Pennsylvania State Constitution of 1776

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

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

In this lesson we explore the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. With its writing coinciding with the Declaration of Independence and the first years of the revolution, the document is considered one of the most democratic constitutions of all time.

Double Meanings

Historical documents have a funny way of portraying the truth about history without always giving you the whole truth. For example, when the Constitution says 'All men are created equal,' the men who actually wrote those words were not thinking 'all men' in the same sense most of us would. They certainly were not talking about African men who at the time were often slaves, and they were definitely not using 'men' in the global sense meaning 'mankind,' as women were explicitly left out of that statement of egalitarianism.

For the most part, when our founding fathers said 'men,' they meant only white men, and usually only property holders. This is one of the reasons why the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was so unique; when it said 'men' it meant more than just property owners, but all men who paid taxes.

Background

The events leading up to the writing of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 largely coincided with the revolutionary events of 1776 and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. The traditional ruling classes in Pennsylvania were largely sympathetic to the British Crown, and when the Second Continental Congress convened in 1775, the delegates sent from Pennsylvania were heavily opposed to independence. The majority of Pennsylvanians, however, were sympathetic to those favoring independence, and when elections in May 1776 returned the same old guard politicians to Pennsylvania's posts, the Continental Congress got involved, calling for new elections or a new governing body for the colony altogether. Despite the protests of the old guard, local committees of independence-minded Pennsylvanians corresponded and eventually met on July 8, 1776, in Philadelphia, where they began immediately drafting a new constitution for Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress immediately recognized this body as the true government of the people of Pennsylvania.

Several names supposedly influenced the writing of the Pennsylvania constitution, but its principal drafters were George Bryan, James Cannon, and Benjamin Franklin. An abolitionist, judge, and businessman, Bryan was an Irish immigrant who would later become President of Pennsylvania. James Cannon was a Scottish immigrant and professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, while Benjamin Franklin was the virtual Renaissance man whose face now adorns U.S. $100 bills. With stints as everything from scientist to political theorist, Benjamin Franklin inhabited many posts in the future U.S. government, from U.S. Ambassador to Sweden to Postmaster General. The extremely egalitarian and radical nature of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 is largely thought to be his doing. Brewer Timothy Matlack and Boston Tea Party-participant George Clymer are also thought to have had a limited influence on the document's drafting.

Key Points

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was a radical document and is largely considered the most democratic of the early state or commonwealth constitutions. As mentioned earlier, it was the first constitution to grant any man who paid taxes voting rights, as most constitutions originally required every voter to own property. The constitution also set up a unicameral legislature of representatives serving one-year terms, as well as an elected twelve-member executive council. The legislature and the council together elected the colony's President and Vice President, who were not popularly elected.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was also unique in the huge amount of popular and interdepartmental oversight for which it provided. For example, all legislation enacted in one legislative session did not go into effect until the following legislative session sat, so that the new laws could be reflected upon. Similarly, the Constitution detailed a panel that was elected every seven years called the Council of Censors. The sole function of this body was to observe the legislature and decide if any of the laws enacted by the legislature breached the Declaration of Rights, which were the fundamental twenty-eight liberties enumerated in the first section of the Constitution.

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