On this date in 1776, work began on Pennsylvania’s first constitution. Adopted two months later, the constitution has been described as “the most democratic in America” in its time.

As was the case with the drafting of many of the early state constitutions, the process was closely tied with the quest for independence from Great Britain. As dissatisfaction with the British colonial government grew, Pennsylvanians formed extralegal committees to facilitate local decision-making, effectively undermining the official government.

In June 1776, delegates selected by these various county committees met together at the Provincial Conference of Committees of the Province of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The conference declared Pennsylvania’s independence from Great Britain and also called a state convention to meet on July 15, 1776, in order to frame a constitution. With this move, Pennsylvanians effectively superseded the old government and set their path to independence.

The convention met as planned on July 15, 1776, and elected Benjamin Franklin president. It also formed a Council of Safety to rule in the interim and set about drafting a constitution.

Benjamin Franklin, along with George Bryan and James Cannon were the principal authors of the new constitution, but others contributed, including George Clymer, Timothy Matlack, and possibly even Thomas Paine.

The constitution adopted on Sept. 28, 1776, began with a justification for independence mirroring language in the Declaration of Independence.

“WHEREAS all government ought to be instituted and supported for the security and protection of the community as such, and to enable the individuals who compose it to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of existence has bestowed upon man; and whenever these great ends of government are not obtained, the people have a right, by common consent to change it, and take such measures as to them may appear necessary to promote their safety and happiness.”

The constitution featured a Declaration of Rights modeled after the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a unicameral legislature with members serving 1-year terms, and an executive branch administered by a 12-member Supreme Executive Council. The constitution provided for a president who was selected jointly by the assembly and council. Presidential power was limited by the council.

The constitution also included a check on government power. The Council of Censors could censure actions by the government, order impeachments, and recommend the repeal of any law it deemed in violation of the constitution. The council was also the only body with the authority to call a convention for amendments to the constitution.

One of the most radical provisions in the constitution was extending the right to vote to all taxpaying men. While still extremely restrictive by modern standards, it was more expansive than the more typical policy of limiting the franchise to property owners.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 included other provisions that expanded popular representation, including annual elections and term limits. There was also a provision that delayed the implementation of any law passed by the assembly until the next legislative session, allowing people to assess its merits.

The Pennsylvania constitution reflected the revolutionary thinking of the day with its commitment to individual rights and checks on government power and set the stage for other state constitutions and ultimately the U.S. Constitution.

Mike Maharrey

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