Today is New York Constitution Day!
What is New York Constitution Day you ask?
On this date in 1777, New York ratified and adopted its first ever state constitution in the City of Kingston. Read below for a copy of my floor speech on the floor of the state senate to commemorate today.
Today is an incredibly important day in the history of our state.
On this date in 1777, our state’s first constitution was ratified and adopted in the city of Kingston.
The constitution — the first chartering document of the newly declared independent New York — was drafted primarily by prominent Founding Fathers John Jay and Gouvernur Morris — both of whom would go on to sign the U.S. Constitution in 1787, and Robert Livingston, who represented New York at the Second Continental Congress, was a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and administered the first oath of office to George Washington in 1789.
The process of drafting the Constitution began almost immediately after the Declaration of Independence was announced in July 1776. The New York Provincial Congress — a committee of colonists who favored independence that began organizing itself in 1775 to support the war effort — met in the City of White Plains on July 10, 1776, to begin the work of creating a new government now that the colony had declared itself free & independent.
The work of the Provincial Congress was delayed and disrupted by the imminent invasion of New York City by British forces. The Congress had to adjourn repeatedly and seek out safer locations away from the British Army — a situation that became more desperate with the Continental Army’s defeats across Long Island and New York City, and their ultimate retreat across the river to New Jersey. As winter settled in, and the British made camp in New York City, the Provincial Congress fled to upstate Kingston to continue their efforts at mobilizing for the war effort and drafting the constitution.
Finally, on April 20, 1777–244 years ago today — and with only one dissenting vote, the Provincial Congress of New York, renaming itself the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York, adopted and ratified the new constitution. Remarkably, the new constitution was not submitted to the general public for ratification or support — the ongoing war made that effort nearly impossible.
The first constitution had 42 sections, and clocked in at just under 7,000 words. It included in its preamble the entire text of the Declaration of Independence. It did not have a formal bill of rights, but did include a right to trial by jury, a right to counsel in felony cases, and a right of due process, as well as prohibitions against bills of attainder, and protections of religious freedom and liberty of conscience.
The constitution made no mention of slavery nor did it even include a process for future amendments but it was the first state constitution — and therefore the first in the nation’s history — to require that legislative representation be based on equal population and that every seven years the apportionment of legislative seats be reallocated based on changes in the population.
It’s amazing to me that this is an issue we are still discussing and debating today, when our state’s forefathers so easily provided us with the solution some 244 years ago.
This constitution was in many ways a precursor to the U.S. Constitution that would be adopted a decade later — for example, looking at the records we have of the deliberations, the state senate — this body! — was designed to be a filter for public opinion much like the U.S. Senate was designed to be the saucer that cools the tea that we learn so much about in our social studies classes.
Over the years, our state — the structures of our government, the rights bestowed to our people, and the obligations of our people vis-a-vis our government, has changed greatly. In fact, the State of New York has ratified 4 different constitutions — in 1777, 1821, 1846, and 1894. And in between all those years, the Constitution has been amended hundreds of times.
I could spend hours and hours going through this history in even greater detail. But I’m sure you’re wondering — what’s the big deal? Why is this so important? Why should we care?
And the answer is really simple. We tend to place such a premium on discussing the federal constitution. We learn about it all throughout our education beginning in elementary school. We talk about the US Constitution as if it were some sort of religious document that holds the eternal truths that support our own personal political views. We spend so much time and energy debating the constitutional powers of the federal government. Congress. The Presidency. The Supreme Court.
And yet, despite the Constitution’s sacred importance to our national civic identity, we often overlook just how important state governments really are. States — the laboratories of democracy as Justice Brandeis reminds us — have a more fundamental impact on our day-to-day lives as citizens than the federal government ever has and perhaps ever will.
And in a world that depends on an engaged and educated citizenry to fulfill the promise of self-government, what could be more important than starting with the very foundational charter that outlines the rights, privileges, powers, and responsibilities of a government that directly affects our lives each and every day?
We should care about our state constitution, because it is the blueprint for a government that is meant to serve us.
So today, April 20th, I wish you all a happy 4/20 — that is, Happy New York State Constitution Day.