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Building the State (1781-1797)

The Beginning of Self-Government: The States

Timeline

The Articles of Confederation as Law of the Land

Summary

After the Declaration of Independence was adopted, the citizens of the thirteen states of the new United States of America began the process of creating state governments, even as the states battled for their lives in the fighting of Revolutionary War. These governments varied widely in their framework, some drawing more upon the traditions established during the colonial period and some drawing more upon the rising tide of Revolution era radical democratic republican ideology. The signs of traditional influences included bicameral legislatures with an upper and lower house, property requirements for voters, the notion that representatives should exercise independent judgment rather than directly respond to popular sentiments, and the equal division of legislative seats between towns and counties without regard for population. The framing of new state governments reflected the tension between these traditions and the more radical ideology of the revolution.

The process of forming state governments reflected the political identity crisis of the new nation. Eleven of thirteen state constitutions maintained bicameral legislatures. In further adherence to tradition, in most states, the majority of political officials were appointed rather than elected. However, nine of thirteen states reduced property requirements for voting in a show of democratically leaning ideology, but no states fully abolished them. British government had held a constitution to be a body of unwritten customs and practices. State constitutions varied from traditional British constitutions in that they were written documents which were ratified by the people and could be amended by popular vote. These documents clearly enumerated the powers granted and denied to the government. Also, by 1784, every state constitution contained a bill of rights that outlined the civil rights and freedoms accorded citizens.

The trend toward less powerful executive branches and more responsive legislatures emerged clearly throughout the states. The powers of the executive office of the governor were drastically limited by every state constitution. The governor became an elected official and elections were held annually in every state but South Carolina, where they were biannual. Governors had very few powers of appointment and were left only to make some financial decisions and control the militia. Pennsylvania abolished governors altogether. State constitutions also made the legislature more responsive to public feelings and opinions. Of the constitutions written before 1780, eight had both chambers elected by popular vote, one had an electoral college elect the upper chamber, two had the lower house choose the members of the upper house, and two more, Pennsylvania and Georgia, created popularly elected unicameral legislatures.

Other changes wrought by the state constitutions included an increase in social equality and the disestablishment of state religions. Between 1776 and 1780, for instance, Thomas Jefferson drafted a series of bills that broke down the legal reinforcements for division by wealth. Virginia ended the practice of primogeniture, which required the eldest son of a family to inherit all of a family's land in the absence of a will, and took other steps to prevent the rise of a ruling aristocracy. The years of the American Revolution also saw the end of state-established religious organizations in many states, seen as detrimental to democratic government.

The reforms instituted by state constitutions were met with a combination of acceptance and resistance. While the radical thinking of the revolution informed many of the decisions of the framers of state government, as time went by a conservative backlash rose and challenged the new ideals. In Massachusetts, the constitution was revised in 1780 to place more emphasis on wealth, and Pennsylvania and Georgia eventually recreated upper legislative houses. Initiatives to foster equality met with resistance in many areas of the new nation from individuals and groups such as the Society of Cincinnati, which saw the values of heredity and aristocratic privilege to be in their best interests.

Commentary

For political leaders of most states, the traditions of British and colonial governments exerted a strong pull, both for reasons of habit and because of the fact that the new governments required some system upon which to base their structure. The tradition of bicameral legislatures stemmed from the House of Lords and House of Commons in British Parliament, which in turn had given way to the common practice of colonial assemblies paired with higher bodies appointed by the colonies' royal governors or the lower assemblies themselves. This tradition claiming that commoners and aristocrats should be represented by separate bodies represented a powerful ideal, which, try as they might, the supporters of radical change could not break down in most states. The principle of property requirements for voters had its root in a more logical argument (to say nothing of its validity), which stated that if tenant farmers and poor hired laborers were allowed to vote, they might sell their votes to the highest bidder or be pressured to vote as their landlord dictated. Most political leaders recognized the basic flaws in this argument and advocated some extension of the franchise of voting, but only small gains were made in this area.

The notion that representatives should exercise independent judgment rather than carry out the explicit will of their constituents sprung from an ancient distrust of the common masses and a distrust of party politics as the politics of selfish factions out for their own good at the expense of the nation. Many thought that the public should elect officials based upon their reputation and merit rather than upon differing policy preferences. This idea prevailed in many areas, especially the north, and would continue to do so for years, despite the constant efforts of its opponents to increase responsiveness of the government to public desires. The tradition of equal division of legislative seats between towns and counties regardless of population was based purely on historical habit, and presented a serious ideological challenge to the framers of state governments and, later, the national government.

The major changes made in the writing of state Constitutions were the direct result of the colonial experience. Having haggled with British authorities over the constitutionality of many Acts and actions, it was crucial to the new governments that constitutions clearly enumerated and limited the powers of government, as well as including bills of rights, which enumerated the rights of the people upon which the government could not infringe. The creation of written state constitutions, which contained these elements, meant that governments were no longer the sole judges of the constitutionality of their actions. The constitution was written in black and white for all observers to read and see clearly what the government was within its bounds to do.

The assault on the executive branch sprang from the experience of the colonists under the arbitrary, and often cruel, rule of the royal governors. The American colonists feared the despotism of executive officeholders, and sought, through the state constitutions, to limit their power. Revolutionary leaders advocated strengthening legislatures at the expense of state governors. The balance between executive and legislative power was a principle concern of the republican thinkers as they set about designing the state governments.

At first, elites had to cope with state governments dominated by popularly elected officials. However, eventually these elites united in efforts to reassert political control and privilege. In Massachussets, a 1780 convention passed a constitution with stricter property requirements for voting and holding office, senate districts defined by property value, and a stronger governor. Many states followed Massachusetts' lead by increasing property requirements for senators. This conservative backlash swept the nation and prompted resistance to many of the initiatives of the new governments.

The Society of Cincinnati was a fraternal order of Continental Army officers, which instated a system of hereditary membership. Despite the fact that many political luminaries, such as George Washington, were members, republicans often clashed with the society, fearing that it would eventually become a hereditary aristocracy akin to the British nobility. The efforts of the republicans to end the ties between church and state met with some resistance as well, most prominently in New England where the strength of antidisestablishmentarianism kept the Congregational Church collecting tithes well into the nineteenth century in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

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