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Chapter Thirty-Four. State constitution-making, through 1781

Donald S. Lutz

Subject History

Place Northern America » United States of America

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1700-1799

Key-Topics American War of Independence, state

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405116749.2003.00037.x


The early state constitutions stand as the fulcrum in American constitutional history. On the one hand they were the culmination of colonial political forms, and thus embodied and summarized that rich experience. On the other hand, they formed the ground upon which first the Articles of Confederation and then the United States Constitution was erected. Even the Declaration of Independence owed most of its contents to the state constitutions. Although each state maintained a basic continuity with its colonial institutions, and despite considerable innovation in some instances, the state constitutions written between 1775 and 1781 converged towards a common model characterized by a dominant bicameral legislature, a weak executive, and annual elections using a broad electorate. The standard model gradually evolved towards a more balanced executive-legislative relationship, and moved the power for adopting constitutions from the legislature to the people. This evolution achieved full expression in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which became a model for later state constitutions, and, some feel, for the United States Constitution as well. The 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution represented a more radical alternative, and for a while was widely copied. However, the struggle in state constitution-making between those seeking a more radical, direct form of democracy and those inclined ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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