How Democratic was the “Spirit of 1776”?


Americans often refer to the democratic opening of the American Revolution as the “Spirit of ’76,” identifying revolutionary ideas as the expansion of freedoms tied to the break with Britain and the establishment of Independence. Historians have tied the “Spirit of ’76” to set of ideals called “republicanism” that addressed freedom, governance, and power in governments that were moving away from monarchy and toward representative democracy. These documents reveal those ideals as took tangible form in the new state governments. 

The ideology of the American Revolution is called “republicanism.” It is a set of beliefs about what it takes to maintain a healthy republic, where power derives from “the people” (as opposed to a monarchy with its Divine right of kings). Debates about republicanism did not being with the American Revolution. They can be traced back to the ancient Greek and Roman republics. Republicanism found resurgence in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries as many nations began moving away from pure forms of monarchy. Debates in the American colonies were most directly influenced by developments in England, where the ideals of republicanism had accompanied the move toward a constitutional monarchy with ever-increasing powers for a parliament with a House of Commons that was popularly elected. Before the Revolution, in the colonies, republican ideals had shaped debates dating to the founding of each colony about the forms of government and voting rights.

If the American Revolution’s embrace of republicanism was not entirely new, it took the debate further and in different directions than what had happened in the past. Americans of the Revolutionary generation were attempting to create a more democratic form of republicanism that sought to govern a greater number of people, over a wider geographic area than any of the other republican experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries.

That said, even as Americans pushed the boundaries of republicanism, they were hardly united in their beliefs about how far it should go. Those divides typically broke down over lines of class and race and sometimes gender. In general, the less powerful pushed for more expansive and democratic republican ideals, while those who traditionally had enjoyed more rights and privileges sought to limit the extension. Thus, white men, regardless of class, invariable attempted to exclude non-whites and women. Ordinary white men wanted inclusion into the system on an equal basis with their social betters; in return, wealthy white men wanted to keep social distinctions and political privilege.

What follows is a series of documents that address questions of power, democracy, and republicanism within the colonies around the moment of independence. The documents include commentaries on political power and the new constitutions of two of the first state governments (Pennsylvania and Maryland). These documents reveal the varieties of ways the revolutionaries of 1776 implemented republican ideals.

Your job is to use these documents:

1) The Founding Elite on Expanding Power to “The People”
2) “The People” Question the Authority of the Elite
3) Women: “Remember the Ladies”: The Letters of Abigail and John Adams
4) Slaves: Petitions for Freedom
5) The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (Abridged)
6) Comments on Pennsylvania’s New 1776 Government
7) Maryland Constitution of 1776 (Abridged)
8) Comments on Maryland’s New 1776 Government

To answer the following questions:

Question: How “revolutionary” were the changes many people were calling for by 1776?


1) The Founding Elite on Expanding Power to “The People”:

Alexander Hamilton, New York, To John Jay, New York, Nov, 26., 1775:

Dear Sir

In times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch there is great danger of fatal extremes. The same state of the passions which fits the multi­tude, who have not a sufficient stock of reason and knowledge to guide them, for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to a contempt and disregard of all authority. The due medium is hardly to be found among the more intelligent, it is al­most impossible among the unthinking populace. When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establish­ments and courses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy. These principles, too true in themselves, and confirmed to me both by reading and my own experience, de­serve extremely the attention of those who have the direction of public affairs. In such tempestuous times, it requires the greatest skill in the political pilots to keep men steady and within proper bounds, on which account I am always more or less alarmed at every thing which is done of mere will and pleasure, without any proper au­thority. Irregularities I know are to be expected, but they are never­theless dangerous and ought to be checked by every prudent and moderate mean. From these general maxims, I disapprove of the irruption in question, as serving to cherish a spirit of disorder at a season when men are too prone to it of themselves.

Moreover, New England is very populous and powerful. It is not safe to trust to the virtue of any people. Such proceedings will serve to produce and encourage a spirit of encroachment and arrogance in them. I like not to see potent neighbours indulged in the practice of making inroads at pleasure into this or any other province.

 I am sir with very great Esteem— Your most hum servant

 A. Hamilton

John Adams (of Massachusetts) to James Sullivan, Philadelphia, 26 May, 1776:

It is certain, in theory, that the only moral foundation of go­vernment is the consent of the people. But to what an ex­tent shall we carry this principle? Shall we say that every individual of the community, old and young, male and female, us well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly, to every act of legislation? No, you will say, this is impossible. How, then, does the right arise in the majority to govern the minority, against their will? Whence arises the right of the men to govern the women, without their consent? Whence the right of the old to bind the young, without theirs?

But let us first suppose that the whole community, of every age, rank, sex, and condition, has a right to vote. This com­munity is assembled, A motion is made, and carried by a major­ity of one voice. The minority will not agree to this. Whence arises the right of the majority to govern, and the obligation of the minority to obey ?

From necessity, you will say, because there can be no other rule.

But why exclude women?

You will say, because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience in the great businesses of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides, their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children, that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares. And children have not judgment or will of their own. True. But will not these reasons apply to others? Is it not equally true, that men in general, in every society, who are wholly destitute of property, are also too little acquainted with public affairs to form a right judgment, and too dependent upon other men to have a will of their own? If this is a fact, if you give to every man who has no property, a vote, will you not make a fine encouraging provision for corruption, by your fundamental law? Such is the frailty of the human heart, that very few men who have no property, have any judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest.

Upon my word, Sir, I have long thought an army a piece of clock-work, and to be governed only by principles and maxims, as fixed as any in mechanics; and, by all that I have read in the history of mankind, and in authors who have speculated upon society and government, I am much inclined to think a government must manage a society in the same manner; and that this is machinery too.

