“We the People”
From State Constitutions to the
United States Constitution
The road to the United States Constitution was a long and arduous way, filled not only with uncertainties but also with lively debates and hopes for carrying on the republican spirit. With a deep-seated distrust in a powerful central government Americans placed great emphasis on the independence of their individual states. This suspicion was reflected in the states’ constitutions and in the power structure of state governments. Gordon S. Wood argues in his book The American Revolution: A History, that the constitutions of the states and the process of writing the US Constitution reflected a change in political thought. Looking at the process of constitution writing the authors of the US Constitution actually sought to preserve the republican ideals upon which the revolution was based. Even before the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, the Continental Congress advised the thirteen colonies to “adopt new governments under the authority of the people”, therefore laying the foundation on how to approach the new constitutions. According to Wood, “by the end of 1776, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina had adopted new constitutions.” These state constitutions were seen as barriers against government authority, carrying on a concept from the states’ charters. However, the new state constitutions were different from their charters in that they specified in writing the power of state government as well as the rights of the citizens. The most important part of the new state constitutions was to prevent governors from exercising too much power over the citizens and encroach on their liberties. Instead, actual power now rested with the elected legislatures, political authority was transferred from the governor to the state legislature. The new independent states remembered too well the past abuses of the royal governors and deliberately reversed the old British rule. This concept of giving elected representatives in the legislature the powers that had rested with the royal governor under British rule was radical. Americans were very suspicious in giving their governors too much power, climaxing in Pennsylvania’s decision to eliminate the governor’s position altogether. In all other states, the governor’s power was severely limited and he relied on the legislature in political matters. State legislatures now also elected the governor annually. States made actual representation a reality by creating equal voting districts and extending representation, by requiring annual elections and giving people the right to instruct their representatives. Although these were radical changes, Wood states “Americans believed that they did not get to the heart of the matter and destroy the most insidious and dangerous source of despotism – the executive power of appointment to office.” Legislatures now were also put in charge to appoint executive and judicial offices, setting in motion the concept of separation of power. These radical new concepts of shifting the power to the legislature and the right of the voting public to participate actively in the political arena through their representatives brought advantages as well as new problems with them. It gave Americans a sense of stability and permanence while also legitimizing the revolution. States that had enacted new constitutions before the war ended had the advantage of having legitimate governments in place. This ensured a smoother transition changing from revolutionary colonies to independent states. The greater participation of Americans in political life ensured lively discussions and a diverse legislature. It also gave people a sense of importance that they were able to petition and influence their representatives. However, new problems arose as well. The state constitutions were too radical in that they stripped the governors of most of their power and transferred the...
Bibliography: Wood, Gordon S. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2003.
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