Constitution of Massachusetts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts . . . do agree upon, ordain, and establish the following declaration of rights and frame of government as the constitution of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Summary Overview

In 1779, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin drafted the Constitution of Massachusetts, then a commonwealth. The document, which was ratified in 1780, would become a model for the United States Constitution, which was adopted less than a decade later. The Massachusetts Constitution consisted of three parts: the Preamble, the Declaration of Rights, and the Frame of Government.

Defining Moment

The latter half of the eighteenth century was a tumultuous time for the American colonies. Increasingly, colonists were bristling at English rule, a sentiment that was exacerbated by a number of key events. In 1761, for example, King George III, who was concerned with smuggling in the colonies, renewed the writs of assistance, which had been in use in the colonies but did not arouse ire with the colonists until the years leading up to the Revolution. The writs were search warrants that allowed British customs officials to enter and search a colonist’s home, place of business, or other property for smuggled goods. The warrant, however, did not have to specify what agents were looking for or where they could look. Young attorney John Adams worked with the colonists’ chief advocate, James Otis, to bring a lawsuit before the Superior Court. The British court upheld the writs, but the colonists were starting to show their mettle in protecting their rights.

Less than a decade later, a violent confrontation escalated anti-British sentiments. A colonist and a British soldier got into an argument in Boston on March 5, 1770. Several other British troops came to the scene, as did a growing mob of colonists. As the group became unruly (throwing objects and shouting epithets at the soldiers), two of the troops fired their rifles into the crowd, killing five people. The incident would become known as the Boston Massacre throughout the colonies. Interestingly, John Adams would later defend the soldier’s commanding officer, who was acquitted along with six other soldiers. Adams was immediately criticized by his fellow colonists, but the larger issue was the need for a stronger rule of law that protected the colonists.

During this time, the flames of anti-British sentiment continued to spread. In 1773, a group of colonists, dressed as American Indians, dumped a large shipment of tea into Boston Harbor to protest a tax on tea coming into the colonies. Colonists had begun to view the increasing tariffs on the colonies as “taxation without representation.” In 1774, the so-called Intolerable Acts were introduced, which closed Boston Harbor, allowed the quartering of troops in colonial homes, and allowed the governor to appoint legislative council members and to remove judges and other officials and replace them with allies without the approval of the people.

In 1774, then governor Thomas Gage called for the dissolution of the General Court in Massachusetts in light of the growing anti-British sentiments among its representatives. The colonists formed the first Continental Congress in 1775, which convened in Philadelphia. Over time, Massachusetts reestablished its own provincial government, moving to build its own institutions and laws, while the colonies moved as a whole to expel the British from its shores.

In 1778, Massachusetts’s first attempt at creating a constitution, complete with a set of laws and system of civil rights, failed to gain public support. In 1779, a constitutional convention was formed, appointing a committee to draft the document. After the convention made some modifications, the Massachusetts constitution was ratified in 1780.

Biography

Although the Constitution of Massachusetts was modified and approved by a constitutional convention of over three hundred people, the main architects of this important document were John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin.

In addition to his work on the Massachusetts constitution, John Adams played a pivotal role in a number of key events and documents leading up to the Revolution. The Braintree, Massachusetts, native (born in 1735) graduated from Harvard College at the age of twenty. A few years later, he began a successful career as a lawyer. He would soon become a rising star in colonial politics. The rise of his career coincided with the oncoming Revolution. In 1765, he was a vocal opponent to the controversial Stamp Act, which required all colonial paper documents to bear the approval of the British government for an additional fee. After his role in the Boston Massacre, he was elected to the first and second Continental Congresses. Adams was a major figure in the installation of George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army and was a major influence in driving Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. In 1789, Adams became the nation’s first vice president. Narrowly edged out for the presidency by his friend George Washington, he would later assume Washington’s post.

John Adams’s cousin Samuel was a businessman and brewer before he entered public service. Samuel Adams was born in 1722 in Boston and was known for his charisma and oratory skills. He started his career as a tax collector, giving him insight into the colony’s business community. Samuel went on to build a successful political career, serving in the Massachusetts Assembly, the colonists’ “shadow” government. Alongside his cousin, Samuel Adams worked tirelessly for resistance to British rule. As a member of the Continental Congress, he was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. After helping to forge the Massachusetts Constitution, he eventually became governor, a post he held until 1797.

Also a native of Boston, James Bowdoin was born in 1726. He too was a graduate of Harvard (at the age of eighteen), entering public service almost immediately. He served in the colonial government in Massachusetts, but the numerous incidents that occurred, including the Stamp Act and the Boston Massacre, drew him to the pro-liberty camp. By 1768, the British linked him to the Sons of Liberty, a connection that fostered charges of treason. In 1779, Bowdoin was named the president of the first constitutional congress for Massachusetts. Following the Revolution, Bowdoin was elected governor of Massachusetts. During his tenure, he conducted operations to quell Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts; his heavy hand in that incident cost him his reelection in 1787.

