Constitution of Massachusetts

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the fundamental governing document of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the 50 individual state governments that make up the United States of America. As a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1779, John Adams was the document's principal author. Voters approved the document on June 15, 1780. It became effective on October 25, 1780, and remains the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world.[1][2] It was also the first constitution anywhere to be created by a convention called for that purpose rather than by a legislative body.[1] Only the Constitution of San Marino has sections still in force that are older.[3]

The Massachusetts Constitution was written last of the original states' first constitutions. Rather than taking the form of a list of provisions, it was organized into a structure of chapters, sections, and articles. It served as a model for the Constitution of the United States of America, drafted seven years later, which used a similar structure. It also influenced later revisions of many other state constitutions. The Massachusetts Constitution has four parts: a preamble, a declaration of rights, a description of the framework of government, and articles of amendment.

It has been amended 120 times, most recently in 2000.

Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Seal of Massachusetts
JurisdictionCommonwealth of Massachusetts
Subordinate toConstitution of the United States
CreatedOctober 30, 1779
PresentedJune 15, 1780
RatifiedOctober 25, 1780
SystemConstitutional Republic
ChambersMassachusetts General Court:
Massachusetts Senate
Massachusetts House of Representatives
ExecutiveGovernor of Massachusetts
JudiciarySupreme, Appeals, Trial
First legislatureOctober 25, 1780
First executiveOctober 25, 1780
First courtOctober 25, 1780
Commissioned byMassachusetts Provincial Congress
Author(s)John Adams
SupersedesMassachusetts Charter


The title page and first articles, the Declaration of Rights, in the first published edition of the 1780 Constitution

Title Page of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution
First Articles of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution

In the spring of 1775, Adams took the position that each state should call a special convention to write a constitution and then submit it to a popular vote. He told the Continental Congress that:[4]

We must realize the theories of the Wisest Writers and invite the People, to erect the whole Building with their own hands upon the broadest foundation. That this could be done only by conventions of representatives chosen by the People.... Congress ought now to recommend to the People of every Colony to call such Conventions immediately and set up Governments of their own, under their own Authority; for the People were the Source of all Authority and the Original of all Power.

The legislative body of Massachusetts, known as the Massachusetts General Court, instead drafted its own version of a constitution and submitted it to the voters, who rejected it in 1778. That version did not provide for the separation of powers, nor did it include a statement of individual rights.[5] The General Court then organized the election of delegates from each town to participate in a convention that would draft a constitution and submit their work to a popular vote with the understanding that its adoption would require approval by two-thirds of the voters.[5] The constitutional convention met in Cambridge in September 1779.[6]

The convention sat from September 1 to October 30, 1779. Its 312 members chose a committee of thirty members to prepare a new constitution and declaration of rights. That committee asked Adams to draft a declaration of rights. It appointed a subcommittee of James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams to draft the constitution and that trio delegated the drafting to John Adams alone. He later wrote that he constituted a "sub-sub committee of one".[7] An article on religion was referred to members of the clergy, which resulted in a form of religious establishment entirely unlike that later adopted at the federal level.[1] Adams advocated for an end to that establishment when revisions to the constitution were considered in 1820 and his views were adopted in 1832.[4]

Adams's draft declaration of rights read in part: "All men are born equally free and independent..." Before being adopted by the constitutional convention it was revised to read: "All men are born free and equal..."[6] At the insistence of Adams, the document referred to the state as a "commonwealth."[8]

Male voters 21 years or older ratified the constitution and declaration of rights at the convention on June 15, 1780, and it became effective on October 25, 1780.


The preamble of the constitution bears some resemblance to the United States Constitution's in a few phrases near the end. It reads:

The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquillity their natural rights, and the blessings of life: and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation, and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.

We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Declaration of Rights

"Part the First: A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts" consists of thirty articles. The first states:

Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

This Article was the subject of a landmark case in 1781 before a Massachusetts court sitting in Great Barrington, Brom and Bett v. Ashley. Elizabeth Freeman (whose slave name was "Bett"), a black slave owned by Colonel John Ashley, sued for her freedom based on this article. The jury agreed that slavery was inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution and awarded Freeman £5 in damages and her freedom. A few years later, Quock Walker, a black slave, sued his master for false imprisonment; the jury found for Walker, and awarded him damages of £50. His master was then subject to criminal prosecution for assault and battery against Walker and was found guilty by a jury, which imposed a fine of 40/- (£2). In this manner, slavery lost any and all legal protection in Massachusetts, making it a tortious act under the law, effectively abolishing it within the Commonwealth.

