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Democracy, Liberty, and Property

The State Constitutional Conventions of the 1820s

Merrill Peterson

Publication Year: 2012

In one volume, Democracy, Liberty, and Property provides an overview of the state constitutional conventions held in the 1820s. With topics as relevant today as they were then, this collection of essential primary sources sheds light on many of the enduring issues of liberty. Emphasizing the connection between federalism and liberty, the debates that took place at these conventions show how questions of liberty were central to the formation of state government, allowing students and scholars to discover important insights into liberty and to develop a better understanding of U.S. history.

The debates excerpted in Democracy, Liberty, and Property focus on the conventions of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, and they include contributions from the principal statesmen of the founding era, including John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Marshall.

Merrill D. Peterson (1921-2009) was Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia and a noted Jeffersonian scholar.

G. Alan Tarr is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University-Camden.

Published by: Liberty Fund

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vii

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Foreword to the liberty fund edition

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pp. ix-xx

This volume reproduces key debates from the important constitutional conventions held in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia during the 1820s. The New York and Virginia conventions drafted constitutions to replace the original constitutions in those states, and voters by sizable majorities approved the new charters. The Massachusetts convention proposed a series ...

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General Introduction

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pp. xxi-xxiv

The constitutional convention has been called “America’s basic institution.” It developed in the actual process of state-making during the American Revolution. When the people of the thirteen colonies declared their independence, they had not only to prove their claim on the battlefield but also to reestablish the foundations of political authority. The fundamental principle ...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. xxv-xxvii

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Editor’s Note

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pp. xxix

The published texts of the debates of the three conventions are of uneven quality. That of the Virginia convention is unquestionably the fullest and the best. Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, employed Arthur Stansbury to report the debates. Because Stansbury was both skilled in shorthand and experienced in legislative proceedings, as a recorder of Congressional ...

I. The Massachusetts Convention of 1820–1821

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pp. 3-15

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780, the last of the Revolutionary constitutions, was the first to embody the full-blown theory of constituent sovereignty. It had been framed in special convention and ratified by the people in town meetings. In this and in its provisions for an elective chief magistrate, a broadly representative legislature, and an independent ...


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pp. 17-18

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1. The Test Oath

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pp. 19-29

... Mr. Webster. It is obvious that the principal alteration, proposed by the first resolution, is the omission of the declaration of belief in the Christian religion, as a qualifi cation for office, in the cases of the governor, lieutenant governor, counsellors and members of the Legislature. I shall content ...

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2. The Third Article

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pp. 30-44

Mr. Saltonstall moved to amend the report by striking out the third and fourth resolutions, and substituting a resolution declaring that it is not expedient to make any further amendment to the third article of the declaration of rights than to substitute the word “Christian” for “Protestant,” and also to provide that real estate shall be taxed for the support of public ...

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3. The “Poll Parish”

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pp. 45-48

Mr. Hoar was sorry that any gentleman had thought it necessary to bring this proposition before the Convention at this late period. It had been twice substantially before the House, and had been negatived when there were more than a hundred more members present than were now here. But as it had been thought fit to bring up the question, it was necessary to consider ...

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4. Tax Exemption

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pp. 49-54

Mr. Bald win said that some amendments to the third article of the declaration of rights, had been agreed upon by the Convention, but the most obnoxious part, perhaps, remained unrepealed. Th e most potent objection which had been urged against incorporating this resolution into the constitution, was, that the provision was liable to abuses. Particular instances had ...

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5. The Suffrage

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pp. 55-61

The resolution offered by Mr. Keyes, on Saturday, and referred to this committee, proposing to abolish all pecuniary qualification in electors of officers under this government, was taken up by the committee. Mr. Nichols of South Reading moved that the committee should rise. Negatived. ...

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6. The Basis of Representation

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pp. 62-70

Mr. Dear born . . . . He did not know whence the principle, by which the senate is apportioned by the present constitution, was derived. It was not to be found in the organization of any of the republics, ancient or modern. It did not exist in Greece, Rome, Venice or Genoa. It was found in the British House of Lords. ...

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7. Joseph Story on Representation

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pp. 71-82

... . . . It is necessary for us for a moment to look at what is the true state of the question now before us. The proposition of my friend from Roxbury [Mr. Dearborn], is to make population the basis for apportioning the senate, and this proposition is to be followed up,—as the gentleman, with the candor ...

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8. Daniel Webster on Representation

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pp. 83-96

. . . In my opinion, sir, there are two questions before the committee; the first is, shall the legislative department be constructed with any other check, than such as arises simply from dividing the members of this department into two houses? The second is, if such other and further check ought to exist, in what manner shall it be created? ...

