Collapse. In 1774 the king and Parliament suspended Massachusetts’s government. The new royal governor, Thomas Gage, dissolved the assembly, restricted the town meetings, and replaced all elected sheriffs, magistrates, and other officials with his own appointees. But Gage found he could not govern by decree. In the late summer and fall of 1774 county conventions assembled throughout the colony, calling on citizens to choose their own officials and to pay taxes to collectors appointed by their county conventions and calling on all counties to choose members of a new legislative body to replace the dissolved General Court. The conventions asked the Continental Congress, which the colonies had formed in response to the attack on Massachusetts, for advice in how to proceed with framing a government, and in June 1775, after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Congress recommended that Massachusetts choose an assembly and governor’s council and declare the office of governor vacant until the king appointed a new governor, under the terms of the 1691 charter. By suspending the government, Massachusetts believed the king had acted illegally. The legal step for them to take would be simply to resume functioning under the charter.
Push for Change. The new elected assembly assumed the functions of the old charter government and governed the state, without a governor, for five years. When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, and Congress declared independence in July, it became clear the king would not be appointing a new governor for Massachusetts. The twenty-eight member Governor’s Council acted as an executive. The assembly expanded the right to vote, lowering the property qualifications of the old charter. However, some in Massachusetts began to argue that the new government did not have the legitimate power to govern. The old charter, they said, was a compact between the king and the people of the colony. The new government had been created by the legislature without the approval of the people. In September 1776 the legislature asked the towns if they would approve its conversion into a constitutional convention and if they would want the constitution this body wrote to be submitted to them before the legislature ratified it.
Writing a Constitution. The people in their town meetings overwhelmingly rejected the idea. A constitution, they said, was a fundamental law. It could only be created by the sovereign power of the state, which meant the people of the state, not their elected legislature. Since the constitution controlled and created the legislature, the legislature could not simply create the constitution. In January 1777 a legislative committee recommended that the towns choose delegates to a special constitutional convention. The whole house rejected this idea, and in March asked the people to take special care in choosing their next representatives to the legislature, as they would not only make laws but would also write a new state constitution. This constitution would be submitted to the people of the state for ratification: when two-thirds of the adult freemen in the town meetings voted for ratification, it would take effect.
Document. Boston’s town meeting rejected this idea and instructed her representatives not to participate in drawing up a constitution. Some western towns sent delegates to a meeting in Worcester to protest the legislature’s acting as a constitutional convention; but the assembly went ahead with its work, and a committee led by Robert Treat Paine, James Warren, James Prescott, and Thomas Cushing drafted a constitution. The constitution created a legislature with two branches: the upper house, or Senate, would be chosen by the lower house, as would the governor, who would not be able to act without the advice and consent of the Senate. The constitution had no bill of rights and was so poorly written that the assembly’s chaplain thought the assembly meant to have it rejected so they could govern under the old charter.
Rejection. The people did reject this constitution by a vote of 2,083 in favor, 9,972 against. Two-thirds of the voters would need to approve the constitution for it to become law; but more than three-fourths voted against it. The people, who voted in their town meetings, insisted that a fundamental law such as a constitution could only be created by a convention chosen specifically for that purpose.
Essex Result vs. Democracy. In Essex County a group of leading citizens published a call for a special convention and outlined the kind of government they would like to see created. The Essex Result, as their manifesto was called, proposed a bill of rights and a more clearly defined role, and more independence for the three branches of government. These men of wealth from Essex County wanted the government to be in the hands of other men of wealth, and they wanted to limit the lower class’s power to interfere with property. On the other side citizens in the western part of the state feared the power of merchants such as these Essex men in Boston and Salem, whose wealth exaggerated their influence. These two very different groups, wealthy men pushing for an aristocratic government and westerners pushing for a more democratic one, joined together to force the legislature to call a special state convention. In June 1779 the people elected delegates to a special state convention to draft a constitution.
Convention. On 1 September 1779 the state convention opened in Cambridge. Its 293 delegates had been chosen by the adult freemen in the town meetings and thus were more representative than the legislature, which was elected by freemen who owned property that was worth £40 (about $2,300 today) or that provided an annual income of 40 shillings. The convention had two powerful factions: the Boston and Salem merchants, who wanted a state government to protect their property from oppressive taxation; and the proponents of democracy, consisting of the farmers of the west and the urban tradesmen and artisans, including patriot leader Samuel Adams of Boston. These two rival factions were conciliated by the able work of Samuel Adams’s cousin, John Adams, representative from Braintree. John Adams had returned from Europe barely a month before the Convention met, but he had thought more about government than any other man in America. He was quickly named to a committee of thirty to draft a constitution. He wrote, “I was by the Convention put upon a Committee—by the Committee upon the Subcommitee—and by the Subcommitee appointed a Sub SubCommitee—so that I had the honour to be the principal Engineer.”
Declaration of Rights. The constitution John Adams drafted began by explaining that a government existed “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 tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life.” The constitution opened with a declaration of rights, which stated that “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights” and prohibited the legislature from exercising executive or judicial powers, or the executive interfering with the legislature or judiciary, or the judiciary exercising legislative or executive powers. This constitutional protection of the separation of powers would ensure that the government of Massachusetts would “be a government of laws and not of men.”
Balanced Government. Adams was harshly critical of Pennsylvania’s experiment with a unicameral legislature and no governor to check it. Adams believed society had natural divisions, that the division between rich and poor, between the Boston merchants and the western farmers and urban artisans was a natural development. For Adams an ideal government would balance these different social orders or classes so that both rich and poor could live in peace under one government. The government should prevent either from tyrannizing over the other. Adams’s constitution for Massachusetts had a two-house legislature and gave the governor a veto over legislation. The two-house model was based partly on the British government, which has a House of Commons, representing common people, and a House of Lords, representing aristocracy. How could one create this kind of balance in a society without a titled, hereditary aristocracy?
Property Qualifications. In his constitution Adams required certain property qualifications for members of the different Houses. Members of the House of Representatives
would have to own at least £100 ($5,700 today) worth of property in the town he represented; Senators would have either a freehold estate worth £300 ($17,000) or real property worth £600. Each town would have at least one representative while larger ones could have more (an additional representative for every 225 people). Senators would be chosen by districts, which would be created based on the amount of taxes paid by each area. Adams imagined that the state could be divided into thirteen Senate districts based on taxes, and thus Senators would represent property. The governor, who had to own an estate worth £1,000, would serve a one-year term and would be chosen directly by the people, who would also choose the lieutenant governor and the members of the governor’s council. The governor would consult this council before choosing judges and magistrates, and he could veto laws passed by the legislature though the legislature by a two-thirds vote could override his veto. (No governor would use this veto before 1825). Adams completed his draft of the constitution, submitted it to the convention, and on November 13 sailed for Europe.
Ratification. The Convention made a few minor changes after Adams sailed and then submitted the constitution to the people of Massachusetts for ratification. More than two-thirds of the voters in their town meetings approved the constitution, and on 15 June 1780 the new constitution took effect. By then Adams was back in Europe. In his three months at home he had written a new constitution for his state that would endure, with minor changes, for more than two centuries, making it the longest surviving written constitution in the history of the world.
Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 1771–1781, volume 2, edited by Lyman H. Butterfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961);