Harrington has shown that power always follows property. This I believe to be as infallible a maxim in politics, as that action and reaction are equal, is in mechanics. Nay, I believe we may advance one step farther, and affirm that the balance of power in a society, accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make a division of the land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will have the balance of power, and in that ease the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multi­tude, in all acts of government,

I believe these principles have been felt;, if not understood, in the Massachusetts Bay, from the beginning; and therefore I should think that wisdom and policy would dictate in these times to be very cautions of making alterations. Our people have never been very rigid in scrutinizing into the qualifications of voters, and I presume they will not now begin to be so. But I would not advise them to make any alteration in the laws, at present, respecting the qualifications of voters.

Your idea that those laws which affect the lives and personal liberty of all, or which inflict corporal punishment, afflict those who are not qualified to vote, as well as those who are, is just. But so they do women, as well as men; children, as well as adults.

What reason should there be for excluding a man of twenty years eleven months and twenty-seven days old, from a vote, when you admit one who is twenty-one. The reason is, you must fix upon some period in life, when the understanding and will of men in general, is fit to be trusted by the public. Will not the same reason justify the state in fixing upon some certain quantity of property, as a qualification?

The same reasoning which will induce yon to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have, for those laws which a fleet the person, will prove that you ought to admit women and children; for, generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds, as those men who are wholly destitute of property; these last being to all intents and purposes as much dependent upon others, who will please to feed, clothe, and employ them, as women are upon their husbands, or children on their parents.

As to your idea of proportioning the votes of men, in money matters, to the property they hold, it is utterly impracticable. There is no possible way of ascertaining, at any one time, how much every man in a community is worth; and if there was, so fluctuating is trade and property, that this state of it would change in half an hour. The property of the whole commu­nity is shifting every hour, and no record can be kept of the changes.

Society can be governed only by general rules. Government cannot accommodate itself to every particular case as it happens, nor to the circumstances of particular persons. It must establish general comprehensive regulations for eases and persons. The only question is, which general rule will accommo­date most cases and most persons.

Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand a vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.

John Adams Remembers 1776 and the “Majority of the Great Body of the People”:

An Event of the most trifling nature in Appearance, and fit only to excite Laughter, in other Times, struck me into a profound Reverie, if not a fit of Melancholly. I met a Man who had sometimes been my Client, and sometimes I had been against him. He, though a common Horse Jockey, was sometimes in the right, and I had commonly been successful in his favour in our Courts of Law. He was always in the Law, and had been sued in many Actions, at almost every Court. As soon as he saw me, he came up to me, and his first Salutation to me was “Oh! Mr. Adams what great Things have you and your Colleagues done for Us! We can never be gratefull enough to you. There are no Courts of Justice now in this Province, and I hope there never will be another!”…Is this the Object for which I have been contending? said I to myself, for I rode along without any Answer to this Wretch. Are these the Sentiments of such People? And how many of them are there in the Country? Half the Nation for what I know: for half the Nation are Debtors if not more, and these have been in all Countries, the Sentiments of Debtors. If the Power of the Country should get into such hands, and there is great danger that it will, to what purpose have We sacrificed our Time, health and every Thing else? Surely We must guard against this Spirit and these Principles or We shall repent of all our Conduct. However The good Sense and Integrity of the Majority of the great Body of the People, came in to my thoughts for my relief, and the last resource was after all in a good Providence. — How much reason there was for these melancholly reflections, the sub­sequent times have too fully shewn. Opportunities enough had been presented to me to convince me that a very great Portion of the People of America were debtors: but that enormous Gulf of debt to Great , Britain from Virginia and some other States, which have since swallowed up the Harmony of all our Councils, and produced the Tryumph of Principles too nearly resembling those of my Client, was not known to me at that time in a tenth part of its extent. When the Consequences will terminate No Man can say.

Gouverneur Morris, New York, to Thomas Penn, May 10, 1774:

Dear Sir,

 You have heard, and you will hear, a great deal about politics, and in the heap of chaff may find some grains of good sense. Believe me, Sir, freedom and religion are only watch words. We have appointed a Committee, or rather we have nominated one. Let me give you the history of it. It is needless to premise, that the lower orders of mankind are more easily led by specious appearances, than those of a more exalted station. This and many similar propositions you know better than your humble servant.

 The troubles in America during Grenville’s administration put our gentry upon this finesse.  They stimulated some daring coxcombs to rouse the mob into an attack upon the bounds of order and decency. These fellows became the Jack Cades of the day, the leaders in all riots, the belwethers of the flock. The reason of the manoeuvre in those, who wished to keep fair with government, and at the same time to receive the incense of popular applause, you will readily perceive.  On the whole, the shepherds were not much to blame in a politic point of view. The belwethers jingled merrily, and roared out liberty, and property, and religion, and a multitude of cant terms, which every one thought he understood, and was egregiously mistaken. For you must know the shepherds kept the dictionary of the day, and like the mysteries of the ancient mythology, it was not for profane eyes or ears. This answered many purposes; the simple flock put themselves entirely under the protection of these most excellent shepherds.

 By and bye behold a great metamorphosis, without the help of Ovid or his divinities, but entirely effectuated by two modern genii, the god of ambition and the goddess of faction. The first of these prompted the shepherds to shear some of their flock, and then, in conjunction with the other, converted the belwethers into shepherds. That we have been in hot water with the British Parliament ever since, every body knows. Consequently these new shepherds had their hands full of employment. The old ones kept themselves least in sight, and a want of confidence in each other was not the least evil which followed. The port of Boston has been shut up. These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. In short, there is no ruling them; and now, to leave the metaphor, the heads of the mobility grow dangerous to the gentry, and how to keep them down is the question. While they correspond with the other colonies, call and dismiss popular assemblies, make resolves to bind the consciences of the rest of mankind, bully poor printers, and exert with full force all their other tribunitial powers, it is impossible to curb them.

