Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York

By Peter J. Galie | Go to book overview

2
The First Constitution,
1777: Constitutional
Sobriety in a
Revolutionary War

"Our Free and Happy Constitution"

Governor George Clinton,
Inaugural Address, 1777

ECHOING THE THOUGHTS of the great social contract thinker John Locke, a committee of the Third Provincial Congress of New York reported on May 27, 1776, that the "old form of Government is becoming, ipso facto dissolved," and recommended a new election be called, as "the right of framing, creating, or remodelling Civil Government is and ought to be in the People." 1 These elections provided the authorization for that body to frame a new constitution for New York.

On July 9, 1776, delegates selected at this special election convened at the Court House in White Plains as the Fourth Provincial Congress. Their purpose was, as they put it, "to institute and establish such a government as they shall deem best calculated to secure the rights, liberties and happiness of the good people of this colony. . . ." 2 The Congress renamed itself "The Convention of Representatives of the State of New York" on July 10, 1776, though it was simultaneously a wartime legislature and a constitutional convention. The Third Provincial Congress, troubled by the lack of any mandate to frame a new government, had called for a special election that would produce a body so authorized. It did not think it necessary, however, to form a special body explicitly for this purpose, nor did it require that the results be submitted to the people for ratification. The absence of popular ratification was the basis for objections raised by artisans and "mechanicks" of New York City who disputed the right of a Provincial Congress to declare and to adopt the fundamental law of the state.

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