Constitutional conventions have been a regular part of New York’s history. Over the last 240 years, New York has held nine (9) such conventions: 1777, 1801, 1822, 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, 1938, and 1967; the longest gap being the 50 years since our last convention.
Past constitutional conventions made New York a leader in national policy: the Convention of 1894 introduced wilderness protections in the Adirondacks laying the foundation for the national park system; the Convention of 1938 introduced provisions to care for the needy and protect workers’ right to organize, paving the way for the federal New Deal reforms.
New York’s constitution has been completely rewritten four times: 1777, 1801, 1822 and the most recent one, the constitution we are largely still governed by, was written in 1894, an age of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages. This is a major reason our state government is so dysfunctional in so many critical areas:
- Our education amendment is from 1894
- Our environment amendment is from 1894
- Our current court structure has not been changed since 1938
- There is no equal rights amendment for women, LGBT and the disabled.
Fortunately, in 2017, we can vote for a People’s Convention that can write a twenty-first-century constitution for the state to protect all our citizens and all our rights, which are so threatened by today’s extremist national climate. This opportunity was codified in the constitutional convention of 1846 that enabled a referendum for a constitutional convention to be offered to the voters every twenty years.
1777 – Our First Constitution
The first New York Constitution was adopted in White Plains on April 20, 1777. The convention met in White Plains because the British Army was occupying New York City at the time. New York’s first constitution reads like the hurried job it must have been. It combined the Declaration of Independence with a structure not too different from colonial laws, with a strong governor, a weak legislature, and a property qualification to disenfranchise most men. Women, of course, had no vote, and slavery was legal in the state. (It was finally banned in 1827.)
Not long after the Revolutionary War, the constitution became outdated for the growing state. However, there were no means included in the constitution to amend it, so in 1801, the legislature passed “An Act Recommending a Convention.” The following convention made several changes, such as the size of both legislatures.
1822 – FIght over the Canal
Twenty years later there was a power struggle between Governor DeWitt Clinton and the “Bucktails” – a Tammany Society faction of the Democratic Party in the legislature who opposed the Governor’s canal plans. This was also a period where many states were revising their Revolutionary-era constitutions. This led to a movement to another constitutional convention. The convention took place in 1822 and was ratified by the voters, 74,732 to 41,402.
The 1822 Constitution solved the canal dispute with the creation of a Canal Board, but it also featured many changes which began to make the system more democratic. This included giving the governor the power to veto legislation and the legislature’s power to override a veto with a two-thirds vote. The Council of Appointment was eliminated, enabling formerly appointed state officers to be elected by the voters instead. Property qualifications for white men were eliminated. In addition, eight Circuit Courts were created to manage the growing load of cases.
Although black men gained the vote, they had property qualifications which drastically limited their suffrage.
1846 & 1867 – The Courts
The next constitutional convention was held in 1846 and was adopted by a vote of 221,528 to 92,436. This constitution restructured the court system, abolishing the Circuit Courts and replacing them with district benches of the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals was also established. State cabinet officers which had been chosen by the legislature, such as the Secretary of State and Attorney General, were now elected positions.
Perhaps most importantly, in the age of Jacksonian Democracy and its reaction against centralized power, the 1846 Constitution included an amendment unique to New York State, of having a referendum on a constitutional convention every twenty years.
The public voted to have another constitutional convention in 1866 but ultimately rejected nearly all of the recommended revisions. The only exceptions were judicial reforms: a reorganization of the Court of Appeals and an extension of the term for Supreme Court justices.
1894 – The Rewrite
The creation of the 1894 constitution, which still largely runs the state today, was led by the Republican political party boss, Senator William C. Platt, who sought to limit local control by municipalities. As a result, the new constitution provided several mandates limiting home rule. These 120-year old provisions hamper many communities both upstate and downstate today.
In addition, an education amendment created a system heavily dependent on property tax, so that the richer districts get much more money per student than the poorer districts, creating massive institutionalized inequities that still plague us today. However, the amazing Forever Wild provision, which preserves and protects New York’s State Forest in the Adirondacks and Catskills, was introduced in this convention and remains in place today.
1915 – Rejected Changes
Voters again approved a constitutional convention without approving of any of the recommended changes from the convention. Some of the proposed changes would have reintroduced home rule, updated the structure of the judiciary, and expanded protections for workers.
1938 – Substantially Revised
Much had changed in the 40 years since the last substantial revision to the constitution: automobiles were invented, we had a World War and a Great Depression, we built the Empire State Building, and the penny-farthing and fallen out of fashion. It’s no wonder that a total of 57 amendments were proposed in 1938. They were packaged as nine (9) separate questions to the voters. Six (6) packages were approved by the voters, including judicial restructuring, expanding worker protections and the right to organize, and enabling urban renewal, public housing, and other social welfare programs, but it did not change the basic structure or the limited individual rights of the 1894 document.
1967 – The Last Convention
After fighting a second World War, popularizing the automobile, and inventing a newfangled thing called a ‘computer’, the public felt it was time to take another look at the constitution. Reform advocates were able to introduce several positive amendments which would have expanded individual rights and protections, ended political gerrymandering of districts, addressed a growing concern over electronic eavesdropping and surveillance, guaranteed openness in our state government, and moved Medicaid cost obligation from the counties to the state.
However, political insiders were able to sink every single one of the reforms by putting them forward as a single package and inserting a poison pill that was soundly rejected by the voters. A harsh lesson for reform advocates in a 2018 convention.
It has been over 50 years since the public has had a chance to reform our constitution and 80 years since we passed substantial reforms. In that time, we’ve invented the internet, landed on the moon, created a national highway system, introduced color television, built and rebuilt the World Trade Center, increased our population by 6 million people, expanded life expectancy by 20 years, and introduced 8 different version of the iPhone. We are overdue for an upgrade.