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New York Constitution of (1777)

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The first constitution of the state of New York was adopted on Sunday, April 20, 1777, at Kingston, New York, by a convention of delegates empowered by the people of the colony to establish a state government. It marks the birth of the state of New York. The constitution was not submitted to the people for ratification, but it became effective immediately upon its adoption by the convention.

The New York Constitution of 1777 was framed amidst the chaos of the Revolutionary War. Three men were instrumental in drafting the constitution: JOHN JAY, ROBERT R. LIVINGSTON, and Gouverneur Morris. All three were affluent young men (ages 30, 29, 24, respectively, at the time of their appointments) with little experience in public affairs. John Jay is generally credited as being the primary author of the constitution.

The first constitution faithfully adhered in many respects to the English constitutional system of government. Some delegates, however, were incensed upon discerning minor deviations from ENGLISH LAW in the proposed constitution. The patterning of the New York Constitution of 1777 after the English governmental prototype was not actually inconsistent with the objectives of the Revolutionary War. Even though there were structural similarities between the system of government set forth in the New York Constitution of 1777 and the English system, the impact of the laws upon the lives of the people of New York and their British counterparts was different, due to the abandonment by America of the class system of government that prevailed in England. The oppressiveness of English rule was eradicated, but the valid fundamental legal principles were retained. The English constitutional system of government was applied to the extent that its principles conformed to the concept of a republican form of government. The reliance upon the English system was also attributable to the inexperience of the draftsmen, who felt comfortable with the basic precepts and established traditions of English law. Even they realized, however, that some changes were essential. The people of New York were permitted to choose the chief executive instead of having sovereign authority do so on their behalf. It also was deemed necessary to alter the parliamentary system, and as a result, the House of Lords and the Colonial Council were transformed into the state senate.

On April 20, the entire proposed constitution was presented, and, after several inconsequential revisions and some major ones, it was read and adopted by a vote of 32–1. John Jay was not present for the adoption of the constitution, since he had been called away as a result of his mother's death on April 17. He had wanted to include certain amendments to the constitution, and he expressed dismay over what he perceived to be its rather hasty adoption. The fact that less than one-third of the entire convention attended the discussions of the constitution was attributable to compelling personal reasons and the exigencies of the Revolutionary War. The turmoil created by the latter factor explains why the constitution was adopted on a Sunday; the delegates convened whenever possible, irrespective of weekend dates.

The New York Constitution of 1777 was a relatively brief document that covered only a few topics. Some significant provisions, particularly those pertaining to the Council of Revision and the Council of Appointment, were added while the constitution was being evaluated by the convention.

The resolutions adopted by the Third Provincial Congress, providing for the election of the convention, and the Declaration of Independence, which has been set out in its entirety, comprise the preliminary segment. The body of the constitution contains forty-five brief sections, which were labeled "articles" at that time. The powers granted to the new government are expressed in rather austere language. The framers retained the essential nature of the colonial government but removed its royal features. The judicial system of the colony and the local governments generally remained unaltered.

The constitution delineates new executive and legislative branches, administrative authority, and abstract rights, which are few in number and concise, including, but not limited to, VOTING RIGHTS, freedom of religion, and the right of trial by jury. Although the constitution created the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the framers combined their functions due to their ignorance of the concept, significance, and ramifications of the SEPARATION OF POWERS. In addition to lawmaking power, they vested the legislature with executive authority through the Council of Appointment, which consisted of four senators selected annually by the assembly. The higher courts were granted authority over legislation through the Council of Revision, comprised by the judges of the supreme court, the chancellor, and the governor. As a result, the governor's power was severely circumscribed. Since he was under the control of the Council of Appointment, the governor was divested of the responsibility for official appointments. He also was deprived of unabridged VETO power, because the judges of the Council of Revision could overrule him.

The constitution has a few provisions pertaining to the separate powers of the senate and assembly, including the power of the assembly to issue ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT and to choose the members of the Council of Appointment. The legislature was authorized to elect the state treasurer, administer contracts with Indians, and to naturalize ALIENS. The U.S. Constitution, however, eventually preempted this right of naturalization. The legislature was proscribed from enacting bills of attainder, and from creating any courts, except common law courts. The constitution fixed the terms of judicial officers and provided for the election of state and local officials. Article 35 continued the English statutory and COMMON LAW, and colonial legislation, to the extent they were applicable under the new form of government. Miscellaneous provisions established a state militia, ratified English grants, and barred the clergy from holding office.

The state made tremendous progress as a result of this constitution, in spite of its inherent limitations. Its system of JURISPRUDENCE evolved and expanded. The constitution established the university and the common school, and colleges, academies, and libraries were nurtured. It provided for the administration of assistance to the indigent. A system of taxation was formulated, political subdivisions were created, and the statutory law was frequently revised. The constitution also prompted the drafting of a plan for the construction of the canals. The New York Constitution of 1777 was an extremely valuable document, and its fundamental principles became prompted in subsequent constitutions. It remained in effect until it was superseded by the Constitution of 1821.

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