Document Analysis

The Constitution of Massachusetts is the oldest constitution in the world that is still in use today, serving as a model for the United States Constitution and, over the centuries that followed, the constitutions of other nations. The document exists in three parts: the Preamble, the Declaration of Rights, and the Frame of Government.

A Social Compact

In the preamble, the framers identify the nature of the institutions the constitution would establish. The primary focus of government, the authors write, is to protect the people and, at the same time, provide for them the power to pursue their goals and interests. The authors immediately acknowledge that the constitution and the government it establishes are not designed to be rigid in their application of governance. Rather, they argue, there should be a willingness in the state’s political institutions to change to meet the evolving needs of the people. Additionally, the people themselves have the right to change government when this institution fails to ensure their “safety, prosperity, and happiness.”

In addition to declaring that government must be considered a fluid, not rigid, set of institutions, the framers of the Massachusetts constitution write that the laws the people draft must be ?equitable, serving not just certain groups but the entire population. The preamble, therefore, establishes that the body politic is a social compact, an agreement between the people of the newly independent state and the government to establish fair laws and policies that maintain the social order.

The preamble finishes with a sign of appreciation for God’s perceived involvement in both the Revolution and the development of both the new republic and the state of Massachusetts. In doing so, the framers of the document pay their respects to the deep faith and traditions of Puritan Massachusetts. However, they also make clear that God has given the people an “opportunity” to create this social compact. The implication is that the people should not squander this gift, but rather, build a state (and indeed, a nation) in which the people and their interests are truly protected. In essence, the authors are telling the people to build a set of institutions with God’s providence in mind.

Outlining Human Rights

The second section of the constitution is the Declaration of Rights. Although not the first declaration of basic human rights to be incorporated into a state constitution, the Massachusetts version takes a number of very bold steps that highlight this document’s significance. One such step is the declaration that “all men are born free and equal” with “certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” This caveat took several years of debate and discussion among the framers and the constitutional convention delegates alike in order to be inserted into the constitution. Although seemingly simple, the comment was, in fact, revolutionary. By identifying the basic rights of every individual who lived in the new nation, the framers provided language that abolished slavery in Massachusetts. In fact, only three years after the Massachusetts constitution was adopted, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court became the first such body to abolish slavery through judicial and not legislative means.

Previous drafts of the state’s constitution had fallen short of approval in large part due to its lack of a bill of human rights. In 1778, for example, a version was offered to the General Court that was, in fact, more liberal (at least in terms of the rules governing elected officials) than the language contained in the 1780 constitution. However, absent from it was a section outlining the basic rights of the people.

Lawyer Theophilus Parsons of Newburyport, who would later become chief justice of Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court, took note of this omission. Parsons wrote a pamphlet, the “Essex Result,” so named because he represented the Essex County region. The “Essex Result” cites the “true principles of government” upon which the new government should be based. Striking a similar tone to that of the Enlightenment philosophers of the era, Parsons’s pamphlet stressed the need for a constitution to have an outline of the different types of rights that should be afforded to the people. Parsons would have a major impact on the approval process for the constitution. The people resoundingly defeated the 1778 constitution by a margin of 9,972 to 2,083.

In light of the influence Parsons had on the 1778 constitution proposal, it was understandable that the 1780 version included a bill of rights. In addition to serving as a foundation for an abolition of slavery, this section provides a definition of the rights that are inalienable, those that cannot be taken away from an individual. These rights, the authors write, include the right of people to defend themselves from attack or persecution, to acquire land and property, and to pursue their own safety and happiness.

The constitution also explicitly outlines the other basic rights of citizens of Massachusetts, such as protections for religious freedom. Articles XVI through XIX call for freedom of the press, the right to assemble peaceably, and the right to bear arms for defensive purposes. Furthermore, Article XXVII states that, during peacetime, no soldiers may be stationed in a private home without the expressed approval of the homeowner. Each of these points speaks to the American experience under British rule, from which the state and, indeed, all of the American colonies were seeking to escape.

Church and State

One of the foundations on which the New England colonies (particularly Massachusetts Bay) were created was that of religious freedom. In the 1600s, conservative Puritans seeking to escape religious persecution in England sailed across the Atlantic to establish a Puritan society. Faith and religious tradition remained a common theme throughout the century that followed. Although there was a colonial government, the dominant force in seventeenth century Massachusetts was the Puritan Church.

Although the Puritan Church experienced a decline in its political influence by the latter half of the eighteenth century, it may be argued that the significance of Christianity as a basis for the American way of life remained in the minds of the constitution’s authors. Article II of the 1780 constitution’s Declaration of Rights makes this point clear. This section states that it is not only the right of all people to worship God; it is their duty.