This Article was also the basis for the 2003 Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that required the Commonwealth to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples on an equal basis with different-sex couples.

This article was later amended to change the word "men" to "people".

The next several Articles within the "Part the First" in the original 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts called upon the people of the Commonwealth as being their "right as well as the duty of all men" (Article II) to a strong religious conviction and belief.

Article II. It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, or for his religious profession or sentiments, provided he doth not disturb the public peace or obstruct others in their religious worship.

Article III continued by noting that "the happiness of a people" and "preservation of civil government" is explicitly tied to religion and morality. This article established the possibility of "town religions" by allowing the state legislature, though Massachusetts cannot declare or recognize a state religion, to require towns to pay for the upkeep of a Protestant church out of local tax funds, with the town to determine by majority vote the denomination it would support as its parish church.

From 1780 to 1824 these democratically selected parish churches were considered the only churches with full legal rights, as "voluntary" churches ran against the Federalist ideal of a commonwealth. Until 1822 all residents of a town were required to belong to the parish church. In that year they were allowed to attend a neighboring town's church instead, and in 1824 full religious freedom was granted. However the parishes remained beneficiaries of local taxes and were unable to expel dissident parishioners, since as residents they were members of the parish until they declared otherwise. Soon both dissident churches and the majority Congregational Church increasingly recognized that this system was contrary to the voluntary nature of religious worship. This section of the constitution was amended by bipartisan consensus in 1834 at the same time that several blue laws were repealed.[9]

Article III. As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality: Therefore, To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.

And the people of this commonwealth have also a right to, and do, invest their legislature with authority to enjoin upon all the subject an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid, at stated times and seasons, if there be any on whose instructions they can conscientiously and conveniently attend.

Provided, notwithstanding, That the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic, or religious societies, shall at all times have the exclusive right and electing their public teachers and of contracting with them for their support and maintenance.

And all moneys paid by the subject to the support of public worship and of public teachers aforesaid shall, if he require it, be uniformly applied to the support of the public teacher or teachers of his own religious sect or denomination, provided there be any on whose instructions he attends; otherwise it may be paid toward the support of the teacher or teachers of the parish or precinct in which the said moneys are raised.

And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law; and no subordination of any sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.

Frame of Government

Part II, Chapter I, Section I[10]

The opening of the "Part the Second" lays down the official name of the State of Massachusetts.

The people, inhabiting the territory formerly called the Province of Massachusetts Bay, do hereby solemnly and mutually agree with each other, to form themselves into a free, sovereign, and independent body politic, or state by the name of "THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS.

The first three articles in Chapter I, Section I,of the Massachusetts Constitution establishes the three primary branches of government; an executive, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary. The design of this system, unique at the time, was created to ensure the proper separation of power between the different entities. The framers of the state constitution intended by this means to prevent the abuse of power by any one branch.

Article I. The department of legislation shall be formed by two branches, a Senate and House of Representatives: each of which shall have a negative on the other.

Article II. No bill or resolve of the senate or house of representatives shall become a law, and have force as such, until it shall have been laid before the governor for his revisal...

Article III. The general court shall forever have full power and authority to erect and constitute judicatories and courts of record, or other courts, to be held in the name of the commonwealth...

Articles of Amendment

One hundred and twenty Articles of Amendment have been added to the Massachusetts Constitution. The most recent one disqualified incarcerated felons from voting and was approved by a vote of 60.3% to 33.9% in 2000.[11]

The amendment process is governed by the 48th Article of Amendment to the Constitution, which establishes an "indirect initiative" process that requires action by the state legislature followed by a referendum.

For an amendment to be placed before the voters as a referendum, a state constitutional convention, a joint meeting of both houses of the legislature sitting as one body, in each of two successive two-year legislative sessions, must provide the required number of votes. That number varies according to how the proposed amendment comes before the convention.

