The State Constitutions

During the revolutionary period the thirteen colonies reconstituted themselves as states. Their colonial charters were reworked as constitutions to reflect the new political reality and to guarantee the rights believed indispensable to representative government. The revolution was a time of political ferment and creativity on the state as well as national level.

The Protection of Rights

The framers of the state constitutions were influenced by the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment. From John Locke, Montesquieu, and many others, they derived ideas about natural rights, the social contract, and the separation of powers. They also reflected the powerful impetus given to the defense of individual liberty by the revolution. Most of the state constitutions contained a bill of rights, guaranteeing basic protections for their citizens.

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 captured the period's Enlightened idealism, declaring “The people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government, and to reform, alter, or totally change the same when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.” The state constitutions may have been less eloquent than Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, but they loudly echoed its ideas.

The states considered themselves to be sovereign entities. They raised troops and issued money. Before the Articles of Confederation became law, they managed their own foreign policy. Virginia separately ratified the alliance with France in 1778.

Creating Republican Institutions

Most of the new state constitutions retained the basic governmental structure of the prewar colonial regimes. Governors were now elected by the people. The royal councils became elected senates, acting as the upper house in a bicameral legislature. An exception to this pattern was Pennsylvania, which experimented with a unicameral legislature.

As a reflection of the popular distrust of strong executives, most governors were given very limited powers. This hurt the effective prosecution of the war, making it difficult to get things done. Most Americans appeared willing to live with this. In their reaction to British overreaching, Americans seemed to endorse the conviction that that government is best which governs least.

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