Constitution of New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Summary Overview

In the 1760s and early 1770s, anti-British sentiment spread in the colony of New York as it had in other American colonies. The colonists were angered by several tax acts they considered unfair, the forced housing of British troops in their communities, and an inability to seek legal redress in the British court system. When violence broke out between British forces and independence-minded Americans in other colonies, many colonists in New York aligned themselves with the Patriot cause, choosing to rebel against the king of England.

The first skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April 1775, were relatively minor in scale. After the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the British government sent in a massive military response to crush the American rebellion. New York felt the brunt of this British response. In August 1776, British troops confronted and nearly destroyed George Washington’s professional colonial army in the Battle of Brooklyn.

During this chaotic period, with British occupying forces roaming the New York colony with impunity, some prominent New York Patriots convened to ratify a state constitution and thereby establish an independent government. Working with a document primarily drawn up in July 1776 by a young and ambitious lawyer named John Jay, they first convened in August 1776 in New York City, and then fled to White Plains; however, the committee paused from its efforts so that its constituents could tend to personal problems brought about by the occupation. The core group of New York Patriots reconvened in early 1777, first in Fishkill and then in Kingston. After months of deliberation about its details, the Constitution of New York was finally ratified on April 20, 1777, and in so doing, laid out the legal basis for the New York State government.

Defining Moment

Until 1664, most of the area that became New York State was a Dutch territory known as New Netherland. At its center was the small city of New Amsterdam, on the island of Manhattan, which was becoming a regionally important base for the North American fur trade. Realizing the commercial potential of the New Netherland territory, the British sent a naval force to take Manhattan on August 27, 1664. By 1665, the territory had been formally ceded to the British, and both New Amsterdam and New Netherland were renamed New York.

By any measurement, New York prospered as a British colony. The population of New York City steadily grew from under two thousand residents in the Dutch period to more than twenty thousand by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775. New York began to fill in with settlers, and small villages sprang up throughout the interior of the territory, especially around Albany and along the main transportation artery known as the Boston Post Road. New York City developed from a regional center of the fur trade to one of the most important ports in America, and merchants grew wealthy trading in pelts, molasses (used in producing rum), slaves, and a plethora of other goods.

Border tensions between British colonies and French colonies to the north broke into open conflict in the so-called French and Indian War, which took place between 1754 and 1763. Upper New York was the site of some of the major battles in the struggle, and the British garrisoned troops throughout the state, including in New York City. By the time the French and Indian War ended with the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the British government had incurred significant debts defending its American colonies.

As a result, the British government chose to raise funds from the colonies to pay the costs associated with protection against any future French aggression. The first measure was the American Revenue Act, known as the Sugar Act, which was passed in 1764. It enforced duties, hitherto largely ignored, on goods such as molasses and stated that customs cases would be tried by appointees of the king instead of regular judges. Many New York merchants felt that this was a discriminatory law, targeting the colonists, and that it would significantly harm their import businesses. The second provision was the Stamp Act, which required colonists to purchase tax stamps for a range of activities, including the drafting of legal documents.

The attempts by the British government to generate revenue sparked discontent among many colonists, who felt that they were being unfairly taxed without having any say in the government that imposed the taxes. Throughout the colonies, protests against British taxation ensued. Although New York was heavily populated with Loyalists who supported the British Crown over the colonies, it also experienced civil unrest, expressed by aggressive pamphleteering and mob actions. The anti-British sentiment reached a peak in 1773, when the British government imposed a tax on tea. Although the Boston Tea Party, where Patriots dumped shipments of British tea rather than allowing taxes to be paid on it, is one of the most known rebellious activities before the Revolution, similar actions took place in other colonies, including New York.

Confrontations between Americans and British troops escalated in the following years. Upon receiving intelligence that Patriot rebels were stockpiling weapons in Concord, Massachusetts, British generals sent troops to put down the nascent rebellion. This led to violent exchanges between the local militias and British military personnel, sparking the conflict known as the Revolutionary War. In May 1775, aggravated colonists held a meeting called the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to determine how to achieve independence from the British king.

When Patriot leaders declared independence on July 4, 1776, a wider conflict became inevitable. New York State was a major battleground in the Revolutionary War, both figuratively and literally. Many New Yorkers remained Loyalists and opposed the bid for independence. New York also contained a number of British garrisons, holdovers from the French and Indian War. As a result, the fourteen Patriot political leaders of New York knew they needed to take steps to establish a permanent, independent government for the state. They began this process by convening a constitutional assembly, first in New York City and then in White Plains, in July of 1776, where a state constitution drafted by Jay was debated at length. Because of internal conflicts, outside obligations, and pressure by British troops to keep on the move, the committee failed to ratify the constitution that year.