If it is a legislative amendment proposed by a legislator, the threshold is 50% of the members. If it is an initiative amendment put forward by petition, the threshold is 25% of the members. In both cases, the calculation of the votes is based on the number of seats in the constitutional convention, not members present or seated.

The number of certified signatures required on the petitions is 3% of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor (excluding blanks) at the immediately preceding state election.[12]

Constitutional conventions

The state has held four constitutional conventions of elected delegates (as opposed to those that are special sessions of the legislature):

See also


  1. ^ a b c Levy, Leonard (1995). Seasoned Judgments: The American Constitution, Rights, and History. p. 307. ISBN 9781412833820.
  2. ^ Murrin, John (2011). Liberty, Power, and Equality: A History. ISBN 978-0495915874.
  3. ^ Slomp, Hans (2011). Europe, A Political Profile: An American Companion to European Politics. ABC-CLIO. p. 693. ISBN 978-0-313-39181-1. Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  4. ^ a b Richard Samuelson, "John Adams and the Republic of Laws," in Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga, eds., History of American Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2003), 120-1
  5. ^ a b "John Adams and the Massachusetts Constitution". Massachusetts Judicial Branch. Archived from the original on October 19, 2013. Retrieved December 16, 2013.
  6. ^ a b Moore, George (1866). Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts. pp. 200–201.
  7. ^ McCullough, David (2004). John Adams (First Paperback Edition). p. 220
  8. ^ Vile, John. The Constitutional Convention of 1787: a comprehensive encyclopedia of America's founding, Volume 1, page 467 (2005).
  9. ^ Neem, Johann (2004). "The Elusive Common Good: Religion and Civil Society in Massachusetts, 1780-1833". Journal of the Early Republic. 24 (3): 381–417. JSTOR 4141439.
  10. ^ Massachusetts Legislature The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  11. ^ "Supreme Court won't hear challenge to Mass. bar on voting by felony inmates". Boston Globe. October 18, 2010. Archived from the original on November 28, 2011. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  12. ^ Massachusetts Legislature: Article XLVIII, accessed July 5, 2013

External links

2002 Massachusetts ballot measures

The Massachusetts general election held on November 5, 2002, included three ballot measures that were voted on by the public.

The Constitution of Massachusetts can be amended through initiative, and state statutes can be proposed through initiative. The first two ballot measures were citizen-initiated and proposed statutes (not constitutional amendments). The third ballot measure was a non-binding Legislative Advisory Question, placed on the ballot by the state legislature.

In Massachusetts, after the state determines which measures will appear on the ballot, official names are assigned to each question. The Secretary of the Commonwealth has discretion over the ordering of questions on the ballot.

2018 Massachusetts ballot measures

Three ballot measures were certified for the November 6, 2018, general election in the state of Massachusetts.The Constitution of Massachusetts can be amended through initiative, and state statutes can be proposed through initiative. The first and second certified measures, "Nurse-Patient Assignment Limits" and "Advisory Commission for Amendments to the U.S. Constitution Regarding Corporate Personhood and Political Spending", were both initiated state statutes. The third measure, "Gender Identity and Anti-Discrimination", was a veto referendum.

In Massachusetts, after the state determines which measure(s) will appear on the ballot, an official name is assigned to each question. The Secretary of the Commonwealth has discretion over the ordering of questions on the ballot.

American Bar Association Medal

The American Bar Association Medal (or ABA Medal) is the highest award given by the American Bar Association for "exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer or lawyers to the cause of American jurisprudence." The ABA Board of Governors chooses the medal’s recipient. The medal was authorized at the 50th anniversary meeting of the ABA in 1928. The first medal was given in 1929 and it has been given most, but not all, years since.

The medal itself was designed by Laura Gardin Fraser. It is four inches in diameter, made of 24K gold, later reduced to 14K gold. On the obverse is a profile of John Marshall with the inscription "To the end it may be a government of laws and not of men," from the Constitution of Massachusetts. On the reverse is "Justitia" with a likeness of Lady Justice.

American Primitive

American Primitive is a play by William Gibson about the lives of John and Abigail Adams. Gibson used the correspondence of John and Abigail Adams to create a verse drama about the period of the American Revolution.

American Primitive debuted, unsuccessfully, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1969. The production, directed by Frank Langella, starred Anne Bancroft as Abigail Adams.

Benjamin Goodhue

Benjamin Goodhue (September 20, 1748 – July 28, 1814) was a Representative and a Senator from Massachusetts. He supported the Patriot during the American Revolution, and was a strong member of the Federalist Party. He was described by contemporaries as a leading member of the so-called Essex Junto, a group of Massachusetts Federalists, most of whom were from Essex County.

Cambridge Platform

The Cambridge Platform is a statement describing the system of church government in the Congregational churches of colonial New England. It was written in 1648 in response to Presbyterian criticism and in time became regarded as the religious constitution of Massachusetts. The platform explained and defended congregational polity as practiced in New England and also endorsed most of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The document was shaped most directly by the thinking of Puritan ministers Richard Mather and John Cotton.

Charles Adams (1770–1800)

Charles Adams (May 29, 1770 – November 30, 1800) was the second son of President John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams (née Smith).

Elihu Adams

Elihu Adams (May 29, 1741 – August 10, 1775) was a farmer and soldier in the Massachusetts Militia during the American Revolutionary War. He was born in Braintree to John Adams, Sr. and Susanna Boylston; his elder brothers were John Adams, the second President of the United States, and Peter Boylston Adams, who also served as a militia captain during the Revolution. He married Thankful White in 1765, and had at least two children - Susanna, born in 1766, and John, born in 1768.Adams served as captain of the Braintree Company at the Siege of Boston, and as a minuteman who fought on the Concord Green in 1775. He died of dysentery on August 10, 1775, at the age of 34, and was buried at what is today known as the "Old Section" of Union Cemetery in Holbrook, Massachusetts (then still a part of Braintree).

Erastus Wells

Erastus Wells (December 2, 1823 – October 2, 1893) was a 19th-century politician and businessman from Missouri. Wells was born in Jefferson County, New York and was the only son of Otis Wells, a descendant of Hugh Welles, an early colonist of Wethersfield, Connecticut. Otis Wells was a farmer and died when Erastus was only fourteen. Erastus was the grandson of Ethelinda Otis and a relation of John Otis, who helped found the town of Hingham, Massachusetts in 1635. Other notable relatives include James Otis, a successful lawyer, Harrison Gray Otis, a statesman and orator, Samuel A. Otis, one of the framers of the constitution of Massachusetts, and George Otis, a clergyman and author.Wells married Isabella Bowman Henry, daughter of Captain John Henry of Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1850. Isabella and Erastus Wells were the parents of three children, including former St. Louis Mayor Rolla Wells. Well's first wife died in 1877 and he was later remarried to Mrs. Eleanor P. Bell of St. Louis in 1869.

Jedediah Foster

Jedediah Foster (October 10, 1726—October 17, 1779) was a judge and advocate for independence during the American Revolution, and ultimately a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Foster was born in Andover, Massachusetts and studied law at Harvard University. He graduated in 1744 at the age of 18. He subsequently settled in Brookfield (now West Brookfield). He served in the First Provincial Congress of Massachusetts and as a colonel in the American Revolution. He was later appointed a judge for Worcester County, Massachusetts. He was one of four judges to oversee the trial and subsequent execution of Bathsheba Spooner, who was the first woman to be executed in the United States by Americans rather than the British. Foster was part of a committee of three which was appointed to draft the first Constitution of Massachusetts. However, Foster died before the work was completed in 1779. The site of his home, known as Jedediah Foster Homesite is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now a small park.

Law of Massachusetts

The law of Massachusetts consists of several levels, including constitutional, statutory, regulatory, case law, and local ordinances. The General Laws of Massachusetts form the general statutory law.

Massachusetts Attorney General

The Massachusetts Attorney General is an elected constitutionally defined executive officer of the Massachusetts Government. The officeholder is the chief lawyer and law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The officeholder also acts as an advocate and resource for the Commonwealth and its residents in many areas, including consumer protection, combating fraud and corruption, protecting civil rights, and maintaining economic competition. The current Attorney General is Maura Healey.

Massachusetts Charter

The Massachusetts Charter of 1691 was a charter that formally established the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Issued by the government of William III and Mary II, the corulers of the Kingdom of England, the charter defined the government of the colony, whose lands were drawn from those previously belonging to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony, and portions of the Province of New York. The territorial claims embodied in the charter also encompassed all of present-day Maine (some of which had been claimed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

The charter was approved by William and Mary on October 7, 1691 and established English rule of the colony, by appointing a governor, deputy governor and secretary, to be elected by members of the council. It took away many of its rights of self-government that had previously been enjoyed by Massachusetts and Plymouth authorities, transitioning the power in Boston from elected to royally appointed governors. William and Mary appointed Sir William Phips as the new governor. The charter established freedom of worship and removed religious restrictions on voting, although Roman Catholics were still frowned on. Economically the charter benefited the British by reserving the right of free fishery to British interests only.Towns across the colony grew in status as a result of the charter.

Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820–1821

The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820–1821 met in order to consider amendments to the Constitution of Massachusetts. It resulted in the adoption of the first nine amendments. Several other proposals were rejected.

Massachusetts State Defense Force

The Massachusetts State Defense Force (MSDF) is the State Defense Force of the state of Massachusetts. The purpose of the Massachusetts State Defense Force is to augment the Massachusetts National Guard during emergencies in the state, especially when some or all of the National Guard is deployed. The MSDF is an all-volunteer state military force which reports directly to the State Adjutant General and is under the command of the Governor of Massachusetts. Like the National Guard, members have regular civilian careers and only meet for drills one weekend per month unless activated by the Governor during an emergency. The guard is headquartered at Milford, Massachusetts, in the same building as the National Guard. The director of the guard is appointed by The Adjutant General of Massachusetts (TAGMA). The Massachusetts State Defense Force is authorized by both the Constitution of Massachusetts and chapter 33 § 10 of the Massachusetts General Laws.The MSDF is composed of volunteers who operate solely within Massachusetts and may not be called into federal service. The MSDF assists the United States National Guard forces, assumes state missions when the National Guard is deployed, provides emergency support during disasters, and assists in color guards and funeral details.

Parish church

A parish church (or parochial church) in Christianity is the church which acts as the religious centre of a parish. In many parts of the world, especially in rural areas, the parish church may play a significant role in community activities, often allowing its premises to be used for non-religious community events. The church building reflects this status, and there is considerable variety in the size and style of parish churches. Many villages in Europe have churches that date back to the Middle Ages, but all periods of architecture are represented.

Samuel Eliot Morison

Samuel Eliot Morison (July 9, 1887 – May 15, 1976) was an American historian noted for his works of maritime history and American history that were both authoritative and popular. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912, and taught history at the university for 40 years. He won Pulitzer Prizes for Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942), a biography of Christopher Columbus, and John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1959). In 1942, he was commissioned to write a history of United States naval operations in World War II, which was published in 15 volumes between 1947 and 1962. Morison wrote the popular Oxford History of the American People (1965), and co-authored the classic textbook The Growth of the American Republic (1930) with Henry Steele Commager.

Over the course of his career, Morison received eleven honorary doctoral degrees, and garnered numerous literary prizes, military honors, and national awards from both foreign countries and the United States, including two Pulitzer Prizes, two Bancroft Prizes, the Balzan Prize, the Legion of Merit, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

School segregation in the United States

School segregation in the United States has a long history. In 1787, African Americans in Boston, including Prince Hall, campaigned against inequality and discrimination in the city's public schools. They petitioned the state legislature, protesting that their taxes supported the schooling of white students while there was no public school open to their children. In 1835, an anti-abolitionist mob attacked and destroyed Noyes Academy, an integrated school in Canaan, New Hampshire founded by abolitionists in New England. In 1849, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were allowed under the Constitution of Massachusetts (Roberts v. City of Boston).Segregation began in its de jure form in the Southern United States with the passage of Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century. It was influenced by discrimination in the Northern United States, as well as the history of slavery in the southern states. Patterns of residential segregation and Supreme Court rulings regarding previous school desegregation efforts also have a role.

Susanna Boylston

Susanna Boylston Adams Hall (March 5, 1708 – April 17, 1797) was a prominent early-American socialite, mother of the second U.S. President, John Adams and grandmother of the sixth President, John Quincy Adams.

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