Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776


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Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776

In 1776 Pennsylvania enacted its first state constitution in direct response to the Declaration of Independence and the instructions of the Second Continental Congress to the colonies to reject British rule. Dedicated to the idea of placing authority in the hands of the people, and specifying a broad range of rights, the constitution proved to be controversial. Over the next fourteen years, criticism of the document came both from within Pennsylvania and from across the new nation, and the state replaced the constitution in 1790.

With the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution had begun. Congress issued two resolutions in May 1776 calling for the colonies to reject British rule and establish governments based on the authority of the people. Pennsylvania had refused to join the rebellion, and Congress hoped to win its support. Instead, revolutionaries in Pennsylvania quickly held public meetings and devoted themselves to electing representatives to a constitutional convention. The noted American statesman and philosopher Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in organizing and leading the endeavor. The constitution was debated and revised for four months and was approved on September 28, 1776.

Although five other states also adopted constitutions during this time, the Pennsylvania document was unique. In outlook, the constitution bore the mark of the French philosopher jean-jacques rousseau, a critic of representative government who viewed it as a necessary evil. Thus, under the Pennsylvania Constitution, government would aspire to the democratic ideal of maximum participation by citizens while simultaneously ensuring fair, just, and Legal Representation by politicians.

The constitution pursued this goal in several ways. It created a unicameral legislature—having only one body—a feature unique among American states. Legislators were to be "persons most noted for wisdom and virtue" and were required to swear that they would do nothing "injurious to the people." In an effort to rotate the largest number of people in and out of office, the rules mandated annual elections and limited terms to four out of every seven years. The framers had two goals: to make representatives more responsive to the people, and to allow bad politicians to be removed from office swiftly. To ensure participation by citizens, lawmaking itself was controlled. No bill could be enacted until it had been printed for general reading and, except in rare instances, until a year after its printing.

Strikingly, no provision was made for a state governor. Instead, the executive function fell to an elected twelve-member executive council. These members served staggered three-year terms, making them ineligible for reelection until four years after their terms ended. The framers believed that this approach not only served to train more citizens for political leader-ship, it also helped to thwart what they most detested: "an inconvenient aristocracy" of politicians. The council and the legislature elected a president and vice president. The president could not exercise any power—whether appointing judges or commanding the state's militia—without the consent of a majority of the council.

Just as the constitution placed restraints on lawmakers, so did it look skeptically at the judiciary. Pennsylvania judges were not given independence. The legislature could revoke judgeships, which lasted seven years, for "misbehavior" at any time. As an additional limitation on the judiciary, the constitution created a special body called the Council of Censors, which met every seven years to review the constitutionality of laws.

The rights granted by the Pennsylvania Constitution were among the most liberal in the United States at that time. The right to vote was based on a minimal property interest; it belonged to free men above the age of twenty-one who had resided in the state for one year and had paid public taxes, as well as to the sons of freeholders. The constitution defended the free exercise of religion, stating that no "man who acknowledges the being of a God, [may] be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen" regardless of his "religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship." Other significant liberties included the right to buy one's release from military service, not to be taxed without the consent of lawmakers, and to receive liberal due process in court.

Despite its idealism the Pennsylvania Constitution was neither a success at home nor outside the state. Critics complained about its heavy reliance on a revolving, and extremely powerful, legislature. Influential forces in the state, particularly those in business, attacked the uncertain conditions that it created for commerce. The Federalists, who believed in a strong federal government, detested its independence. Lawyers and judges decried the weakened judiciary. By 1790 the experiment had ended: the state replaced the constitution with one modeled on the U.S. Constitution's Separation of Powers and its adherence to the idea of a republic.

Further readings

Williams, Robert F. 1989. "The State Constitutions of the Founding Decade: Pennsylvania's Radical Constitution and Its Influences on American Constitutionalism." Temple Law Review 62 (summer).

Witte, Harry L. 1995. "Judicial Selection in the People's Democratic Republic of Pennsylvania: Here the People Rule?" Temple Law Review 68 (fall).

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RETHINKING THE MEANING OF LIBERTY AND RIGHTS: THE PENNSYLVANIA CONSTITUTION OF 1776
The Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 was written by the men who would eventually become the most prominent Anti-Federalists in that state.
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