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9. “Address to the People”

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pp. 97-109

It was provided in the constitution, established in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty, that revision might be had after an experiment of fifteen years. When these years had elapsed, the people declared that they were satisfied; and that they desired no change. The same satisfaction was manifested during the next twenty-five years, and would probably have still ...

10. Statement of the Votes for and against the Articles of Amendment, in the Several Counties

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pp. 110-112

II. The New York Convention of 1821

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pp. 115-130

In the first half-century of independence New York developed more rapidly than any of her sister states. When the Revolutionary constitution of 1777 was framed, two-thirds of the state’s inhabitants lived on both sides of the Hudson River between Albany and New York City; by 1820 two-thirds of the people lived on lands farther west and north—the old Iroquois lands— reaching to the Great ...


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pp. 131-132

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11. The Council of Revision and the Veto Power

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pp. 133-148

. . . Mr . Livingston . . . . It is a fact not to be disguised, that a towering majority of this Convention represent the interests, feelings, and views of expectants of office; but to be exercised for the benefit of the people. I have not delegated this power, for the purposes of indulging the sympathies of his heart, or of rewarding contractors; but to protect the citizens against midnight murder, and the torch of the incendiary. I am willing to delegate ...

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12. The Term of the Governor

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pp. 149-156

. . . Mr . Cramer. I must in duty to myself express my sentiments upon this subject. It is time for us to consider what powers we have given, and mean to give, to the governor, and for what purposes. He has the powers of veto, of pardon, and will probably have others of appointment. I have voted for the first two, not to give him power to protect himself, the judiciary, nor of any man ...

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13. The Appointive Power

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pp. 157-168

. . . Mr . Van Buren . . . . The first question which presented itself for the consideration of the committee, was the propriety of abolishing the Council of Appointment. On this subject there was no difficulty; the same unanimity prevailed among the members of the select committee in this respect, as in the vote which had just passed in the committee of the whole, ...

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14. The Senate and the Suffrage

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pp. 169-191

... Mr. N. Sanford took the floor. The question before us is the right of suffrage—who shall, or who shall not, have the right to vote. The committee have presented the scheme they thought best; to abolish all existing distinctions and make the right of voting uniform. Is this not right? Where did these distinctions arise? They arose from British precedents. In England, they have their three estates, which must always have their separate interests represented. ...

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15. The Negro and the Suffrage

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pp. 192-207

. . . Mr . Ross . . . . That all men are free and equal, according to the usual declarations, applies to them only in a state of nature, and not after the institution of civil government; for then many rights, flowing from a natural equality, are necessarily abridged, with a view to produce the greatest amount of security and happiness to the whole community. On this ...

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16. Blasphemy and Libel

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pp. 208-221

... The supreme court, as Mr. Root contended, had brought into this state the common law of England, in defiance of what he (Mr. R.) considered to be the constitution of the state. Indictments had been sustained for blasphemy—particularly in the county of Herkimer, and in the county of Washington, as contained in Johnson’s Reports. In the latter case it had ...

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17. Reform of the Judiciary

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pp. 222-239

... Mr. Edwards. I do not conceive it proper that a subject of such deep concern should be passed upon without being more thoroughly discussed and seriously considered. However lightly our judicial system may be held by some, yet if we fail in establishing a good one, the community will sooner or later be made to feel that it is a thing of no ordinary importance. ...

III. The Virginia Convention of 1829–1830

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pp. 243-255

... The Virginia Convention of 1829 –1830 was the last of the great constituent assemblies in American history. As an arena of ideological encounter it was unexcelled. It was a seemingly inexhaustible exercise in political erudition— the last gasp of Jeffersonian America’s passion for political disputation. It was a dazzling forensic display of more than three months’ duration. “The Old Dominion,” one ...


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pp. 257-258

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18. Cooke on Democratic Representation

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pp. 259-274

... Mr. Leigh of Chesterfield, said, that he did hope that the friends of the proposition reported by the Legislative Committee, would assign their reasons in support of a plan which proposes, in effect, to put the power of controlling the wealth of the State, into hands different from those which hold that wealth; a plan, which declares that representation shall be regulated by ...

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19. Upshur on Majorities and Minorities

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pp. 275-294

... It is contended by our opponents, that the proper basis of representation in the General Assembly, is white population alone, because this principle results necessarily from the right which the majority possess, to rule the minority. I have been forcibly struck with the fact, that in all the arguments upon this subject here and elsewhere, this right in a majority is assumed as ...

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20. Doddridge in Rebuttal

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pp. 295-299

. . . In our course we have not exactly followed in the footsteps of our predecessors who made the present Constitution. They acted as master builders: we have not. They laid the foundation first, and then proceeded to the superstructure. After they had declared the Government of the King of England at an end, the first thing they did was to appoint a Committee to ...