In light of this responsibility to pay respect to God, the state of Massachusetts would not allow any religious persecution: “No subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained” for practicing his or her preferred religious traditions. As long as the practice of said religion does not impinge upon the public peace or on the abilities of others to practice their own traditions, the article states, there should be no limitation on religious activities in the new Massachusetts.

It is at this point that the 1780 constitution of Massachusetts enters an area that would later generate controversy, particularly as other governments used it as the basis for the establishment of their own respective constitutions. Article III begins by stating that the happiness of a society and the viability of its government depend on the morality and piety that comes from a religious foundation. Government institutions should therefore demonstrate such values.

In fact, according to Article III, the people should pursue happiness and political stability by infusing in the government the ability to establish religious institutions. The article states that the legislature should be given the power to push municipalities and religious organizations to create religious institutions in the event that houses of worship are not readily available to the people.

Article III is representative of the prevailing view of the time that states were in a better position than the national government to promote religious activities. For many years prior to the Revolution, churches had received financial support from the colonial government. State government was seen as a “nursing father” (a term derived from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah) to religious organizations such as the Anglican and Congregational churches. After independence was declared, these churches were concerned that the states would be likely to distribute revenues more evenly among the many institutions in operation. Article III would address this concern by empowering the Massachusetts legislature to assess a tax on citizens, which they could designate for the church of their choice.

The requirement established in Article III was important, particularly in light of this “nursing father” perception of state government. The fact that the Congregational Church (of which John Adams, the chief architect of the constitution, was a member) was still one of the leading and most well-established religious institutions in Massachusetts meant that other denominations had to make a more concerted effort to attract parishioners. These “nonconformist” institutions struggled to compete with Congregational and Anglican churches. In order to do so, Baptists and members of other church sects would need to pay more in taxes to build more churches, particularly in remote parts of the state where Congregational churches had already been established.

It is here that the personal philosophy of John Adams comes to bear. There were two frames of mind concerning freedom of religion (at least as it pertained to constitution building in the states) in the new, postrevolutionary America. The view espoused by Thomas Jefferson and his home state of Virginia was that government should not provide financial support to any religious organization but should allow any individual or group to practice their respective faiths.

Adams, an intellectual yet friendly rival of Jefferson, agreed that freedom of religion should be upheld in any constitution. However, Adams believed in the concept of a “public religion.” Any body politic, he argued, must be imbued with certain moral values, such as honesty, strong work ethic, respect for neighbors, and the love of God. These qualities, according to Adams, could only come from religious tradition rather than a society without organized religion. To be sure, Adams did not believe in using the government to impose a singular religious institution’s beliefs on one or more communities. Rather, he argued that each community should find and establish a framework of common values based on common religious tenets. To this end, the constitution includes language that calls for public and financial support of certain religious institutions. Then again, Adams still believed that, beyond the virtues of “public religion,” an individual should remain free to practice his or her faith in freedom and privacy.

During the constitutional convention’s review of Adams’s draft, Article III generated considerable controversy. Prior to the Revolution, most communities in Massachusetts only had one church, usually a Congregational church. However, over time, other religious organizations would develop in Massachusetts communities, such as those of Catholics, Baptists, and Quakers. Delegates to the convention were therefore vocal in their opposition to the article, with some offering language changes and others calling for its outright deletion. Ultimately, an ad hoc committee modified the article by inserting language that, along with other concessions, made application of the tax local voluntary. The article was ultimately adopted, although it was still viewed as conservative and favoring to the Congregationalists. Fifty years later, this provision would be removed from Article III. Still, the language that protected an individual’s right to practice his or her religion without fear of persecution remained.

A Government for the People

The 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts places a strong emphasis on the fact that legislators and other government officials are to be viewed as nothing more than the agents of the people. The powers the governments of Massachusetts and the United States of America rest solely in the hands of the people, as stated in the 1780 document. Article IV of the constitution describes the relationship between the state and national government as a partnership, at least in terms of representation of the people and protection of their rights.

Article IV states that the commonwealth’s people, as the sole and exclusive brokers of power in the state, are to enjoy every right and freedom afforded to them as a sovereign state, even in areas that are not clearly identified as rights and liberties by the national government. In essence, this provision states that the Massachusetts constitution is meant to provide every reasonable right to the people.

The document also makes an important point about the egalitarian nature of the new country. No individual or group, Article VI states, is above the rest of the people. For example, a person does not inherit a position as a government official or magistrate. Rather, such important positions are public service posts to be assumed by deserving individuals seeking to benefit the community. The provision even mocks the notion of a person who, by virtue of birthright, can expect to become a leader. Such an idea, according to the authors, is both “absurd and unnatural.” Article VII supports this notion, stating that the people have the right to develop and change government as they see the need to do so.

