New York State’s 243rd Birthday is coming up on April 20.
That is the day that the convention of representatives, an outgrowth of the New York Provincial Congress, approved the first state constitution in 1777, at Kingston. (Some people say the appropriate date is actually two days later, April 22. On that day, the convention’s secretary Robert Benson, read the new constitution aloud to Kingston citizens in front of the court house. In effect, Benson’s dramatic reading proclaimed the new state into existence.)
The document declared that it was created “in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State.” Creating a governing document in the name of the people being governed was, in 1777, an extraordinary, unprecedented step.
The constitution turned out to be an extraordinary, durable document that guided New York from rebellious colony to statehood. It provided the basis for the first state government, which was up and running by the fall of 1777. It provided a partial model for the U.S. Constitution a decade later. Of course, it had what we now recognize as glaring limits: women’s rights were left out, slavery was left intact, and voting rights were curtailed. But the first constitution lasted, with a few changes, until early into the 19th century. Even then, the changes were relatively minor.
The constitution was a concise document, about 7,700 words. The actual text is even shorter than that because about a fifth of the document was devoted to reprinting the Declaration of Independence. You can read the text of the constitution here.
New Yorkers tend to be modest about their state’s historical achievements. New York’s first constitution has not received enough historical attention.
But in 1877, the centennial of the constitution, there were celebratory commemorations at Kingston and at the sites of the major Revolutionary War battles in New York that year, including Saratoga and Oriskany.
It was not a time for modesty.
Chauncey Depew, a noted politician, business leader and orator, in a speech at Kingston, noted that when the constitution writers finished their work, “thus passed into history this remarkable convention. In lofty patriotism, steadfastness of purpose, practical wisdom and liberal statesmanship, it had few, if any, equals, even among the legislative bodies of extraordinary merit which marked the era Its address to the people, drafted by [John] Jay, and declared by Jefferson the ablest document of the period, is a most compact and eloquent statement of the fundamental principles of free government, and was republished by Congress for the whole country, and translated into foreign tongues.”
Former governor Horatio Seymour asserted that the state constitution showed that its writers “were thoroughly versed in principles of civil liberty and good government. It was hailed throughout the country as a triumph for the cause of independence. It was better than a victory upon a battlefield.”
The state published a major commemorative volume on the constitution and 1777 battles in 1879, The Centennial Celebrations of the State of New York.
A century later, during the American Revolution bicentennial, the launching of New York State was overshadowed by the birth of the United States. The New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, located in the Office of State History, issued a number of publications about New York’s role in the Revolution. It produced two popular films about the battles in New York, “And Take Me By the Hand,” and “The Other Side of Victory.” The Commission launched a “Festival Barge” which plied the state’s waterways with information about life in Revolutionary-era New York. It designated towns, villages, and cities that organized commemorative activities as “Bicentennial Communities.”
But there was not a great deal about the state constitution itself. The Commission did, however, produce a booklet by William A. Polf in 1977, 1777: The Political Revolution and New York’s First Constitution.
That booklet is still, so far as I know, the only volume that covers the production of the constitution. There is to date no book on the topic. Peter Galie gives the 1777 constitution a chapter in his book Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York (Fordham University Press, 1996). Willi Paul Adams gives it some coverage in his book The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).
John Jay, the lead writer of the 1777 constitution – and first Chief Justice of the new state, president of the Continental Congress, writer of some of the Federalist Papers and advocate for New York’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, first Chief Justice of the United States, and New York’s second governor – has not received enough historical attention.
Most New Yorkers today are not familiar with the first constitution. The State’s upcoming birth date might be a good time to call public attention to the state’s constitutional history.