The transformation of the constitution of Massachusetts, 1780--1860

Date of Completion

January 1991


History, United States|Economics, History




This study examines the transformation of the constitution of Massachusetts from the Revolution to the Civil War. The opening chapter analyzes the making of the 1780 constitution and assesses the meaning of the Revolutionary settlement in Massachusetts. The remaining chapters focus on the two subsequent constitutional conventions, in 1820 and 1853, to create a narrative of the evolution of the 1780 constitution from an eighteenth-century republican to a largely nineteenth-century democratic document. The key issues that reflected this evolution were representation, religion and suffrage. As an expression of the deep-seated organic, deferential and hierarchical social ethos of the revolutionary generation, the 1780 constitution established compulsory religious taxes, property representation in the Senate and restrictive suffrage. All three features would become the rallying point of nineteenth-century democratic reforms.^ Maine's separation from Massachusetts in 1819 gave the Jeffersonian Republicans and their sectarian allies the first opportunity to demand an overall revision of the constitution. The 1820 convention of Massachusetts paralleled similar constitutional reform movements throughout the country, and served as a harbinger of the Jacksonian Democratic reforms.^ The dramatic social and economic changes that followed industrialization added new dimensions and tensions to the post-1820 constitutional contests. The 1830s began with a series of legislative amendments, which culminated in yet another constitutional convention in 1853. Broad-ranging democratic reform issues such as the expansion of suffrage, elimination of property qualification for office, and popular election of all officers of the state remained an important theme of the 1853 convention; however, a host of new and politically volatile issues such as the secret ballot, rules regulating elections, and a variety of economic policy matters such as general incorporation laws crowded the convention's agenda. The result was a highly partisan new constitution which was rejected by the voters. This study, thus, demonstrates both the "democratization" of the constitution and the tensions and ironies of democratic politics that were an integral part of the constitutional reform process. ^