 But art sometimes goes farther than force, and therefore to trick them handsomely a committee of patricians was to be nominated, and into their hands was to be committed the majesty of the people, and the highest trust was to be reposed in them by a mandate, that they should take care, quod respublica non capiat injuriam. The tribunes, through want of a good legerdemain in the senatorial order, perceived the finesse, and yesterday I was present at a grand division of the city, and there I beheld my fellow citizens very accurately counting all their chickens, not only before any of them were hatched, but before above one half of the eggs were laid. In short, they fairly contended about the future forms of our government, whether it should be founded upon Aristocratic or Democratic principles.

 I stood in the balcony, and on my right hand were ranged all the people of property, with some few poor dependants, and on the other all the tradesmen, &c., who thought it worth their while to leave daily labor for the good of the country. The spirit of the English Constitution has yet a little influence left, and but a little. The remains of it, however, will give the wealthy people a superiority this time, but would they secure it, they must banish all schoolmasters, and confine all knowledge to themselves. This cannot be. The mob begin to think and to reason.  Poor reptiles! it is with them a vernal morning, they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it. The gentry begin to fear this. Their committee will be appointed, they will deceive the people, and again forfeit a share of their confidence. And if these instances of what with one side is policy, with the other perfidy, shall continue to increase, and become more frequent, farewell aristocracy.  I see, and I see it with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with Britain continue, we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions. We shall be under the domination of a riotous mob.

 It is the interest of all men, therefore, to seek for reunion with the parent state. A safe compact seems in my poor opinion to be now tendered. Internal taxation to be left with ourselves. The right of regulating trade to be vested in Britain, where alone is found the power of protecting it. I trust you will agree with me, that this is the only possible mode of union. Men by nature are free as the air. When they enter into society, there is, there must be, an implied compact, for there never yet was an express one, that a part of this freedom shall be given up for the security of the remainder. But what part? The answer is plain. The least part, considering the circumstances of the society, which constitute what may be called its political necessity. And what does this political necessity require in the present instance? Not that Britain should lay imposts upon us for the support of government, nor for its defence. Not that she should regulate our internal police. These things affect us only. She can have no right to interfere. To these things we ourselves are competent. But can it be said, that we are competent to the regulating of trade? The position is absurd, for this affects every part of the British Empire, every part of the habitable earth. If Great Britain, if Ireland, if America, if all of them, are to make laws of trade, there must be a collision of these different authorities, and then who is to decide the vis major? To recur to this, if possible to be avoided is the greatest of all great absurdities.

 Political necessity therefore requires that this power should be placed in the hands of one part of the empire. Is it a question which part? Let me answer by asking another. Pray which part of the empire protects trade? Which part of the empire receives almost immense sums to guard the rest? And what danger is in the trust? Some men object, that England will draw all the profits of our trade into her coffers. All that she can, undoubtedly. But unless a reasonable compensation for his trouble be left to the merchant here, she destroys the trade, and then she will receive no profit from it.

 If I remember, in one of those kind letters with which you have honored me, you desire my thoughts on matters as they rise. How much pleasure I take in complying with your requests let my present letter convince you. If I am faulty in telling things, which you know better than I do, you must excuse this fault, and a thousand others for which I can make no apology. I am, Sir, &c.

 Gouverneur Morris


2) “The People” Question the Authority of the Elite:
In Pennsylvania (as in other colonies), the struggles with Great Britain triggered a fierce debate over politics and the tradition of electing men of wealth and standing into office. Below are parts of several editorials that appeared in Philadelphia newspapers during the 1770s.

Pennsylvania Chronicle, Sept. 27, 1770:

On “the people” and politics: it was the “greatest imprudence to elect Men of Enormous Estates” who would only add to their “Power” and “Wealth, which gives them such a superiority over us as to render them our Lords and Masters and us as their most abject Slaves.”

Pennsylvania Packet, Sept. 25, 1775:

“The freemen of this Country would have those gentlemen who value themselves so highly on their wealth & possessions, to know that they do not esteem it the sole end of Government to protect the rich & powerful, however obnoxious they be; but that, on the success of the present controversy depends the right of the industrious to the bread he earns by his labour. And they think it of infinitely more consequence to mankind that they should enjoy it undisturbed, than that the rich should riot in luxury; and that therefore no title nor dignity shall hereafter save offenders.”

Pennsylvania Evening Post, April 27, 1776:

On elections for sheriff: “A poor man has rarely the honor of speaking to a gentleman on any terms….How kind and clever is the man who proposes to be Sheriff for two months before the election; he knows everybody, smiles upon and salutes everybody, until the election is over; but then to the end of the year, he has no time to speak to you, he is so engaged in seizing your property [for unpaid debts and taxes] and selling your goods at [auction]…..Thus the right of annual elections will ever oblige gentlemen to speak to you once a year, who would despise you forever were it not that you can bestow something upon them…if we would have gentlemen ever come down to our level, we must guard out right of election effectually and not let the Assembly take it out of our hands.

“To the Several Battalions of Military Associators in the Province of Pennsylvania,” June 22, 1776:

On elections: spoke of how the “great and over-grown rich Men will be improper to be trusted, [for] they will be too apt to be framing Distinctions in Society because they will reap the Benefits of all such Distinctions.”…. “Let no man represent you, therefore, who would be dispose to form any rank above that of Freeman.”


3) Women: “Remember the Ladies”: The Letters of Abigail and John Adams:
There is no real evidence that women in colonial America organized in any tangible way to advocate for what modern Americans would call women’s rights. The only examples we have of women calling for inclusion in the benefits of Revolution are a handful of letters and writings by elite women. What follows is the most famous of these calls, from the pen of Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband, John Adams.

