Massachusetts Constitution of 1780

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Written by three renowned figures in colonial history, the constitution is considered a precursor to the U.S. Constitution written seven years later.

Firsts

Being the first to do anything is never easy. For example, no one knew if John Glen, the first American in space, would survive the experience. The same could be said about Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her Montgomery bus seat to a white man, although for entirely different reasons. Pioneers, regardless of what they are doing, are always taking risks to do what they think is important.

Thankfully, the men who wrote the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 also knew what they were doing had some importance. In writing the oldest constitution still in use in the United States of America, they laid the groundwork for much of the structure and rights that would be included in the American Constitution written seven years later.

History

The Massachusetts Constitution was drafted largely by three notable men in American and Massachusetts history. The first, John Adams, would go on to be one of the invitees to the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787, though he failed to attend. This did not hamper his political career, and he later became the second president of the United States. The second, James Bowdoin, was president of the Constitutional Convention and would later become governor of Massachusetts. The small but prestigious liberal arts school, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, is named after him. The third is one of today's most celebrated brewers of American history, Samuel Adams. While the nationally recognized beer may be what many people associate the Bostonian with today, he was a great political mind in the late 18th century and received an invitation to the U.S. Constitutional Convention, but did not attend.

The Massachusetts Constitution was not the first constitution to be ratified by one of the thirteen original states - in fact, it was the last to do so! Despite this, the Massachusetts Constitution is the oldest written and ratified Constitution in the world that is still in use today. Additionally, it was the first state constitution written and crafted by a constitutional convention - a political body created strictly for the purpose of creating a constitution. It was also the first constitution ratified via referendum, since two-thirds of the Massachusetts landowning men were required to consent before it could be ratified. This, in part, is why it took the convention four years to write a suitable document.

Preamble

The Preamble to the Massachusetts Constitution establishes the 'social contract' between a government and the people, an idea first hinted at by the late seventeenth-century English philosopher, John Locke. The Preamble begins the constitution by establishing that the expressed aim of any government is to protect the rights of the individuals who enter into an agreement with one another to allow themselves to be governed. This is made explicit several times, such as in the beginning of the second paragraph, stating 'The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals.' It is only through the consent of the individuals of Massachusetts that a constitution to govern the state is even considered suitable.

Part the First

The first part of the Massachusetts Constitution is titled 'Part the First: A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.' The section contains a Bill of Rights, made up of thirty articles delineating inalienable rights all landowning men of the commonwealth were entitled to enjoy. The first part begins in striking similarity to how the U.S. Constitution would begin when it was written seven years later. Article I of the Massachusetts Constitution begins 'All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.'

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