Democracy, citizenship and constitution-making in New York, 1777--1894

Date of Completion

January 1999


History, United States|Political Science, General




The states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts have vied with each other into the twentieth century for the right to claim the origin of the constitutional convention mechanism. That ongoing rivalry suggests the importance of constitutions and the methods of shaping them to American political culture. In establishing institutional structures and capturing the fundamental relationships between citizens and their government, constitutions are key sources for understanding social and political change. ^ This study examines evolving ideas about American democracy and popular governance through the framework of constitution-making in New York State during the nineteenth century. Drawing on New York's six constitutional conventions (held in 1777, 1801, 1821, 1846, 1867, and 1894), the work analyzes theories of popular sovereignty (the notion of all political authority residing in the people) and democratic participation in the light of the realities of constitution-making. ^ From at least the late 1700s through the present, Americans have maintained a discourse which posits that all power resides in the people. Such rhetoric was clearly present during the Revolutionary era and the early 1800s, but in practice the people's involvement in governance during that time was limited to sanctioning others to make decisions in their stead. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the people's participation changed significantly and more closely aligned with the “power of the people” rhetoric. This change is particularly evident in the century of constitution-making treated in this dissertation. The process popularized ideas about democratic participation and raised questions about access to suffrage that were fundamental in defining citizens' rights and responsibilities. ^ In the final analysis, the reality of constitution-making in New York did not correspond to the theory of popular sovereignty. Rather, a decline of popular engagement with constitutional affairs took place in the last half of the nineteenth century—the result of the growing role of partisan politics in the constitutional arena and the increasing detail and legal complexity of the state's organic law. At the same time, however, this decline in popular participation in constitution-making was more than offset by the constitutional expansion of opportunities for popular participation in ordinary politics. ^