Abigail Adams to John Adams, Braintree, March 31, 1776:

“Tho we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should he theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusilanimity and cowardise should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the Evil and shun it.—I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.”

John Adams to Abigail Adams, Apr. 14., 1776:

“As to Declarations of Independency, be patient. Read our Privateering Laws, and our Commercial Laws. What signifies a Word.

 As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Collcdgcs were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful! than all the rest were grown discontented.—This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it. We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy.—A fine Story indeed. I begin to think the Ministry as deep as they are wicked. After stirring up Tories, Land jobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, Scotch Renegadoes, at last they have stimulated them to demand new Priviledges and threaten to rebell.”

 Abigail Adams to John Adams, B[raintre]e, May 7, 1776:

 “I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you arc proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to Tree our­selves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet—

 ”Charm by accepting, by submitting sway
Yet have our Humour most when we obey.”

 I thank you for several Letters which I have received since I wrote Last. They alleviate a tedious absence, and I long earnestly for a Satur­day Evening, and experience a similar pleasure to that which I used to find in the return of my Friend upon that day after a weeks absence. The Idea of a year dissolves all my Phylosophy.

 Our Little ones whom you so often recommend to my care and instruction shall not be deficient in virtue or probity if the precepts of a Mother have their desired Effect, but they would be doubly in-forced could they be indulged with the example of a Father constantly before them; I often point them to their Sire.

”engaged in a corrupted State Wrestling with vice and faction.”


4) Slaves: Petitions for Freedom

To the Honorable Counsel & House of Representatives for the State of Massachusetts Bay in General Court assembled, January 13, 1777:

“The petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery in the bowels of a free & Christian County Humbly sheweth that your Petitioners apprehend that they have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unalienable Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Universe that Bestowed equally on all menkind and which they have Never forfeited by any Compact or agreement whatever ­ but that wher Unjustly Dragged by the hand of cruel Power and their Derest friends and sum of them Even torn from the Embraces of their tender Parents­from A populous Pleasant and Plentiful country and in violation of Laws of Nature and of Nations and in Defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity Brough here Either to Be sold like Beast of burthen & Like them Condemned to Slavery for Life­Among A People Professing the mild Religion of Jesus A people Not Insensible of the Secrets of Rational Being Nor without spirit to Resent the unjust endeavors of others to Reduce them to a state of Bondage and Subjugation your hononuer Need not to be informed that A Live of Slavery Like that of your petitioners Deprived of Every social privilege of Every thing Requisite and render Life Tolable is far worse that Nonexistance.

(In imitat)ion of the Lawdable Example of the Good People of these States your petitioners have Long and Patiently waited the Event of petition after petition. By them presented tot the Legislative Body of this state and cannot but with Grief Reflect that their Success hath been but too similar they Cannot but express their Astonishment that It have Never Bin Considered that Every Principle from which America has Acted in the Course of their unhappy Difficulties with Great Briton Pleads Stronger than A thousand arguments in favors of your petitioners they therfor humble Beseech your honours to give this petition its due weight and consideration & cause an act of the legislature to be past Wherby they may be Restored to the Enjoyments of that which is the Natural right of all men­and their Children who wher Born in this Land of Liberty may not be held as Slaves after they arrive at the age of twenty one years so may the Inhabitance of this States No longer chargeable with the inconstancy of acting themselves that part which they condemn and oppose in others Be prospered in their present Glorious struggle for Liberty and have those Blessings to them, &c.”

Report of Dorchester County [MD] Committee of Inspection, Fall 1775, Gilmor Papers, Maryland Historical Society:

“The insolence of the Negroes in this county is come to such a height, that we are under a necessity of disarming them which we affected on Saturday last. We took about eighty guns, some bayonets, swords, etc. The malicious and imprudent speeches of some among the lower classes of whites have induced them to believe, that their freedom depended on the success of the Kings troops. We cannot therefore be too vigilant nor too rigorous with those who promote and encourage this disposition in our slaves.”

 James Madison on Slaves and Independence, 1774:

“If America should come to a hostile rupture, I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may well be promoted. In one of our Counties lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together and chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English troops should arrive — which they foolishly thought would be very soon and that by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom. Their intentions were soon discovered and the poor precautions taken to prevent the Infection. It is prudent that such attempts should be concealed as well as suppressed.”


5) The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (Abridged):
Things to keep in mind: How is the government structured? Who can vote? Who can hold office? How are political leaders selected? Are they elected or appointed?  By whom?

Plan or Frame of Government

Section 1. The commonwealth or state of Pennsylvania shall be governed hereafter by an assembly of the representatives of the freemen of the same, and a president and council, in manner and form following–

Sect. 2. The supreme legislative power shall be vested in a house of representatives of the freemen of the commonwealth or state of Pennsylvania.

Sect. 3. The supreme executive power shall be vested in a president and council.

Sect. 4. Courts of justice shall be established in the city of Philadelphia, and in every county of this state.

Sect. 5. The freemen of this commonwealth and their sons shall be trained and armed for its defense under such regulations, restrictions, and exceptions as the general assembly shall by law direct, preserving always to the people the right of choosing their colonel and all commissioned officers under that rank, in such manner and as often as by the said laws shall be directed.

Sect. 6. Every freeman of the full age of twenty-one years, having resided in this state for the space of one whole year next before the day of election for representatives, and paid public taxes during that time, shall enjoy the right of an elector: Provided always that sons of freeholders of the age of twenty-one years shall be entitled to vote although they have not paid taxes.

Sect. 7. The house of representatives of the freemen of this commonwealth shall consist of persons most noted for wisdom and virtue, to be chosen by the freemen of every city and county of this commonwealth respectively. And no person shall be elected unless he has resided in the city or county for which he shall be chosen two years immediately before the said election; nor shall any member, while he continues such, hold any other office, except in the militia.