Author Biography

Jay, the primary author of the Constitution of New York, was a third-generation New Yorker. His paternal grandfather, Augustus Jay, was a French Protestant, or Huguenot, who fled to America because of persecution and civil unrest in France. By the 1690s, Augustus was an assistant to the wealthy New York merchant Frederick Philipse, helping him trade in beer, wine, tobacco, spices, and slaves with pirates in Madagascar. In 1697, Augustus married Anna Maria Bayard, and this connected him with the prominent Dutch families of New York.

Jay’s father, Peter Jay, was born in 1704. By all accounts, he was an austere and disciplined man throughout his life. Like Augustus, Peter became a successful merchant. Peter was deeply involved with the Anglican faith, which was beginning to hold sway in the New York of his day. In 1728, he married Mary Van Cortlandt, the daughter of one of the city’s most powerful commercial and political leaders, Jacobus Van Cortlandt.

In November of 1745, fleeing the potential danger posed by emerging hostilities between the French and British in the American colonies, Peter Jay moved his family to the village of Rye, New York. On his new estate near the Boston Post Road, he became a gentleman farmer and owned several slaves who farmed his land.

John Jay was born December 12, 1745, in New York City, probably at 66 Pearl Street. Why he was born in New York City rather than in Rye is unknown, but it may have been to take advantage of the superior medical facilities in the city center. He was baptized at Trinity Church but was soon returned to the family’s estate in Rye, where he grew up.

Jay gained a reputation for intelligence from an early age. When he was seven, he was sent to the nearby town of New Rochelle to study with the Huguenot pastor Pierre Stoupe. At the young age of fourteen, he entered King’s College (now known as Columbia University), where he studied to become a lawyer, and met friends who would influence his later life. When he graduated in 1764, at the age of eighteen, he went to work as an assistant lawyer in New York City.

While working as a legal clerk, Jay witnessed acts by the British government that concerned New Yorkers. The first was the passage of the Sugar Act of 1764. The second was the Stamp Act of 1765. The two measures were painful reminders that the American colonies were ultimately under British control and helped to spread a rebellious sentiment among members of Jay’s generation. In 1774 tensions increased, as this sentiment spread throughout the colonies and fomented a mass resistance to British taxation.

That year, newly married to Sarah Livingston, the daughter of William Livingston, who later became governor of New Jersey, Jay was chosen as the New York City delegate to the Continental Congress. There, he worked with his compatriots to decide how to respond to increasing public pressure for independence from Great Britain. When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, Jay became an important voice in the Patriot movement, encouraging New Yorkers to take up arms against the British.

In 1776 and 1777, Jay spearheaded the drafting of a constitution for the newly formed New York State. The constitution established the legal framework for the governance of the new state and served as a model for other states that were formed after it.

Jay also played an important role in the new federal government. In 1779, he was appointed by President Washington to be the ambassador to Spain, which initially refused to recognize the new American government. In 1782, he helped statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin broker a treaty in Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. From 1784 to 1789, Jay served as the secretary of foreign affairs. In 1789, he became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Jay was a lifelong abolitionist. He made several unsuccessful attempts to stop slavery in New York, beginning in 1777. In 1785, he founded the New York Manumission Society, devoted to ending the institution within the state. In 1795, he resigned as chief justice of the Supreme Court to become the governor of New York, in 1799, signing a law that provided for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the state.

Jay retired from his successful political life in 1801 and lived out the remainder of his life as a gentleman farmer in Bedford, New York, close to where he had lived as a child. He died on May 17, 1829, and was buried near his father’s estate in Rye. His prolific involvement in early American politics helped shape the histories of both New York State and America as a whole.

Document Analysis

The Constitution of New York, as ratified in 1777, provided the legal framework for incorporating New York as a state in the United States of America, free from British rule. It aimed to help the people of New York transition from colonists to citizens and to maintain social order. It was drawn up, debated, amended, and ultimately approved in a chaotic time for New Yorkers, with the British military moving throughout the state, in many cases forcing civilians to flee their own properties. As such, the constitution was painstakingly crafted both to defy British rule and to ensure a continuity of the rule of law based on the legal principles that had governed the territory since the British took New York from the Dutch in 1644.

The constitution begins by stating that the tyrannical actions of the British government have both forced the American colonists to move away from rule by the British king and Parliament and to resort to a congressional government. It was originally felt that this congressional form of government would expire when the British Parliament and monarchy reconciled with the interests of the colonists. This was expected to happen in a short time frame.

As the document states, the reconciliation is uncertain and remote. Despite the efforts of the colonists to petition for reforms, the situation has only grown worse. The British government, by sending in its troops and hiring mercenaries to do harm to the good people of the colonies, has forced those people living in America to take matters into their own hands. It is impossible for the colonists, in good conscience, to in any way support the British government. In order to defend their “lives, liberties, and properties,” it is now necessary to resist foreign rule and establish an independent government.

