Constitution of Massachusetts
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the fundamental governing document of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the 50 individual state governments that make up the United States of America. It was drafted by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin during the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention between September 1 and October 30, 1779. Following approval by town meetings, the Constitution was ratified on June 15, 1780, became effective on October 25, 1780, and remains the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world. The Massachusetts Constitution was a model for the Constitution of the United States of America, drafted seven years later.
The Massachusetts Constitution was the last of the first set of the state constitutions to be written. Consequently, it was more sophisticated than many of the other documents. Among the improvements was the structure of the document itself. Instead of just a listing of provisions, it had a structure of chapters, sections, and articles. This structure was replicated by the United States Constitution. It also had substantial influence on the subsequent revisions of many of the other state constitutions. The Massachusetts Constitution has four parts: a preamble, a declaration of rights, a description of the framework of government, and articles of amendment.
An earlier draft by the Massachusetts General Court was rejected by the people due to lack of public participation. Subsequently, in the summer of 1779, delegates were elected to a constitutional convention, which met in Cambridge in September 1779. The convention chose a committee of thirty members to prepare a new constitution and declaration of rights.
To write a new constitution, the committee of thirty members appointed a subcommittee consisting of James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams. That subcommittee in turn assigned the task of preparing a first draft to John Adams alone, a "sub-sub committee of one," as Adams later referred to it. For the new declaration of rights, the committee of thirty members assigned the drafting directly to John Adams. However, the article on religion was referred to clergy. Perhaps the most famous line in Adams's draft declaration of rights was this: "All men are born equally free and independent...." This was slightly revised before being adopted by the constitutional convention: "All men are born free and equal...."
Male voters 21 years or older ratified the constitution, including the declaration of rights, that was proposed by the convention. At the insistence of John Adams, the document referred to the state as a "commonwealth."
The preamble of the constitution bears some resemblance to the United States Constitution's in a few phrases near the end. It reads:
|“||The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquillity their natural rights, and the blessings of life: and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.
The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation, and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.
We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Part the First: A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
This part consists of thirty articles. The first states:
|“||Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.||”|
This Article was the subject of a landmark case in 1781 before a Massachusetts court sitting in Great Barrington, Brom and Bett v. Ashley. Elizabeth Freeman (whose slave name was "Bett"), a black slave owned by Colonel John Ashley, sued for her freedom based on this article. The jury agreed that slavery was inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution and awarded Freeman £5 in damages and her freedom. A few years later, Quock Walker, a black slave, sued his master for false imprisonment; the jury found for Walker, and awarded him damages of £50. His master was then subject to criminal prosecution for assault and battery against Walker and was found guilty by a jury, which imposed a fine of 40/- (£2). In this manner, slavery lost any and all legal protection in Massachusetts, making it a tortious act under the law, effectively abolishing it within the Commonwealth.
This Article was also the basis for the 2003 Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that required the Commonwealth to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples on an equal basis with different-sex couples.
This article was later amended to substitute the word "people" for the word "men".
The next several Articles within the "Part the First" in the original 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts called upon the people of the Commonwealth as being their "right as well as the duty of all men" (Article II) to a strong religious conviction and belief.
|“||Article II. It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, or for his religious profession or sentiments, provided he doth not disturb the public peace or obstruct others in their religious worship.||”|
Article III continued in bringing attention to the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that "the happiness of a people" and "preservation of civil government" is explicitly tied to religion and morality. Further, that "support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality" be an active element of the civil government.
|“||Article III. As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality: Therefore, To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.
And the people of this commonwealth have also a right to, and do, invest their legislature with authority to enjoin upon all the subject an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid, at stated times and seasons, if there be any on whose instructions they can conscientiously and conveniently attend.
Provided, notwithstanding, That the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic, or religious societies, shall at all times have the exclusive right and electing their public teachers and of contracting with them for their support and maintenance.
And all moneys paid by the subject to the support of public worship and of public teachers aforesaid shall, if he require it, be uniformly applied to the support of the public teacher or teachers of his own religious sect or denomination, provided there be any on whose instructions he attends; otherwise it may be paid toward the support of the teacher or teachers of the parish or precinct in which the said moneys are raised.
And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law; and no subordination of any sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.
Part the Second: The Frame of Government
Chapter I, Section I
The opening of the "Part the Second" lays down the official name of the State of Massachusetts.
|“||The people, inhabiting the territory formerly called the Province of Massachusetts Bay, do hereby solemnly and mutually agree with each other, to form themselves into a free, sovereign, and independent body politic, or state by the name of "THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS".||”|
The first three articles in Chapter I, Section I,of the Massachusetts Constitution establishes the three primary branches of government; an executive, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary. The design of this system, unique at the time, was created to ensure the proper separation of power between the different entities. The framers of the state constitution used this tool to prevent the abuse of power by any one branch.
|“||Article I. The department of legislation shall be formed by two branches, a Senate and House of Representatives: each of which shall have a negative on the other.||”|
|“||Article II. No bill or resolve of the senate or house of representatives shall become a law, and have force as such, until it shall have been laid before the governor for his revisal...||”|
|“||Article III. The general court shall forever have full power and authority to erect and constitute judicatories and courts of record, or other courts, to be held in the name of the commonwealth..."||”|
Articles of Amendment
One hundred and twenty Articles of Amendment have been added to the Massachusetts Constitution. The most recent, which disqualified incarcerated felons from voting, was approved by a vote of 60.3% to 33.9% in 2000.
The amendment process is governed by the 48th Article of Amendment to the Constitution, which establishes an "indirect initiative" process that requires action by the state legislature followed by a referendum. For an amendment to be placed before the voters as a referendum, a state constitutional convention–a joint meeting of both houses of the legislature sitting as one body–in each of two successive two-year legislative sessions must provide the required number of votes. That number varies according to how the proposed amendment comes before the convention. If it is a legislative amendment, i.e., one legislator has proposed, the threshold is 50% of the members. If it is an initiative amendment, i.e., one put forward by petition, the threshold is 25% of the members. In both cases, the calculation of the votes is based on the number of seats in the constitutional convention, not members present or seated. The number of certified signatures required on the petitions is 3% of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor (excluding blanks) at the immediately preceding state election.
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- Kemp, Roger (2010). Documents of American Democracy. p. 59.
- Murrin, John (2011). Liberty, Power, and Equality: A History.
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- Moore, George (1866). Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts. pp. 200–201.
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- Massachusetts Legislature The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
- "Supreme Court won't hear challenge to Mass. bar on voting by felony inmates". Boston Globe. October 18, 2010. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
- Massachusetts Legislature: Article XLVIII, accessed July 5, 2013
- Works related to Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1780) at Wikisource
- Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Full Text)