Sect. 8. No person shall be capable of being elected a member to serve in the house of representatives of the freemen of this commonwealth more than four years in seven….

Sect. 11. No man shall sit in congress longer than two years successively, nor be capable of reelection for three years afterwards: and no person who holds any office in the gift of the congress shall hereafter be elected to represent this commonwealth in congress.

….And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:

I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this State. .

Sect. 13. The doors of the house in which the representatives of the freemen of this state shall sit in general assembly, shall be and remain open for the admission of all persons who behave decently, except only when the welfare of this state may require the doors to be shut.

Sect. 14. The votes and proceedings of the general assembly shall be printed weekly during their sitting, with the yeas and nays, on any question, vote or resolution, where any two members require it, except when the vote is taken by ballot; and when the yeas and nays are so taken every member shall have a right to insert the reasons of his vote upon the minutes, if he desires it.

Sect. 15. To the end that laws before they are enacted may be more maturely considered, and the inconvenience of hasty determinations as much as possible prevented, all bills of public nature shall be printed for the consideration of the people, before they are read in general assembly the last time for debate and amendment; and, except on occasions of sudden necessity, shall not be passed into laws until the next session of assembly; and for the more perfect satisfaction of the public, the reasons and motives for making such laws shall be fully and clearly expressed in the preambles.

The treasurer of the state, trustees of the loan office, naval officers, collectors of customs or excise, judge of the admiralty, attornies general, sheriffs, and prothonotaries, shall not be capable of a seat in the general assembly, executive council, or continental congress.

Sect. 22. Every officer of state, whether judicial or executive, shall be liable to be impeached by the general assembly, either when in office, or after his resignation or removal for mal-administration: All impeachments shall be before the president or vice-president and council, who shall hear and determine the same.

Sect. 23. The judges of the supreme court of judicature shall have fixed salaries, be commissioned for seven years only, though capable of re-appointment at the end of that term, but removable for misbehaviour at any time by the general assembly; they shall not be allowed to sit as members in the continental congress, executive council, or general assembly, nor to hold any other office civil or military, nor to take or receive fees or perquisites of any kind.

Sect. 25. Trials shall be by jury as heretofore: And it is recommended to the legislature of this state, to provide by law against every corruption or partiality in the choice, return, or appointment of juries.

Sect. 26. All courts shall be open, and justice shall be impartially administered without corruption or unnecessary delay: All their officers shall be paid an adequate but moderate compensation for their services: And if any officer shall take greater or other fees than the law allows him, either directly or indirectly, it shall ever after disqualify him from holding any office in this state.

Sect. 28. The person of a debtor, where there is not a strong presumption of fraud, shall not be continued in prison, after delivering up, bona fide, all his estate real and personal, for the use of his creditors, in such manner as shall be hereafter regulated by law. All prisoners shall be bailable by sufficient sureties, unless for capital offences, when the proof is evident, or presumption great.

Sect. 29. Excessive bail shall not be exacted for bailable offences: And all fines shall be moderate.

Sect. 30. Justices of the peace shall be elected by the freeholders of each city and county respectively, that is to say, two or more persons may be chosen for each ward, township, or district, as the law shall hereafter direct.  No justice of the peace shall sit in the general assembly unless he first resigns his commission; nor shall he be allowed to take any fees, nor any salary or allowance, except such as the future legislature may grant.

Sect. 31. Sheriffs and coroners shall be elected annually in each city and county, by the freemen.  No person shall continue in the office of sheriff more than three successive years, or be capable of being again elected during four years afterwards.  And the commissioners and assessors, and other officers chosen by the people, shall also be then and there elected, as has been usual heretofore, until altered or otherwise regulated by the future legislature of this state.

Sect. 32. All elections, whether by the people or in general assembly, shall be by ballot, free and voluntary: And any elector, who shall receive any gift or reward for his vote, in meat, drink, monies or otherwise, shall forfeit his right to elect for that time, and suffer such other penalties as future laws shall direct. And any person who shall directly or indirectly give, promise, or bestow any such rewards to be elected, shall be thereby rendered incapable to serve for the ensuing year.

Sect. 35. The printing presses shall be free to every person who undertakes to examine the proceedings of the legislature, or any part of government.

Sect. 36. As every freeman to preserve his independence, (if without a sufficient estate) ought to have some profession, calling, trade or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no necessity for, nor use in establishing offices of profit, the usual effects of which are dependence and servility unbecoming freemen, in the possessors and expectants; faction, contention, corruption, and disorder among the people. But if any man is called into public service, to the prejudice of his private affairs, he has a right to a reasonable compensation: And whenever an office, through an increase of fees or otherwise, becomes so profitable as to occasion many to apply for it, the profits ought to be lessened by the legislature.

Sect. 39. To deter more effectually from the commission of crimes, by continued visible punishments of long duration, and to make sanguinary punishments less necessary: houses ought to be provided for punishing by hard labour, those who shall be convicted of crimes not capital; wherein the criminals shall be imployed for the benefit of the public, or for reparation of injuries done to private persons: And all persons at proper times shall be admitted to see the prisoners at their labour.

Sect. 42. Every foreigner of good character who comes to settle in this state, having first taken an oath or affirmation of allegiance to the same, may purchase, or by other just means acquire, hold, and transfer land or other real estate; and after one year’s residence, shall be deemed a free denizen thereof, and entitled to all the rights of a natural born subject of this state, except that he shall not be capable of being elected a representative until after two years residence.

Sect. 43. The inhabitants of this state shall have liberty to fowl and hunt in seasonable times on the lands they hold, and on all other lands therein not inclosed; and in like manner to fish in all boatable waters, and others not private property.