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21. Leigh on Power and Property

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pp. 300-311

. . . Sir, the resolution reported by the Legislative Committee, in effect, proposes to divorce power from property—to base representation on numbers alone, though numbers do not quadrate with property—though mountains rise between them—to transfer, in the course of a very few years, the weight of power over taxation and property to the west, though it be admitted, on ...

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22. Randolph on the Federal Issue

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pp. 312-319

... Mr. Chairman, since I have been here, the scene has recalled many old recollections. At one time, I thought myself in the House of Representatives, listening to the debate on the Tariff; at another time, I imagined myself listening to the debate on the Missouri Question; and sometimes I fancied myself listening to both questions debated at once. Are we men? ...

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23. Marshall on Compromise

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pp. 320-323

... Two propositions respecting the basis of Representation have divided this Convention almost equally. One party has supported the basis of white population alone, the other has supported a basis compounded of white population and taxation; or which is the same thing in its result, the basis of Federal numbers. The question has been discussed, until discussion has ...

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24. Summers on the Gordon Plan

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pp. 324-329

... The proposition of the gentleman from Albemarle, (Mr. Gordon,) concurred in by the Committee of the Whole, gave as the present apportionment in a House of one hundred and twenty-seven members, the following proportions: ...

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25. Gordon on the Gordon Plan

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pp. 330-335

... Mr. President ,—I greatly regret the excitement, either of expression or manner, apparent in this debate. I shall endeavour to avoid either, in what I may say. The proposition I submitted for the consideration of the Convention, was made in the hope of sinking the discussion on the basis of future apportionment of Representation. My own opinion was, and is, that ...

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26. The Non-Freeholders’ Memorial

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pp. 336-343

... Your memorialists, as their designation imports, belong to that class of citizens, who, not having the good fortune to possess a certain portion of land, are, for that cause only, debarred from the enjoyment of the right of suffrage. Experience has but too clearly evinced, what, indeed, reason had always foretold, by how frail a tenure they hold every other right, who are ...

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27. The Freehold Suffrage Defended

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pp. 344-350

. . . Mr. N. said, he should proceed to discuss what was the real question before the Committee, stripped of those extraneous considerations, which do not bear upon it, and which are rather calculated to mislead, than to enlighten. This subject has received from me, Mr. Chairman, my anxious consideration; not only since it has been agitated in this Convention, but ...

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28. The Reformers’ Rebuttal

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pp. 351-362

... Mr. Chairman , I scruple not in limine1 to avow that I am one of those visionary politicians who advocate General Suffrage, what gentleman are pleased to term Universal Suffrage. And, in this avowal, I believe I speak the sentiments of a large majority of my constituents. What I mean by General Suffrage, is the extension of that inestimable right of voting in ...

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29. The Executive

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pp. 363-372

... Mr. Nicholas — . . . I take it for granted, that every gentleman would think it proper, to construct the Executive Department on principles suited to republican institutions. Th e Government from which we were separated by the Revolution, was one which concentrated inordinate authority in the hands of a single Executive Magistrate. The monarch had the powers of ...

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30. The County Courts

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pp. 373-382

... Mr. Campbell — . . . Without hazarding any thing, I think, Sir, I may say, more of the happiness of this Commonwealth, depends upon the County Government under which we live, than upon the State or United States’ Government. Th e more we circumscribe the supervision of any tribunal, the more interest we feel in it, and the more happiness or misery it ...

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31. The Amendment Article

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pp. 383-387

... Mr. President —I shall vote against this resolution: and I will state as succinctly as I can, my reasons for doing so. I believe that they will, in substance, be found in a very old book, and conveyed in these words “sufficient unto the day, is the evil thereof.”1 Sir, I have remarked since the commencement of our deliberations—and with no small surprise—a very great anxiety to provide for futurity. ...

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32. The Question of Ratification

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pp. 388-395

... Mr. Thompson said he was constrained by an imperious sense of duty, to trespass (he hoped for the last time) upon the patience and attention of this Convention, for the purpose of expressing his most decided disapprobation of, and his objections to, the passage of the resolution just off ered by the gentleman from Charlotte, (Mr. Randolph). He regretted, that the ...


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pp. 397-412

Publication Information

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E-ISBN-13: 9781614878483
E-ISBN-10: 161487848X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780865977891

Page Count: 444
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: None

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Constitutional conventions -- Massachusetts -- History.
  • Constitutional history -- Massachusetts.
  • Constitutional conventions -- New York (State) -- History.
  • Constitutional history -- New York (State).
  • Constitutional conventions -- Virginia -- History.
  • Constitutional history -- Virginia.
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