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339Where did the language of the U.S. Constitution come from?

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  • Jon Roland
    May 27, 2013
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      Ultimately it came from the legal tradition of England and Scotland, expressed in a number of key enactments, in court opinions, and in the commentaries of legal scholars like Edward Coke and William Blackstone. But the most direct sources were the constitutions adopted by the 13 states after they declared independence from Britain, and before the Constitution was drafted at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Much of the language was taken almost word by word from those sources, as was the language of the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791. So to understand the language, one can examine how the language was understood by those who wrote and ratified the state constitutions, and who used those constitutions during the War for Independence and Articles of Confederation regime. By the Constitutional Convention, the delegates could draft language with actual experience with how that language would play out in practice.

      We have gathered those early state constitutions in one place on our site, at http://constitution.org/cons/early_state_cons.htm , for your convenience.

      Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, NewHampshire, NewJersey, NewYork, NorthCarolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia all adopted new state constitutions in 1776 or 1777. South Carolina actually adopted a new state constitution in 1776 before independence was declared, and then a post-independence constitution in 1778. Connecticut, RhodeIsland, and Massachusetts continued to get by with their colonial charters for several years, but after a proposed Massachusetts constitution was rejected by the voters in 1778, a new one was ratified by popular vote in 1780, the first ratified by a referendum. The others were adopted by the state legislatures, but not submitted to popular referendum.

      We encourage everyone to read these foundational documents to understand where the language of the U.S. Constitution comes from, and what light they shine on what it means. Please spread this message widely.

      And keep in mind that while access to everything on our site is free, it does cost us to make it available, and you might contribute to our efforts.

      -- Jon
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