It was in June, way back in 1780, that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts officially ratified its state constitution. The document took John Adams—yes that John Adams—about a month to write, and has lasted 236 years and counting. To mark the anniversary, here are four things worth noting about a document civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate calls "the grandaddy of constitutions."
I. A First Of Its Kind
In the years following the Declaration of Independence, 11 of the 13 original states established new constitutions. Ten of them were passed by their current legislatures. Not Massachusetts—here, each town elected representatives to form a body whose only task was to create a constitution. That had never been done before.
"They invented a two-step process by which they could elevate their constitution above the status of ordinary legislation so that it would have a status of higher law, it would be a fundamental constitution, said Clemson University Professor C. Bradley Thompson, author of "John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty."
The task of actually writing it fell to John Adams, who laid out a new system of government that drew on everything from British tradition to the ancient Greeks.
"It’s really the first state constitution to clearly delineate a separation of powers: legislative, executive and judicial," Thompson said.
Later in the decade, both the process of a constitutional convention and the three-branch system would be critical in the creation of the U.S. Constitution.
II. The Declaration Of Rights
It took years for the ideals of the Declaration of Independence to be incorporated into the federal Constitution. Even the Bill of Rights wasn’t adopted until after the fact. But Massachusetts’s constitution begins with a list of our fundamental rights, and there’s 30 of them, not just 10.
"The state constitution the state declaration of rights has the better language, broader language, more secure establishment of these right," Silverglate said.
The impact of this broader language was immediate and have been long lasting. Just three years after ratification, the Supreme Judicial Court declared slavery unconstitutional. Two hundred twenty-one years later, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall would cite the same declaration of rights as the basis for court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in the Bay State.
"It is absolutely no surprise it came first to Massachusetts because liberty has been more important in Massachusetts," Silverglate noted. "Liberty is treated more broadly and more seriously."
III. The Gritty Details Do Matter
Much of the language in our state document also appears in the federal Constitution, but there are plenty of subtle differences—and they matter. For example, on the federal level you can’t be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment; in Massachusetts you can’t be subjected to cruel or unusual punishment.
"This sounds like a lawyer's word game, right?" SIlverglate said. "But it isn’t. It’s actually very important."
The result of that little “or” is that here in Massachusetts, over the years, a broader scope of punishments have been outlawed.
"Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the Supreme Judicial Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional under the Massachusetts constitution," Silverglate said.
IV. A Commitment To Education
Stonehill College Professor Peter Ubertaccio admires plenty about Adams’s document, but perhaps his favorite part is one of its quirkiest, and most unique: Part The Second, Chapter V.
"It very specifically tells the legislature that it is its duty to cherish our interests in literature, in the sciences," Ubertaccio said. "It talks about public schools, grammar schools in our towns."
Ubertaccio noted that the passage also goes on to eloquently explain why education is crucial to a functioning democracy.
"It talks about why an educated citizenry is important for not only the protection of our rights and liberties but for the general public good and creating a benevolent society, said Ubertaccio.
All three men say there is plenty more to marvel at about Massachusetts's Constitution. Thompson sums it up simply by saying, with all due respect to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson ...
"In my view, without question, John Adams was the greatest Constitutional architect both in theory and in practice in the United States, and I’d certainly like to see him get a little more credit," he said.
Today, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the oldest still-functioning written constitution in the world. Not bad for a month's work.