Sect. 44. A school or schools shall be established in each county by the legislature, for the convenient instruction of youth, with such salaries to the masters paid by the public, as may enable them to instruct youth at low prices: And all useful learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted in one or more universities.

Sect. 45. Laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution: And all religious societies or bodies of men heretofore united or incorporated for the advancement of religion and learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates which they were accustomed to enjoy, or could of right have enjoyed, under the laws and former constitution of this state.

Passed in Convention the 28th day of September, 1776, and signed by their order.



6) Comments on Pennsylvania’s New 1776 Government:

“The Examiner,” Pennsylvania Evening Post, Oct. 15, 1776: [On the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution] “This wise, this necessary preservative against tyranny has given very great offence to some of our gentry who regard you as their property, their beasts of burden, born only to be ruled by these Lords of the Creation….I have been repeatedly told by them that gentlemen would not submit to have power so much in the hands of the people.  The people, they say, are not fit to be the guardians of their own rights.”

“Independent,” Pennsylvania Packet, Mar. 18, 1776: [On the opposition to the creation of a new government] [They were “the better sort who [thought they] were made, ordained, constituted, appointed, and predestined from the foundation of the world to govern and to all intents and valuable purposes, possess the surface of the this globe and all its inhabitants

“Cassandra,” Pennsylvania Packet, April 8, 1776: [On the opposition to the creation of a new government] “aristocratical junto, who are straining every nerve to frustrate our virtuous endeavours and to make the common and middle class of people their beasts of burden.”

“A Watchman,” Pennsylvania Packet, June 24, 1776: [On opposition to the new government] “Men of property” [spoke out against the new government]. “But always remember that they derive no right to power from their wealth and that a freeman worth only fifty pounds is entitled by the laws of province to all the privileges of the first Nabob of the country.  Remember the influence of wealth upon the morals and principles of mankind.  Recollect how often you have heard the first principles of government subverted by the calls…to make way for men of fortune to declare their sentiments upon the subject of Independence, as if a minority of rich men were to govern the majority of virtuous freeholders in the province.

“Andrew Marvell,” Pennsylvania Packet, Nov. 26, 1776: [Critic of 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution] “A member if the late [Constitutional] Convention congratulated the State upon the opening of the Convention that a set of plain men with good understandings were assembled together to make a government.  It was debated for some time in the Convention whether the future legislatures of this State should have the power of lessening property when it became excessive in individuals.”

“Sully,” Pennsylvania Packet, Feb. 2, 1779: [Critic of 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution]: “The Magistrates of the State were elected by a small body of the people, and consist chiefly of illiterate men who are altogether unqualified for their offices….These infringements of the Constitution have been pointed out in the newspapers, but the people are not yet sufficiently alarmed with them.  They are blinded with the workmanship of their own hands, and think a [Patriot] in power, “can do no wrong.”  The men of the greatest property in the State are in the scale of opposition.  If the Constitution should not be altered, the revolution of a few years will bring the present opposition into power.  Perhaps we may then hear of an exchange in the principles of the parties.  When the wealthy men become a majority in the Assembly, they may imitate the present rulers of the state in violating the Constitution and vote themselves as perpetual to the rump Parliament of England.”


7) Maryland Constitution of 1776 (Abridged):
Things to keep in mind: How is the government structured? Who can vote? Who can hold office? How are political leaders selected? Are they elected or appointed?  By whom?

I. THAT the Legislature consist of two distinct branches, a Senate and House of Delegates, which shall be styled, The General Assembly of Maryland.

II. That the House of Delegates shall be chosen in the following manner: All freemen, above twenty-one years of age, having a freehold of fifty acres of land, in the county in which they offer to vote, and residing therein-and all freemen, having property in this State above the value of thirty pounds current money, and having resided in the county, in which they offer to vote, one whole year next preceding the election, shall have a right of suffrage, in the election of Delegates for such county: and all freemen, so qualified, shall, en the first Monday of October, seventeen hundred and seventy-seven and on the same day in every year thereafter, assemble in the counties, in which they are respectively qualified to vote, at the court-house, in the said counties; or at such other place as the Legislature shall direct; and, when assembled, they shall proceed to elect, viva voce, four Delegates, for their respective counties, of the most wise, sensible, and discreet of the people, residents in the county where they are to be chosen, one whole year next preceding the election, above twenty-one years of age, and having, in the State, real or personal property above the value of five hundred pounds current money; and upon the final casting of the polls, the four persons who shall appear to have the greatest number of legal votes shall be declared and returned duly elected for their respective counties.

IV. That all persons qualified, by the charter of the city of Annapolis, to vote for Burgesses, shall, on the same first Monday of October, seventeen hundred and seventy-seven, and on the same day in every year forever thereafter, elect, viva voce [by voice vote], by a majority of votes, two Delegates, qualified agreeable to the said charter; that the Mayor, Recorder, and Aldermen of the said city, or any three of them, be judges of the election, appoint the place in the said city for holding the same, and may adjourn from day to day, as aforesaid, and shall make return thereof, as aforesaid: but the inhabitants of the said city shall not be entitled to vote for Delegates for Anne-Arundel county, unless they have a freehold of fifty acres of land in the county distinct from the City.

V. That all persons, inhabitants of Baltimore town, and having the same qualifications as electors in the county, shall, on the same first Monday in October, seventeen hundred and seventy-seven, and on the same day in every year forever thereafter, at such place in the said town as the Judges shall appoint, elect, viva voce [by voice vote], by a majority of votes, two Delegates, qualified as aforesaid: but if the said inhabitants of the town shall so decrease, as that a number of persons, having a right of suffrage therein, shall have been, for the space of seven years successively, less than one half the number of voters in some one county in this State, such town shall thenceforward cease to send two Delegates or Representatives to the House of Delegates, until the said town shall have one half of the number of voters in some one county in this State.

