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  • Unity in a Time of War:New York's First State Constitution, 1776–1777
  • Colin Jay Williams (bio)

Historians have long ignored the primary reason why rebel leaders wanted to replace New York's colonial government two years into the American Revolution. Devised during a conflict that raged across the state's southern and northern counties, New York's first constitution was not established to instill class privileges in a foundational legal code, as Carl Becker had argued in his 1909 Political Parties in the Province of New York from 1760–1776.1 With occupation magnifying long-standing geographic [End Page 38] divides, the men on the committee who drafted the document and their compatriots in the convention who voted it into existence structured a political system they believed would unify the state's disparate regions. New York's 1777 constitution was written and implemented to save the state from fracturing.

Of all the attempts to redefine Becker's dominant class interpretation, only Bernard Mason employed a systematic socioeconomic analysis to the writing of New York's first state constitution.2 His central criticism was that situational factors mattered: that positions on the radical-conservative divide differed depending on the issue being considered. In particular, a conservative in the anti-imperial campaign of 1774, 1775, and early 1776 was not necessarily a conservative in regards to independence or a new system of government. Asserting that no single factor determined how individuals made decisions, Mason showed that rebels predominated in late colonial New York but that their conservative leaders in the Fourth Provincial Congress used political mastery to safeguard elite privileges in the new state's constitution.3 Thus, despite questioning Becker's class-based labels, Mason differed from his predecessor only in mitigating the importance of a conservative reaction in the Third Provincial Congress and imputing agency to a conservative cabal in the Fourth Provincial Congress (convention). In proposing a new interpretation for New York's [End Page 39] 1777 constitution, this essay argues that Mason never succeeded in distancing himself from Becker because he failed to recognize the degree to which military events were rending New York.

In contrast to the critical treatment Political Parties has received over the years, no one has yet attempted to correct the conditional class alignment Mason observed in New York's constitution-making.4 Interested less in why rebel leaders wanted a constitution than what the document meant, today's historians have accepted his interpretation without questioning if it is appropriate to sort rebels by class. Daniel Hulsebosch is the best example of this trend. His Constituting Empire: New York and the Transformation of Constitutionalism in the Atlantic World, 1664–1830 locates change in legal understanding and not in how citizens exercised power after statehood.5 Identifying the continuity of political forms through a different research methodology, Hulsebosch is able to agree with Mason without having to address his analysis.6

Hulsebosch does not feel obligated to elaborate on Mason's scholarship because Mason treated New York's constitution-making narrowly. Positing that one's political behavior depended on "specific circumstances," he refrained from comparing positions on constitutional issues with positions held before the war.7 Instead, he employed three contemporary indications of political standing to label those who composed the state's first political charter as either conservative, radical, or moderate: the "informal proposals" [End Page 40] of leading rebels, drafts by the committeemen chosen to write the document, and votes by the convention on the final draft.8

Mason's analysis has two underlying problems. The first is explanatory. His narrow scope recognized that events influenced individual positions but, without addressing mobilization, fighting, the enemy's advance, or occupation, he was not able to explain why they did. The second is evidentiary. None of the sources he analyzed prove that rebels acted from any motivation other than a desire to win the war. The informal proposals he cited were not written by convention members and had little effect on them. Similarly, no one today can say with certainty who proposed committee drafts, who supported them, and who opposed them.9 While members circulated drafts outside the chamber, the pointed responses they...


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