Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776

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Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (ratified September 28, 1776) was the state's first constitution following their declaration of independence and has been described as the most democratic in America; although it notably based rights in "men" not in "persons," as contemporaneous constitutions did in neighboring areas such as New Jersey, and as the 1689 English Bill of Rights and 1787 U.S. Constitution and 1791 U.S. Bill of Rights did. It was drafted by Robert Whitehill,[1] Timothy Matlack, Dr. Thomas Young, George Bryan, James Cannon, and Benjamin Franklin. Pennsylvania's innovative and highly democratic government structure, featuring a unicameral legislature and collective executive[2], may have influenced the later French Republic's formation under the French Constitution of 1793.


Pennsylvania's new constitution was tied to ongoing political changes within the province in 1776. As the Revolution evolved, the outlook of some political leaders exceeded that of the Provincial Assembly (and its supporters) and the Deputy Governor, John Penn. Extralegal committees were established that would eventually displace and take over the government.

For example in June 1774, after Governor Penn refused to convene the Assembly to consider the question of discussing some action to the British government’s response to the Boston Tea Party, a public meeting held, under the leadership of John Dickinson and Thomas Willing, attracted 8,000 in Philadelphia to call for the First Continental Congress and establish a committee of correspondence to communicate with the other colonies.[3] Although these measures were subsequently adopted by the Assembly, other public action committees supported by large public demonstrations (in the thousands) outpaced Assembly action, including the establishment of a military association for defense (again validated by the Assembly later as the Committee of Safety).[4] In May 1776, when the Second Continental Congress called for dispensing Royal Governors and Assemblies that did not act with the groups (parties) opposing the Crown. The Pennsylvania Provincial Conference in June 1776 resolved “that the present Assembly of the Colony is ‘not competent to the exigencies of affairs’ and that a Provincial Convention ought to be called for inaugurating a form of Colonial government, in compliance with the recommendation of Congress”.[5]

Up until this point, many influential leaders in Pennsylvania did not support independence from the Crown but favored reconciliation. The Continental Congress, however, influenced the more radical elements in Pennsylvania to overturn the influence of these more conservative leaders[6]. Shortly afterwards, in June 1776 these committees called a state convention to meet on July 15, 1776. The convention superseded the old government completely[7], established a Council of Safety to rule in the interim, and drew up the commonwealth (state) constitution, adopted on September 28, 1776. The change of government, however, was opposed by many of the citizens - John Dickinson, James Wilson, Robert Morris, and Frederick Muhlenberg, among others.[8]

The constitutional convention met at Philadelphia and elected Benjamin Franklin, president, Colonel George Ross, vice-president, John Morris, secretary, and Jacob Garrigues, assistant-secretary. From its inception, the convention assumed the interim political power of the state. The constitution was completed on September 28, when it was read in convention for the last time, signed by the president and members, and transmitted to the Committee of Safety, with directions to deliver it to the general assembly of the state, at their first meeting, immediately after they should have chosen their speaker.[9] The first meeting of the Pennsylvania General Assembly took place on November 28, 1776.[10] Thomas Wharton Jr., who had been the President of the Committee of Safety was chosen as President of the Supreme Executive Council in June 1777 and became, in effect, the first Governor of the Commonwealth.[11]


It contained several innovations that were quite radical for that era, including:

  • Voting franchise for all men who had paid taxes, an innovation because it was somewhat less restrictive than a requirement that voters own property
  • A unicameral legislature, with members elected for one term.
  • A twelve-member Supreme Executive Council to administer the government.
  • A judiciary appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms, removable at any time.
  • The provision that all approved legislation would take effect only at the next session of the Assembly, so the people of the state could assess the utility of the proposed law.
  • A President elected by the Assembly and Council together. Thomas Wharton Jr. was chosen in 1777 to be the first President of the Supreme Executive Council.
  • A Council of Censors (elected every seven years) to conduct an evaluation of the activities of the state government. It could censure actions by the government, order impeachments and recommend to the legislature the repeal of laws that appeared to violate the constitution. The Council of Censors was the only body with the authority to call a convention to amend the constitution.[12]

The constitution also established Pennsylvania's official title, the "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." Three other states (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia) are presently self-designated as "commonwealths." Additionally, the constitution served as a template for Vermont's 1777 constitution, which gave birth to the state (or what historians refer to as the Vermont Republic, because claim over the land was disputed by both New York and New Hampshire, until it was formally admitted into the Union in 1791).

