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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government

Sunday, February 25, 2018
NYS ConCon 2017

The First Rejection: The Constitutional Convention of 1867-68

In 1866, the first mandatory convention call was submitted to voters. The call was approved, and the convention of 1867-68 was convened. The main issues confronting the convention were the judiciary and suffrage.

The convention proposed a new Judiciary Article. Changes were implemented to reduce the backlog of cases and extend the term of judges to fourteen years. Submitted separately in 1869, the article and was approved.

The most contentious issue, African American suffrage, embroiled the convention in the politics of race. Delegates proceeded cautiously, submitting a separate amendment that retained the property qualification for African American males. This amendment was also approved. The issue of women’s suffrage also received some attention, but delegates declined to recommend it because public sentiment did not demand and would not sustain such a radical innovation.

The convention proposed a new Constitution, which was rejected by voters, that would have:

  • Increased the term of senators to four years;
  • Placed more restrictions on legislative power;
  • Strengthened the governor’s powers;
  • Created a court of claims (previously, claims against the state were resolved by the legislature); and
  • Added provisions prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, allowing juries of less than twelve, calling for free common schools, and punishing bribery of public officials.
For the first time in a constitutional convention in New York, a Committee on Cities was created and a serious attempt was made to address the question of home rule. Caught in the crossfire between the desire to address corruption in the cities and the impulse towards local autonomy, the final recommendations did not provide much in the way of home rule.

Some of the convention’s proposals, e.g., an unreasonable search and seizure clause, the creation of a court of claims, and a provision for free common schools, were subsequently adopted.

Efforts for reform continued in the state and gave birth to a new mode of constitutional reform, the constitutional commission. Unlike constitutional conventions, commissions lack the authority to submit their proposals directly to the voters for approval. Instead, they propose recommendations to the legislature, which has sole discretion on whether to propose them to the people in the manner required for other legislatively initiated amendments.

Commissions were created by the legislature at the behest of the governor in 1872 and 1890 and made valuable recommendations concerning the judiciary, legislature, the executive, debt, the cities, and corruption. Many of these recommendations found their way into the constitution by way of legislatively proposed amendments.

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