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Building the State (1781-1797)

The Beginning of Self-Government: The States

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The Beginning of Self-Government: The States, page 2

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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.

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