Next, the constitution reiterates several of the main points stated in the Declaration of Independence. It quotes the famous lines about how sometimes in the course of history people need to sever the ties that bind them to parent powers; that all men are created equal; and that when governments no longer serve the needs of the people, it is their right to dissolve the old government and form a new one. It lists grievances against the British monarch, including his refusal both to allow large numbers of American colonists to have representation in government and to acknowledge independent judicial bodies and for issuing unfair taxes without the consent of the people who have to pay them.

The document also indicts the British king for unleashing his military against the colonists. The Constitution of New York describes how these troops have harassed and killed colonial subjects and done great damage to their property. American-born colonists have also been captured abroad and pressed into military service for the British government, which in effect robbed them of their personal liberty and, in many cases, their lives.

The framers of the Constitution of New York declare that they will no longer recognize any state governmental authority other than that which comes from the people of the state. The government of New York, it outlines, will be comprised of two main bodies, the assembly and the senate. These two bodies will together form the only valid state legislature, and this legislature will promise to meet at least once per year to discuss the issues impacting the state’s citizens.

The framers of the New York constitution were wary of direct democracy, allowing provisions for vetoing unwise laws. The document says that the governor, if joined with the chancellor or two state supreme court judges, can form a council to determine if a law should be stopped. The legislature would then need a two-thirds majority to block the veto and pass the bill into law. In most cases, the process must be completed within ten days.

The assembly branch of the legislature will consist of at least seventy members, selected annually in the counties they represent. The 1777 constitution stipulated the number of assembly members allotted to each county. It says that New York County gets nine, Albany ten, Dutchess seven, Westchester six, Ulster six, Suffolk five, Queens four, Orange four, Kings two, Richmond two, Tryon six, Charlotte four, Cumberland three, and Gloucester two.

Next, the constitution says that within seven years after the termination of the war, there will be a census to determine how many members of assembly each county should get, but that this number will never exceed three hundred. It also says that when possible, the state will experiment with voting by ballot rather than voting by voice, to determine if the use of ballots is practical. When elections come, free adult males will be allowed to vote for assembly representatives if they own or rent property of certain values (twenty shillings for owners and forty shillings for renters), have lived in the state for at least six months, and have paid taxes.

Only free adult males who own properties valued at more than one hundred pounds above any debts can vote for state senators. The constitution then prescribes that there will be twenty-four state senators, elected every four years, but the elections will be timed on a rolling basis so there will be some new senators elected each year. New York will be divided into four electoral districts for purposes of senatorial elections, with the southern district including New York, Suffolk, Westchester, Kings, Queens, and Richmond counties getting nine senators; the middle district of Dutchess, Ulster, and Orange counties six; the western district of Albany and Tryon counties six; and the eastern district of Charlotte, Cumberland, and Gloucester counties three. The number of senators per district will be adjusted according to the findings of the census but will never exceed one hundred.

All rights will be afforded to the people of the state, including voting rights for those men who meet the above requirements, unless they are lawfully stripped of these rights by a jury of their peers. Unless there is a specific reason for secrecy, the deliberations of the assembly and senate will be open to all people. A journal will be kept to record these deliberations, but the legislature does retain the right to block some information from the journal if there is a good reason for the legislature to act in secret.

A governor will be elected every three years by those men meeting the property requirements described for senatorial elections. The governor will be the head of the executive branch, in charge of the state militia, and will have the ability to grant pardons for criminal convictions but will need the approval of the legislature to overturn convictions for treason or murder. There will also be a lieutenant governor elected at the same time, who also serves as the president of the senate and who will take over in case of death, disability, or impeachment of the governor. If both the governor and lieutenant governor are unable to serve, it is up to the senate to elect a new senate president to temporarily fill the role of leader.

There will be a state treasurer, selected by the assembly and ratified by the senate. The constitution stipulates that the treasurer cannot be a member of either branch of the legislature. It goes on to say that other state officers, not specifically mentioned in the constitution, will be appointed annually by a council of select assembly members, senators, and the governor or lieutenant governor.

The chancellor and judges of the New York Supreme Court and county judges are specifically banned from holding other offices. The only exception to this is that they may in some circumstances serve as representatives of New York State to the federal congress. If a supreme court judge or chancellor is appointed to another state office, it will be up to him whether or not he will serve that appointment or remain in a judicial role. The chancellor will appoint the clerks for the chancery (equity and appeals court), and the New York Supreme Court judges will appoint clerks for their own court.

One function of the state government, according to the Constitution of New York, is to select delegates to the federal congress. The state assembly and senate will draw up separate lists nominating delegates. Those people whose names appear on both lists will be called upon to serve as delegates. The assembly and senate will vote together to determine the remainder of the delegates to represent the state in this federal capacity.

