive Council. The Assembly and Council together would elect one of these men to be President (a position largely controlled by the Council). A Council of Censors was created whose members were to be elected every seven years to conduct, for a year, an evaluation of the activities of the government and to "censure" those actions that were deemed to have violated the new constitution. Any changes to the constitution could only be made through this Council of Censors.

In late September, the Convention proclaimed this constitution and called for elections in November for a new Assembly to be convened under its provisions. By this time, the insurgents had already taken the reins of power from the old Assembly through popular support and the fact that the Second Continental Congress dealt only with the newcomers. As a result, no formal ratification of the new constitution was thought necessary.
In expanding the franchise and enumerating the rights of citizens, the framers of this new constitution increased the democratic nature of Pennsylvania's governing charter. In placing power in the hands of a single assembly, with neither a governor to veto laws nor an upper house to check popular enthusiasms, they set the stage for a less effective government. By writing test oaths into the document, they also assured that their opponents could not participate in the government, thus ensuring the very conditions of one-party rule this constitution had been intended to eliminate.

The new constitution was controversial from the beginning. Soon after the end of the Revolutionary War a new constitution was adopted in 1790, one which more evenly considered the complexities of government and the rights of citizens. Further constitutional development, however, would take place in the context of the democratic expansion created by this revolutionary constitution.