State Constitutions #3

The success of the Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to give legal form to their ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. By May 10, 1776, Congress had passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments. Within a year after the Declaration of Independence, all but three colonies had drawn up the constitutions.

The new constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas, and all were built on foundations of colonial experience and English practice.

The first objective of the framers of the state constitutions was to secure those “unalienable rights” whose violation had caused the former colonies to rebel against Britain. Each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights. Virginia’s, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles: popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of fundamental liberties: moderate bail and humane punishment, speedy trial by jury, freedom of the press and of conscience, and the right of the majority to reform or alter the government.

Other states enlarged the list of liberties to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition. Most prescribed a three-branch structure of government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—with checks and balances.

The state constitutions had some limitations. Constitutions established to guarantee people their natural rights did not secure for everyone the most fundamental natural right—equality. The colonies south of Pennsylvania excluded their slave populations from their inalienable rights as human beings. Women had no political rights. No state went so far as to permit universal male suffrage, and even in those states that permitted all taxpayers to vote, office-holders were required to own a certain amount of property.

Source: State Constitutions #3
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