The first New York State Constitution was written and approved by a group of fourteen men called the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York elected by property-holding men. While it was important to these men that the constitution represented the will of the people, the first constitution did not go to the people for a vote due to the war activity in New York. At the time of the writing of the document, the British occupied Manhattan, Long Island, and the lower part of Westchester County. Loyalists lived throughout the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys.
By writing a constitution, the representatives were creating a government and a political system that did not exist before the document was written. The three primary authors, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert R. Livingston, were all highly-educated men who had read a wide variety of writings on politics, government, and law. John Adams’ Thoughts on Government had a significance influence on the writing of New York’s first constitution. John Jay shared Adams’ detailed description of the purpose and structure of a republican form of government to many of his fellow representatives.
As these men began the task of writing the constitution, they had several key components they believed needed to be a part of the new state government. It had to be written in an understandable way and acknowledge that the power held by the government came from the people living in the state. All men who owned property and paid taxes would be able to vote in elections. They wanted the government to consist of an executive (governor), a two-house legislature, and an independent judiciary. While the executive was to be given enough power to run the state, limitations on that power were also important to the authors of the constitution. Finally, the representatives all insisted on protection of the rights of the people.
The first constitution of New York State was approved by the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York on April 20, 1777. Only one representative of the 34 voted against it, as he saw it as too radical of a document. The first elections were in June and the elected officials took office in September. George Clinton was elected the first governor, John Jay was appointed the first chief justice of the judiciary, and Robert R. Livingston was appointed the chancellor. The State of New York had been formed and a government established even as the Revolutionary War continued.
Learning Activity - Grade 4
Warm-Up/Opening Activity: Review the three branches of our current state and federal government.
Activity: Students read Article 2, 17 and 25 from the 1777 New York State Constitution and identify which branch of government each article describes.
Assessment: Students discuss the importance of having three branches of government and the role of each of those branches.
Extension: Students create a poster for the three branches using photographs of the current governor, representatives, and judges.
Learning Activity - Grades 7 & 11
Warm-up/Opening Activity: Review the idea of political systems and the main types of political systems that existed in the 1700s. Political Systems on PBSLearningMedia
Activity: Break apart the typed version of the 1777 New York State Constitution into individual articles. (See lesson resources for the Analysis Worksheet containing the segmented version of the constitution with questions)
Divide students into groups of 3 or 4 students.
Give each group 3 or 4 articles from the First New York State Constitution with the scaffolding questions so they can summarize the main idea of each article.
Post large pieces of paper around the classroom. Label each of the papers with the following headings: Power of the People, Voting, Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Citizen’s Rights
Ask the students to right the number of each of their assigned articles under the headings/topics that they address. Note: Some articles may appear under multiple headings.
Assessment: Students discuss, either in class or in a writing assignment, the type of political system created by the first New York State Constitution and the role of the individual in this new political system.
Extensions: Students compare the first NYS Constitution to the United States Constitution. Students compare the First New York State Constitution with the current New York State Constitution.