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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.

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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.’

Part the Second

The second part of the Massachusetts Constitution lays out the structure of the government for Massachusetts. The first chapter sets out a legislative body made up of a Senate and House of Representatives, with rules as to how each should be elected. The second chapter establishes an executive branch and all of its powers and prerogatives, made up of the governor, his lieutenant governor, his council, and other offices such as secretary and treasurer. Chapter three established the commonwealth’s judiciary and chapter four details how delegates are to be sent to Congress.

The remaining chapters deal with the administration of the commonwealth’s state-run universities and institutions.

Lesson Summary

  • The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was the first state constitution written by a constitutional convention. The final document also had to be ratified by two-thirds of the citizenry.
  • The three principal drafters were John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Bowdoin.

  • The Massachusetts Constitution bears several striking resemblances, in both form and wording, to the U.S. Constitution written seven years later.
  • The Massachusetts Constitution is the oldest constitution still in use today.
  • The Massachusetts Constitution is based largely on ‘social contract’ political theory.

Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 Overview

Names ; Terms Explanations
Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 the oldest constitution still in use in the United States of America; it laid the groundwork for much of the structure and rights that would be included in the American Constitution seven years later
John Adams one of the invitees to the U.

S. Constitutional Convention in 1787, though he failed to attend

James Bowdoin president of the Constitutional Convention who would later become governor of Massachusetts
Samuel Adams a great political mind of the late 18th century; he received an invitation to the U.S.

Constitutional Convention but did not attend

Preamble establishes the ‘social contract’ between the government and the people; the idea was first hinted at by 17th-century English philosopher, John Locke
Part the First section contains a Bill of Rights made up of thirty articles delineating inalienable rights all landowning men of the commonwealth were entitled to enjoy
Part the Second lays out the structure of the government for Massachusetts

Learning Outcomes

A good way to test your knowledge of this lesson is to complete these tasks:

  • Describe the importance of the Massachusetts Constitution to the U.S. Constitution
  • Identify the important members of the assembly who put the constitution together
  • Detail the parts of the constitution

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