X. That the House of Delegates may originate all money bills, propose bills to the Senate, or receive those offered by that body; and assent, dissent, or propose amendments; that they may inquire on the oath of witnesses, into all complaints, grievances, and offences, as the grand inquest of this State; and may commit any person, for any crime, to the public jail, there to remain till he be discharged by due course of law. They may expel any member, for a great misdemeanor, but not a second time for the same cause. They may examine and pass all accounts of the State, relating either to the collection or expenditure of the revenue, or appoint auditors, to state and adjust the same. They may call for all public or official papers and records, and send for persons, whom they may judge necessary in the course of their inquiries, concerning affairs relating to the public interest; and may direct all office bonds (which shall be made payable to the State) to be sued for any breach of duty.

XI. That the Senate may be at full and perfect liberty to exercise their judgment in passing laws-and that they may not be compelled by the House of Delegates, either to reject a money bill, which the emergency of affairs may require, or to assent to some other act of legislation, in their conscience and judgment injurious to the public welfare–the House of Delegates shall not on any occasion, or under any presence annex to, or blend with a money bill, any matter, clause, or thing, not immediately relating to, and necessary for the imposing, assessing, levying, or applying the taxes or supplies, to be raised for the of government, or the current expenses of the State: and to prevent altercation about such bills, it is declared, that no bill, imposing duties or customs for the mere regulation of commerce, or inflicting fines for the reformation of morals, or to enforce the execution of the laws, by which an incidental revenue may arise, shall be accounted a money bill: but every bill, assessing, levying, or applying taxes or supplies, for the support of government, or the current expenses of the State, or appropriating money in the treasury, shall be deemed a money bill.

XIV. That the Senate be chosen in the following manner: All persons, qualified as aforesaid to vote for county Delegates, shall, on the first tidy of September, 1781, and on the same day in every fifth year forever thereafter, elect, viva voce [by voice vote], by a majority of votes, two persons for their respective counties (qualified as aforesaid to be elected county Delegates) to be electors of the Senate; and the Sheriff of each county, or, in case of sickness, his Deputy (summoning two Justices of the county, who are required to attend, for the preservation of the peace,) shall hold and be judge of the said election, and make return thereof, as aforesaid. And all persons, qualified as aforesaid, to vote for Delegates for the city of Annapolis and Baltimore town, shall, on the same first Monday of September, 1781, and on the same day in every fifth year forever thereafter, elect, viva voce [by voice vote],  by a majority of votes, one person for the said city and town respectively, qualified as aforesaid to be elected a Delegate for the said city and town respectively; the said election to be held in the same manner, as the election of Delegates for the said city and town; the right to elect the said elector, with respect to Baltimore town, to continue as long as the right to elect Delegates for the said town.

XV. That the said electors of the Senate meet at the city of Annapolis, or such other place as shall be appointed for convening the legislature, on the third Monday in September, 1781, and on the same flay in every fifth year forever thereafter, and they, or any twenty-four of them so met, shall proceed to elect, by ballot, either out of their own body, or the people at large, fifteen Senators (nine of whom to be residents on the western, and six to be residents on the eastern shore) men of the most wisdom, experience and virtue, above twenty-five years of age, residents of the State above three whole years next preceding the election, and having real and personal property above the value of one thousand pounds current money.

XVI That the Senators shall be balloted for, at one and the same time, and out of the gentlemen residents of the western shore, who shall be proposed as Senators, the nine who shall, on striking the ballots, appear to have the greatest numbers in their favour, shall be accordingly declared and returned duly elected: and out of the gentlemen residents of the eastern shore, who shall be proposed as Senators, the six who shall, on striking the ballots, appear to have the greatest number in their favour, shall be accordingly declared and returned duly elected: and if two or more on the same shore shall have an equal number of ballots in their favour, by which the choice shall not be determined on the first ballot, then the electors shall again ballot, before they separate; in which they shall be confined to the persons who on the first ballot shall have an equal number: and they who shall have the greatest number in their favour on the second ballot, shall be accordingly declared and returned duly elected: and if the whole number should not thus be made up, because of an equal number, on the second ballot, still being in favour of two or more persons, then the election shall be determined by lot, between those who have equal numbers; which proceedings of the electors shall be certified under their hands, and returned to the Chancellor for the time being.

XVII. That the electors of Senators shall judge of the qualifications and elections of members of their body; and, on a contested election, shall admit to a seat, as an elector, such qualified person as shall appear to them to have the greatest number of legal votes in his favour.

XXV. That a person of wisdom, experience, and virtue, shall be chosen Governor, on the second Monday of November, seventeen hundred and seventy-seven, and on the second Monday in every year forever thereafter, by the joint ballot of both Houses (to be taken in each House respectively) deposited in a conference room; the boxes to be examined by a joint committee of both Houses, and the numbers severally reported, that the appointment may be entered; which mode of taking the joint ballot of both Houses shall be adopted in all cases. But if two or more shall have an equal number of ballots in their favour, by which the choice shall not be determined on the first ballot, then a second ballot shall be taken, which shall be confined to the persons who, on the first ballot, shall have had an equal number; and, if the ballots should again be equal between two or more persons, then the election of the Governor shall be determined by lot, between those who have equal numbers: and if the person chosen Governor shall die, resign, move out of the State, or refuse to act, (the-General Assembly sitting) the Senate and House of Delegates shall, immediately thereupon, proceed to a new choice, in manner aforesaid.