Declaration of Rights[edit]

The Pennsylvania constitution included a declaration of rights that coincided with the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776.



I. That all men are born equally free, and independent; and have certain, natural, inherent, and inalienable rights; amongst which are; the enjoying and defending of life and liberty; acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

II. That all men have a natural, and unalienable right, to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought, or of right, can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, CONTRARY TO, OR AGAINST, his own free will and consent: NOR can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that NO AUTHORITY can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

III. That THE PEOPLE of this State have the sole, exclusive, and inherent right of governing; and regulating, the internal police of the same.

IV. That all power being originally inherent in, and consequently derived from, the people; therefore all officers of government, whether legislative, or executive, are their trustees, and servants, and at all times accountable to them.

V. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community; And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal.

VI. That those who are employed in the legislative and executive business of the State, may he restrained from oppression, the people have a right, at such periods as they may think proper, to reduce their public officers to a private station, and supply the vacancies by certain and regular elections.

VII. That all elections ought to be free; and that all free men having a sufficient evident common interest with, and attachment to the community, have a right to elect officers, or to be elected into office.

VIII. That every member of society hath a right to be protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property, and therefore is bound to contribute his proportion towards the expense of that protection, and yield his personal service when necessary, or an equivalent thereto: But no part of a man's property can be justly taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent, or that of his legal representatives: Nor can any man who is conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms, be justly compelled thereto, if he will pay such equivalent, nor are the people bound by any laws, but such as they have in like manner assented to, for their common good.

IX. That in all prosecutions for criminal offenses, a man hath a right to be heard by himself and his council [counsel], to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the witnesses, to call for evidence in his favour, and a speedy public trial, by an impartial jury of the country, without the unanimous consent of which jury he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; nor can any man be justly deprived of his liberty except by the laws of the land, or the judgment of his peers.

X. That the people have a right to hold themselves, their houses, papers, and possessions free from search and seizure, and therefore warrants without oaths or affirmations first made, affording a sufficient foundation for them, and whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded or required to search suspected places, or to seize any person or persons, his or their property, not particularly described, are contrary to that right, and ought not to be granted.

XI. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the parties have a right to trial by jury, which ought to be held sacred.

XII. That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments; therefore the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained.

XIII. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

XIV. That a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles and a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality are absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty, and keep a government free: The people ought therefore to pay particular attention to these points in the choice of officers and representatives, and have a right to exact a due and constant regard to them, from their legislatures and magistrates, in the making and executing such laws as are necessary for the good government of the state.

XV. That all men have a natural inherent right to emigrate from one state to another that will receive them, or to form a new state in vacant countries, or in such countries as they can purchase, whenever they think that thereby they may promote their own happiness.

XVI. That the people have a right to assemble together, to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the legislature for redress of grievances, by address, petition, or remonstrance.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "a drafter of the 1776 state constitution"
  2. ^ The colonial "constitution" had also provided for a unicameral Assembly and a Provincial Council which, from time to time throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, acted as a collective executive when Deputy Governors were unavailable.
  3. ^ Armor, William C., Lives of the Governors of Pennsylvania, With the Incidental History of the State, from 1609 to 1872, Philadelphia, J.K. Simon (1873)
  4. ^ Armor 1873
  5. ^ Armor 1873 See also Gordon, T.F., The History of Pennsylvania, from its discovery by Europeans to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Carey, Lea & Carey, Philadelphia, 1829
  6. ^ Hogeland, William, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, New York, Simon & Schuster (2010)
  7. ^ On the first day devoted to business the conference declared that "the present government of this province is not competent to the exigencies of our affairs," and that it was absolutely necessary that "a provincial convention be called by this conference for the express purpose of forming a new government in this province on the authority of the people only”. See Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series (Harrisburg, 1879-90), III, p. 639.
  8. ^ Armor 1873 and Gordon 1826
  9. ^ Armor 1873 and Gordon 1826
  10. ^ The Acts of the General Assembly of the Common-Wealth of Pennsylvania, enacted into Laws, since the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth day of July, A.D. 1776, Dunlap Philadelphia (1779)
  11. ^ Hazard, S. (Ed.), The Register of Pennsylvania, Volume 2 – No. 1 (No. 29), Geddes Philadelphia (July 19, 1828), p. 26
  12. ^ Gordon, S. Wood (1969). The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1998 ed.). University of North Carolina Press. p. 339. ISBN 978-0-8078-4723-7.
  13. ^ Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights. Retrieved from

External links[edit]