The constitution also anticipates that there may be a need to impeach or recall unfit state officers. The power of impeachment is given to the assembly but, to be carried out, requires a two-thirds vote based on concrete evidence of corruption. The impeachment would then go to a court composed of the lieutenant governor in his role as president of the senate, state senators, New York Supreme Court judges, and state chancellor. Accused state officers are suspended from official duties unless acquitted and are allowed legal representation in their impeachment cases, but they can be subject to criminal prosecution if the case should warrant.

According to the constitution of 1777, the overall legal framework for governing New York State will remain based on English common law as it stood on April 19, 1775. The legal framework will be amended as the state sees fit. All laws that put the interests of the British government or any religious groups above the state of New York will automatically be void, as will any laws that contradict the constitution itself.

Next, the constitution takes on the issue of land grants. It states that all land grants made under the auspices of the king of England before October 14, 1775, will be respected, but that those made after that date will not. It also says that no property rights will be given up by people who abandon their properties between April 19, 1775, and the publication of the constitution. Further, those land grants made by state officials, such as the governor, rather than any British authority will not be voided by this constitutional decree.

The constitution recognizes that peace with the local American Indian tribes is critical to the survival of the settlements in the state. It describes that dealings with the native peoples have often been tainted by fraud on the part of white colonists, and that this problem has been especially acute when brokering land sales. In order to protect the American Indians from unscrupulous land deals, and therefore the state from resulting hostility, the constitution says that no land deals with local tribes after October 14, 1775, will be binding unless brokered by New York State.

The issue of religious freedom is addressed next. The constitution says that one function of the state government is to protect citizens against religious intolerance and priests that abuse their influence. It says that the people of New York State have the right to practice their faiths as they see fit, unless this freedom is used to justify antisocial behavior. Further, it bans religious figures from holding government or military offices within New York State.

According to the constitution, it is necessary to maintain a properly trained and supplied state militia to protect the people of New York. Each county is to keep a supply of weapons and other provisions for potential conflicts, proportionate to the number of people living in the county. The constitution specifically mentions that people of the Quaker faith, prohibited by their religion from engaging in violence, do not have to serve in the state militia. However, Quakers will have to pay a fee to the state to cover the expense of paying other people to serve in their place.

The constitution stresses the importance of due process of law in criminal cases. All citizens will be entitled to juried trials when they are convicted of an offense, as had been the case throughout the history of the colony. It also prohibits the state from issuing acts of attainder, or banishing people for disloyalty, after the end of the present Revolutionary War. Those acts of attainder that are passed will not pass on to future generations, meaning that the descendents of those people banned from New York because of treason in the Revolutionary War will not be barred from living in the state. Moreover, the state will not be allowed to create any courts except as approved by the duly elected New York legislature.

Finally, the constitution speaks to the process of naturalizing new citizens. It gives the legislature the power to determine the requirements that people born outside the United States will have to follow in order to become citizens of New York State. When they do become citizens of the state, they will have to swear a pledge of loyalty to New York. In so doing, they will renounce any previous allegiances to foreign powers.

Essential Themes

The 1777 Constitution of New York is a complex legal document intended to provide the nascent state with a legal framework for a functioning government independent of British rule. It was drawn up by an ambitious young lawyer and was based in large part on British common-law practices of the time. As such, it is a dense and not particularly readable document. Within it, however, are several interesting clues to the concerns and biases of its framers, intent in shaping the new society to their own ideals.

One striking feature of the 1777 Constitution of New York is the fact that it reiterates points mentioned in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and anticipates themes adopted by the US Constitution of 1787. During the Revolutionary War, it was not entirely clear what kind of government the United States would ultimately have, and each state considered itself to be an almost independent and sovereign power, rather than a local contributor to a greater federal system.

Accordingly, the Constitution of New York devotes a significant portion of its text to justifications for breaking off from foreign rule. After stating that the New York colonists originally intended to reconcile with the king of England but have found that this will never be possible, it levies a series of complaints against the British government that have led to the decision to secede. These include taxation without representation, forcing New Yorkers to garrison the king’s troops, pressing colonists into military service, and the destruction of property and loss of life during the Revolution.

In terms of establishing a governmental infrastructure, the greatest contribution of the 1777 constitution was likely the creation of two legislative branches. Also, although the state government outlined in the constitution was based on democratic principles, the framers were reluctant to give too much power to the masses. Therefore, they establish fairly stringent qualifications for voting. In practice, only a small percentage of the state’s population was able to vote in all elections.

Similarly, the New York constitution seeks to uphold freedom of religion, but with several important caveats. First, it states that no professional clergyman can hold political office in the state. Second and most important, it limits religious freedom to those activities that do not jeopardize public order, as interpreted by the legislature. This latter point provided a good deal of leeway for the white Protestant majority to criminalize forms for worship that it felt might be contrary to its own sense of moral order.

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Categories: History