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Massachusetts Constitution (October 25, 1780)


The "Constitution or Form of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts" is the classic American state constitution and the oldest surviving written constitution in the United States (or the world), distinguished in addition by the fact that it was framed by the world's first constitutional convention. But for two states which merely modified their colonial charters, all the original thirteen states except Massachusetts had adopted their first constitutions by 1778 and in every case the body that enacted ordinary legislation framed the constitution and promulgated it. The Massachusetts legislature also framed a constitution but resorted to the novel step of submitting it to the voters for approval, and they rejected it. Then, in accordance with a proposal first advanced in the concord town resolutions of 1776, a special constitutional convention elected for the sole purpose of drawing up a document of fundamental law performed the task and sent it out for ratification, article by article. Universal manhood suffrage prevailed in the vote for delegates to the convention and for popular ratification. Massachusetts, following democratic procedures for institutionalizing the social compact theory of government to devise a frame of government and a supreme law, provided the model that subsequently became common throughout the United States. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780, with amendments, still continues as the constitution of that commonwealth.

john adams, the principal framer of the constitution, once proudly wrote, "I made a Constitution for Massachusetts, which finally made the Constitution of the United States." His exaggeration was pardonable, because no other state constitution so much influenced the framing of the national Constitution. Some earlier state constitutions had referred to the principle of separation of powers but had made their legislatures dominant, even domineering. Massachusetts not only provided the fullest statement of the principle but also put it into practice. Its judges, appointed by the governor, were to hold office "during good behavior " with undiminishable salaries. Its governor was the model for the presidency of the United States. He was to be elected by the voters, rather than by the legislature as in other states, and be a strong executive. He appointed the members of his own council or cabinet and, indeed, appointed all judicial officers down to local magistrates and registers of probate as well as sheriffs, coroners, and the state attorney general. He was "commander-in-chief of the army and navy"; he had the pardoning power; and he alone among the first governors of the thirteen states had a sole veto power over legislation, which could be overridden only by a two-thirds vote of both houses. The state senate and house of representatives were also precursors of the national bicameral system. No original state constitution had a better system of checks and balances than Massachusetts's.

Its constitution was divided into three parts: a preamble, a declaration of rights, and a frame of government. The preamble, on the general purposes of the state, explicitly embodied the social compact theory of the origin of the body politic. The declaration of rights, although containing little not found in constitutions previously framed by other states, was the most comprehensive compendium of its kind, and it phrased the rights which it guaranteed in language most influential in framing the bill of rights of the Constitution of the United States. The injunction against " unreasonable searches and seizures" in the fourth amendment derives from the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and the injunction "shall not" instead of the pallid "ought not" ("liberty of the press ought not be restrained") was also a Massachusetts innovation. The one grave deficiency of the Massachusetts document was its creation of a multiple establishment of religion that was inconsistent with its guarantee of religious liberty.

Leonard W. Levy


Adams, Willi Paul 1980 The First American Constitutions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Peters, Ronald M., Jr. 1978 The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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