State Constitutions

Essential Question

How did early state governments influence the Constitution?

State Constitutions Influence On American Political Institutions

Once the American colonies declared independence, each of the states set out to create its own government. The framers, or creators, of the state constitutions, did not want to destroy the political systems that they had had as colonies. They simply wanted to make those systems more democratic.

All the states had a republican form of government. In a republic, the people choose representatives to govern them. To keep individual representatives/leaders from gaining too much power, new state constitutions created limited governments or governments in which all leaders have to obey the laws.

In order to prevent tyranny, some states experimented with creating separate branches of government, giving different powers to different branches. By creating separate branches, Americans hoped to prevent the government from becoming too powerful. Nearly all states tried to weaken the executive branch. Terms of office were usually short, and elections were held frequently. Most state constitutions had rules to protect the rights of citizens or a bill of rights in their constitutions as a way to keep the government under control. The idea of a bill of rights came from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. This was a list of rights that the government guaranteed to English citizens. These states' bill of rights and the English Bill of Rights served as a model for the Bill of Rights in the Constitution today.

However, the state constitutions did not expand democracy to all Americans. None of the new constitutions gave rights to slaves, but some states constitutions abolished slavery. In 1783 a court decision ruled that Massachusetts’s 1780 Constitution effectively outlawed slavery by declaring that “all men are born free and equal.” By 1786 five states had abolished slavery. Seven state constitutions gave suffrage, the right to vote, to free African American men. However, by the 1860s these rights were taken away or greatly limited.

Democracy was not only denied to people based on the color of their skin but it was also denied to Americans based on their gender and how much money they had. Women were not given equal rights and were denied the right to vote in all the new state constitutions except New Jersey. New Jersey gave women the right to vote but took it away in 1807. Most states also made property ownership a requirement for holding office or voting. This meant that only wealthy people could vote. All these limitations limited political power to wealthy white men which reflects the people who wrote these state constitutions, wealthy white men.

Many of the ideas from state constitutions found their way into the United States Constitution. Most of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, or Founding Fathers, were members of their state legislatures and had helped write their state constitutions. Thomas Jefferson's ideas about religious freedom from the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (part of Virginia's State Constitution ) were included in the U.S. Constitution as part of the First Amendment. Here is a list of other ideas from the Virginian State Constitution that can be found in the U.S. Constitution

  1. Popular sovereignty (the doctrine that the people are sovereign and a government is subject to the will of the people)

  2. Rotation in office

  3. Fair elections

  4. Protected fundamental rights

  5. Trial by jury

  6. Freedom of the press

  7. Ownership of property

  8. Separation of Church and State

  9. Freedom of Religion

Discussion Questions

  • Why did many state constitutions limit the power of state governments?

  • How did state governments expand and limit democracy?

  • How did state constitutions influence the U.S. government?

  • What is the influence of the Virginia Constitution on the U.S. Constitution?

Activity 2: How did state constitutions influence American political institutions?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities