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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
NYS ConCon 2017

Participation and Property: The Constitutional Convention of 1821

The state had grown from just over 190,000 in 1777 to 1,300,000, with much of the growth coming in newly settled areas of the West and North. The suffrage, apportionment, and judicial service provisions of the Constitution of 1777 disadvantaged these new settlers. The Council of Appointment had become the chief vehicle for the spoils system and the Council of Revision, with the power to veto legislation, was increasingly seen as an antidemocratic and partisan check on the will of the people.

In the absence of any constitutional provision for calling a convention, it fell to the legislature to make the decision. Ironically, the Council of Revision, often criticized for stifling the popular will, required the legislature to place the question of a call for a convention before the people and to include a provision that required convention proposals to be ratified by the people before taking effect. This decision established the tradition in New York of making constitutional conventions the creatures of the people and not the legislature.

Much of the convention’s work centered on four issues: suffrage, the appointing power, the power of the Council of Revision, and reorganization of the judiciary. On suffrage, property qualifications for white males were removed, but delegates placed a property qualification on African Americans, disenfranchising all but a handful of the 6,000 free adult black males. The debates over property qualification for voting at this convention have been justly called one of the great suffrage debates in American history.

The Council of Appointments was abolished. The convention made some offices elective, while making the others appointed by local bodies, the legislature, or the governor. The much-maligned Council of Revision was also eliminated. The office of governor was modeled on the national presidency, with the governor possessing a veto that could be overridden by two thirds of the legislature. He was also given the power to see that the laws were faithfully executed. This increase in gubernatorial power was offset by a reduction in term from three to two years and the elimination of the power to adjourn the legislature.

Concerning the judiciary, a new system of circuit courts was created, members of the Supreme Court were dismissed, and a new Supreme Court created, the latter a measure aimed at the alleged partisanship of sitting judges.

The convention added a provision requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature for passage of any bill appropriating money or property for local or private purposes, beginning a tradition of restricting legislative action that would continue throughout the nineteenth century. For the first time, the canal policy of the state was constitutionalized.

Unlike its predecessor, the 1821 convention devoted a separate article (Article VII, now Article I) to a Bill of Rights for its citizens, drawing it provisions largely from the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the statutory Bill of Rights adopted by the state legislature in 1787, and the federal Bill of Rights of 1791. Unique to the state Constitution was a provision allowing conscientious objection to any member of a religious denomination.

For the first time, a formal amending procedure was inserted in the Constitution authorizing amendment by majority of the legislature in one session and a two-thirds vote of the legislature in a subsequent session. Amendments would be effective upon ratification by majority vote of the electorate. In New York after 1821, voters could do what no voter could do at the national level, namely vote directly on whether to adopt a constitutional amendment!

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