That was the date in 1777 when the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York, an ad hoc group elected the previous year to guide New York’s Revolutionary War efforts and develop its first constitution, completed its work.
It was remarkable document, prepared on the fly by the patriot leaders who had fled from the city of New York to White Plains, to Fishkill and finally to Kingston where they completed their work.
Hastily-organized elections were held in the spring and summer and the first legislature assembled in Kingston in September and got to work. But the fledgling government had to flee as British troops assaulted and burned Kingston on October 16. It soon re-assembled in Poughkeepsie and resumed work. By then, patriot forces had defeated British incursions from the west (at Oriskany), the north (at Saratoga), and the east (at Bennington). New York State was here to stay. The new constitution endured without major changes until 1821.
The original copy of the first constitution is preserved in the New York State Archives. You can read it online at the Yale Law School Avalon Project. William A. Polf’s 1777: The Political Revolution and New York’s First Constitution provides a good introduction. It is also described in Peter Galie, Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York.
The story of New York State’s coming into existence is one of most engaging and exciting in American history. April 20th is important, somewhat comparable for New York to a blend of two dates, July 4th, Independence Day, and September 17th, the date in 1787 when the U.S. Constitution was finalized, for the United States as a whole.
A previous post discussed the significance of the date and some earlier efforts to commemorate New York’s role in the Revolution. But New York’s birthday passes every year without official recognition, acknowledgement or commentary in the media, events in schools, etc.
A state commemoration along the lines of Massachusetts’ Patriot’s Day (which happens to be a day earlier, April 19) might be considered as a long-term goal. Massachusetts has been doing that 1894.
Canada has something similar, called Canada Day (July 1), characterized last year as “a time of great reflection on our past and the future we want to build together.”
Virginia has Virginia History Day, an affiliate of National History Day, “a project-based learning program for students grades 4-12. This interdisciplinary research project helps students develop historical thinking and literacy skills while making the study of history engaging, relevant, and most of all, fun!”
But short of a formal, official designation of April 20th as New York State’s Birthday, there are lots of other possibilities, e.g.:
*Proclamation by the governor and resolutions by both houses of the state legislature.
*Local events organized by local government historians and historical societies.
*Discussion in the schools, e.g., as part of broader discussions of constitutional democracy and civic responsibilities in social studies and history classes. The recent report on civics education, Educating for American Democracy recommends more study of ””the social political and institutional history of the United States in its founding era, as well as the theoretical underpinnings of our constitutional design. The state constitutions and the federal 1787 Constitution, as amended, form diverse peoples and places into an American people: one overarching political community.”
*Op-ed pieces, essays on social media, etc., written by historians and others.
*Integration into discussions about current events, issues and change over time. As an example, the first state constitution was deeply flawed in some ways. It perpetuated slavery, denied women voting rights and restricted them for men, and had no bill of rights. These problems were eventually corrected over time, but it took a long time and organized campaigns for change in some cases.
*Using the state constitution celebration to call attention to New York’s historical influence. For instance, the state constitution was in some ways a model for the U.S. Constitution a decade later. That was due in part to the fact that Gouverneur Morris was one of the key writers of both documents.
*Using the commemoration to call attention to one of the most neglected leaders in state history, John Jay. He was the principal architect of the constitution’s principles, its main writer, and the leader in shaping a consensus among contending parties at the convention that led to approval of the final document. He became the state’s first Chief Justice, the nation’s first Chief Justice, and New York’s second Governor. A complex man, like so many of the leaders of the era, he was a slaveholder but tried to get slavery banned in the constitution. That failed, but as Governor, in 1799, he signed a law providing for gradual abolition of slavery.
*Planning now for integrating the story of New York’s birthday into planning for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The American Association’s recent publication, Making History at 250: The Field Guide for the Semiquincentennial, notes that “the 250th anniversary offers an opportunity to reconsider the origins of our government, democratic institutions, and broader civic life.”
* Use the state’s birthday to build awareness, interest and support for New York State History Month in October.
Illustration: “Announcing the Founding,” a later illustration of Secretary of the 1777 Convention, Robert Benson, mounted a barrel in front of the Kingston courthouse reading the State’s new constitution to assembled citizens (source unknown).