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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government

Saturday, February 17, 2018
NYS ConCon 2017

The Constitution of 1846: Canals, Commerce, and the Common Man

Constitutional developments in New York between 1821 and the Civil War reflected the larger national movement known as Jacksonian Democracy. In 1826, the first legislatively initiated amendments to a New York Constitution took place. They made justices of the peace elective offices and established universal white male suffrage. Amendments in 1833, 1839, and 1845 made city mayors elective officers and eliminated all property qualifications for holding public office.

The convention swept away the old feudal system of land ownership, constitutionalized debt structure for the canals, and eliminated the bank monopoly by limiting the legislature’s power to grant special charters.

Practically all local offices were made elective; senator's terms were reduced from four to two years; and assemblymen were to be elected from single member districts to give representation to smaller opinion clusters. The judiciary was made elective and completely reorganized, with a court of appeals established as the court of last resort. The offices of secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, comptroller, canal commissioner, state engineer, and state prison inspector were made elective.

Reflecting general disillusionment with the legislative branch, convention delegates added twenty-two restrictions on legislative power, including two remarkable provisions mandating a popular referendum for issuance of any long-term bonds and the placing of a limit of $1 million on the aggregate temporary debt of the state (later repealed).

The convention devoted some attention to rights, adding provisions protecting against excessive fines or bail, cruel and unusual punishment, and unreasonable detention of witnesses. The capstone of the convention’s drive to democratize the polity came with the addition of a new mode of initiating constitutional reform. The delegates provided that in 1866, and every twenty years thereafter, and also at such other times as the legislature may provide, the question “Shall there be a Convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?” must be submitted to the voters.

The proposal to repeal the property qualification for suffrage for black males, submitted as a separate proposition, was soundly defeated.

The 1846 Constitution was essentially a new document, with only eleven provisions unchanged. State and local offices were democratized, legislative power was restricted, and executive power was diffused, all in the name of grass roots democracy. For this reason, the Constitution of 1846 has been called the “People’s Constitution.” The convention tripled the size of the document to 20,400 words.

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