Commonwealth’s First Constitution to be 200 Years Old

News presents briefs about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

On September 28, 1976, Pennsylvania will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Commonwealth’s first Constitution. Pennsylvania Heritage salutes this day be­cause it represents a significant chapter in the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is a day that deserves commemoration.

During the 1770’s the struggle in Pennsylvania between at least three or four groups over who would rule the prov­ince of Pennsylvania was closely tied to the colonial rebel­lion against Great Britain. The Pennsylvanians, who were often criticized by such leading figures as John Adams and Richard Henry Lee for moving too cautiously toward in­dependence, were eventually pushed by a small group of “radical” politicians who wanted both “Home Rule” and a change in “Who Shall Rule at Home.” These individuals took seriously the resolution issued to the thirteen colonies by the Continental Congress on May 15, 1776, that they establish their own government, free from British influence.

The events following the famous public gathering held in the State House Yard (Independence Square) on May 20, 1776, to the proceedings of the Provincial Conference and Convention during the summer of 1776, are well recorded in the annals of Pennsylvania’s revolutionary history and therefore need not be detailed here. To use an analogy Robert Morris expressed in a letter to John Hancock in 1777, economically and politically, Pennsylvania was to the American Revolution “what the heart is to the human body in circulating the blood.” In short, Pennsylvania’s support of the Declaration of Independence and her early decision to adopt a new constitutional government assured the ultimate success of the independence movement begun a decade before.

The Constitution of 1776 was a remarkable frame of government. It was perhaps the most democratic constitu­tion of the original thirteen states. The document was written by an eighteen-man committee established by the “extra-legal” Provincial Convention that met in Philadelphia from July 15, to September 28, 1776. The chief architects of the state constitution included Timothy Matlack, James Cannon, Dr. Thomas Young and David Rittenhouse from the City of Philadelphia, and Robert Whitehill, James Potter, and Bartrem Galbreath from the interior counties. The roles played by several luminaries, such as Benjamin Franklin, elected president of the convention, and George Bryan, the fiery Presbyterian lawyer. are less than clear. In writing the various sections of the frame of government, the committee prepared numerous drafts, some more controversial than others. At any rate, the final version adopted on September 28 was substantially modified in language and substance to include a great many of the objections published before adoption. The vote was 72 to 23.

All of the critics, however, were not appeased. In those revolutionary times the State Constitution of 1776 was never officially submitted for approval either to the people or to the Assembly. Yet, it was not this fact nor the document’s emphasis on unicameralism that in all probability led to its stormy reception, so much as it was the fact that “it represented the doctrine of a single party.”

Preceded by a preamble and by a declaration of rights, the Constitution of 1776 provided for a structure of government that was both democratic and undemocratic, radical and conservative. It consisted of a powerful unicameral legislature, called the Assembly; a distinctive twelve-member executive body, called the Supreme Executive Council; an appointed judiciary that sat during good behavior; a revising committee, which met every seven years, referred to as a Council of Censors; and a local government which was the basis of control for the entire system. All male taxpayers twenty-one years of age and over had the right to vote and were eligible for any office. Also, they could choose their own militia officers as high as the rank of colonel. In each case voting was by ballot. Initially, however, only those persons who took an oath supporting the new constitution could vote. All members of the Assembly were elected for one year (Councillors served three years). and rotation was provided for since no one could serve for more than four years in seven. Finally, executive vetoes, referendums, and all property qualifications for electors and officials were abolished.

This frame of government, which replaced the Charter of 1701, survived fourteen years. Although some historians have preferred to emphasize the governments’ weaknesses over its strengths to account for the constitutional changes that occurred in 1790, the Supreme Executive Council and the General Assembly were overall probably far more suc­cessful in governing the Commonwealth during these years than generally realized. Its accomplishments included not only leading the people successfully through the difficult war years but also provided an atmosphere in which compromise was made possible, allowing for the settlement of emotions and tensions unleashed from the conflict. More specifically, the state government, both directly and indirectly, served as an important democratizing force, for it resolved the immediate issues of popular participation in politics and it served to make issues more clear-cut. Newer types not only voted for the first time but also had an op­portunity to serve the public. Economically, the government dealt successfully with the problems of finance, bank­ing, and land reform. Moreover, Pennsylvanians can be proud of the government established by the Constitution of 1776 for its initiatives taken in fields of slavery (1780), penal reform, reform of the criminal code, treatment of the insane, and its commitment to advance religious freedom and education. Thus, in most respects, Pennsylvania after 1776 was a better place to live because the citizenry functioned in a more open society.