XXVI. That the Senators and Delegates, on the second Tuesday of November, 1777, and annually on the second Tuesday of November forever thereafter, elect by Joint ballot (in the same manner as Senators are directed to be chosen) five of the most sensible, discreet, and experienced men, above twenty-five years of age, residents in the State above three years next preceding the election, and having therein a freehold of lands and tenements, above the value of one thousand pounds current money, to be the Council to the Governor, whose proceedings shall be always entered on record, to any part whereof any member may enter his dissent; and their advice, if so required by the Governor, or any member of the Council, shall be given in writing, and signed by the members giving the same respectively: which proceedings of the Council shall be laid before the Senate, or House of Delegates, when called for by them or either of them. The Council may appoint their own Clerk, who shall take such oath of suport and fidelity to this State, as this Convention, or the Legislature, shall direct; and of secrecy, in such matters as he shall be directed by the board to keep secret.

XXVII. That the Delegates to Congress, from this State, shall be chosen annually, or superseded in the mean time by the joint ballot of both Houses of Assembly; and that there be a rotation, in such manner, that at least two of the number be annually changed; and no person shall be capable of being a Delegate to Congress for more than three in any term of six years; and no person, who holds any office of profit in the gift of Congress, shall be eligible to sit in Congress; but if appointed to any such office, his seat shall be thereby vacated. That no person, unless above twenty-one years of age, and a resident in the State more than five years next preceding the election, and having real and personal estate in this State above the value of one thousand pounds current money, shall be eligible to sit in Congress.

XXX. That no person, unless above twenty-five years of age, a resident in this State above five years next preceding the election- and having in the State real and personal property, above the value of five thousand pounds, current money, (one thousand pounds whereof, at least, to be freehold estate) shall be eligible as governor.


8) Comments on Maryland’s New 1776 Government:

Thomas Stone of Maryland writing to John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who had opposed the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.  Stone wanted Dickinson to come to the Maryland constitutional convention to warn the delegate about what had happened in Maryland:

“It is my earnest wish that you should spend a few days at Annapolis while the government of Maryland is under consideration, being satisfied you would render essential most service to that state by the assistance you are able to give in forming a constitution upon permanent first principles & I think it not improbably that a well-formed government in a state so near as Maryland might lend to restore the affairs of this (Pennsylvania] from that anarchy and confusion which must attend any attempt to execute their present no plan of polity.”

Anne Arundel County Militia, 885 Freemen Instructions to Delegates to Constitutional Convention.  This is a list of alternative proposals that ordinary people in Anne Arundel County offered to the proposed 1776 Maryland Constitution:

No veto for governor

People vote for both houses and for all judges

Elections over appointment for local officials

No lawsuits for unpaid debts until the end of “this time of public calamity.”

Taxes raised by “a fair and equal assessment in proportion to every person’s estate and that the unjust mode of taxation heretofore used be abolished”

All adult white men who pay taxes may vote

The following two documents (labeled A and B) are reports from the Revolutionary committees that enforced law and order for Maryland’s new Revolutionary government:

A) “In Committee, Baltimore Town May 7th 1776. Gentlemen. The inclosed paper contains opinions, and Sentiments of a certain Alexander Magee, an Inhabitant of this County, which appear to this Commee to be dangerous and inimical to the cause in which America is now embarked on Examining the man, he avowed some of them, and Equivocated as to others, and as he appears to have some influence among the Common people, the Committee thought it their duty to order him into Custody, and to be kept safe till your further directions can be obtained.” [Magee had said]: “That the American opposition to great Britain is not calculated or designed for the defence of American Liberty or Property, but for the purpose of enslaving the Poor People thereof.”

        Source: Archives of Maryland, vol. 11: 415-16

B) ” The Committee then taking into Consideration the Charge exhibited and proved against Mr Robert Gassaway by his own Confession, and being of Opinion that his Offence is of a high and dangerous nature, and that his Behaviour tended as far as his Influence would extend, to disunite the Inhabitants of this Province in their present Opposition.” ” Resolved That the said Robert Gassaway be immediately sent to the Council of Safety at Annapolis under a Guard of four men, and that Capt Philip Smith and three men to be procured by him, be a Guard for that Purpose.”

“The following is the Charge exhibited against him. — ” On the twenty sixth Day of February One thousand seven hundred and seventy six, at a meeting of Capt. Valentine Creagar and Philip Smith’s Companies of Militia, the said Robert Gassaway when at Exercise as a private man in Capt Smith’s Company, stepped out of his Rank, and publicly and loudly declared before the aforesaid two Companies, and in the Presence of several other Spectators, that it was better for the Poor People to lay down their Arms, and pay the Duties and Taxes laid upon them by the King and Parliament, than to be brought into Slavery and to be commanded and ordered about as they were, he was asked who he meant had brought the People into [slavery, he said it] was a Parcel of great men.”

        Source: Archives of Maryland, vol. 11: 309

Dorchester County, White Artisan named Simmons, when asked if he was going to militia muster, Simmons replied:

“Yes but not to muster for he had other business, and further said to the deponent that he understood that the gentlemen were intending to make us all fight for their lands and negroes, and then said damn them (meaning the gentlemen) if I had a few more white people to join me I could get all the negroes in the county to back us, and they would do more good in the night than the while people could do in the day on which this deponent said suppose it was so, where could they get the ammunition from. He the said Simmons answered where they could find it, and further added that if all the gentlemen were killed we should have the best of the land to tend and besides could get money enough while they were about it as they have got all the money in their hands.  There is Robert Goldsborough and Colonel William Ennals.  I’ll be bound has money enough by them.  I wish I had one of William Ennals bags, I would put it to better use than he does damn him would I, and from the whole tenor of the conversation that passed between them, this deponent declared that the said Simmons appeared to be in earnest and desirous that the negroes should get the better of the white people.”

        Source: Dorchester County Court Papers, Gilmor Papers, MHS, quoted in Ronald Hoffman, Spirit of Dissension, 147.



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