The constitution continues to place limits on the acts of government legislators and magistrates. Articles XXV and XXVI state that legislators may not try or convict criminals accused of treason or other crimes. Additionally, magistrates and other court officials may not impose unduly severe penalties, commit torture, or call for otherwise cruel or unusual punishments. These provisions emphasize the concept that the law is greater than those who work on its behalf.

The Constitution of Massachusetts stresses the point that, under the new government, there would be no permanency in the positions of elected officials. The authors were concerned that any individual who ascended to a position of power should be placed at risk for being removed from office or else succumb to the temptation to become oppressive, dominating leaders. Article VIII establishes that the people will have the ultimate authority to remove and replace leaders who become corrupt or domineering. Elections, discussed in Article IX, should be equitable; each citizen will have the right to participate in the electoral system, playing an active role in the maintenance of government. In fact, legislators may not suspend the law, according to Article XIX, without the express direction of the people.

The 1780 constitution establishes the law as a protector of the populace rather than something to fear. Prerevolutionary America was replete with incidents in which colonists felt their rights were trampled upon, including the aforementioned Intolerable Acts. Articles XII through XIV address the need for any investigations or prosecutions to proceed based not on perception but evidence. All search warrants, for example, must be obtained based on just cause and not on supposition. Even when on trial, a person’s guilt or innocence will be determined by a full review of the evidence by a jury of peers. As stated in Article XIII, the verification of facts is one of the “greatest securities of the life, liberty, and property of the citizen.”

The Massachusetts constitution stresses the importance of the people and the law. Although there must be leaders, Adams and his colleagues stress, the people are the primary brokers of power, and the law is derived of and protects all of the people. This argument appears throughout the constitution, as John Adams, James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and the constitutional convention sought to undo what was perceived as oppression under British rule and build in its place a new democracy.

Essential Themes

The 1780 constitution of the state of Massachusetts served not only as the inspiration for the United States Constitution but for any other nation establishing a democratic form of government in the centuries that have followed. The themes this document presented were at the time revolutionary, controversial, and far-reaching.

First, this document created a framework in which the basic rights of all individuals would be given definition. The bill of rights provided the basis for the establishment of a body politic in which no one stood taller than his or her neighbor; each individual had certain rights that no one could put asunder. As long as his or her actions did not impinge upon others’ pursuit of happiness and security, an individual would be given as much protection from oppression as possible.

The constitution looks upon the events and incidents that occurred during the early to mid-eighteenth century as inspiration for a new form of government. The document offers a political system that is protective of and responsive to the needs of the people. It places great restrictions on criminal investigations and prosecutions, requiring strict adherence to the pursuit of evidence and necessitating proper documentation (including warrants) for searches of a private residence or business. The document also places emphasis on the rights of people to protest peaceably and through their elected representatives, with an uncensored press to report on their activities.

The 1780 document was not without controversy, of course, in light of its call for support of religious institutions. John Adams, a Congregationalist, believed that he was simply adding a morally positive and virtuous element to the new government. His mistake in this regard was assuming that the communities had only one church when, in fact, there was a growing diversity and volume of non-Congregationalist organizations throughout Massachusetts. Nevertheless, the constitution’s protections for people’s faith, prosperity, and pursuit of happiness represented a significant change from the political system under British rule. This model has continued to provide inspiration for political change away from overly intrusive, oppressive governments in countries around the world through the present day.

Bibliography
  • Brink, Robert J. “A Brief History of the Constitution of 1780 and a Narrated Timeline: Timeline of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.” Social Law Library Research Portal. Social Law Library, 2012. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • “John Adams and the Massachusetts Constitution.” Supreme Judicial Court. Massachusetts Judicial Branch, 2010. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • “John Adams Biography.” Adams National Historical Park. National Park Service, 6 May 2012. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts. Boston: Wright, 1917. Print.
  • “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, 23 July 2010. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • Witte, John W., Jr. “‘A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion’: John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment.” Journal of Church and State 41.2 (1999): 213–52. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Handlin, Oscar. The Popular Sources of Political Authority: Documents on the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Cambridge: Belknap, 1966. Print.
  • Holton, Woody. “‘From the Labours of Others’: The War Bonds Controversy and the Origins of the Constitution in New England.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 61.2 (2004): 271–316. Print.
  • Kruman, Marc W. Between Authority and Liberty: State Constitution Making in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999. Print.
  • Lippy, Charles H. “The 1780 Massachusetts Constitution: Religious Establishment or Civil Religion?” Journal of Church and State 20.3 (1978): 533–49. Print.
  • Peters, Ronald M. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1978. Print.

Categories: History Content