Massachusetts Constitution

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Massachusetts Constitution
Seal of Massachusetts.png
Part the First
Part the Second:
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Articles of Amendment
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the fundamental governing document of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It was written by John Adams, Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin. The constitution went into effect on October 25, 1780. The Massachusetts Constitution is often said to be the oldest state constitution in continuous effect. As a result of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1917-1919 it was re-codified through the incorporation of 66 previously approved amendments.[1]

The Massachusetts Constitution was the last of the first set of the state constitutions to be written. Consequently, it was more sophisticated than many of the other documents. Among the improvements was the structure of the document itself: instead of just a listing of provisions, it had a structure of chapters, sections, and articles. This structure was replicated by the US Constitution. It also had substantial influence on the subsequent revisions of many of the other state constitutions. The Massachusetts Constitution has four parts: a preamble, a declaration of rights, a description of the framework of government in six chapters, and articles of amendment.


Many believe that the Massachusetts Constitution stands out as a striking example of the founding father’s belief that republican government requires a certain character in its citizens, as well as prudently designed institutions.[2]

The Massachusetts Constitution is divided into two parts, a "Declaration of Rights" and a "Frame of Government", and further subdivided into chapters from there, rather than into articles like most state constitutions.

The first part, the Declaration of Rights, makes clear that rights are both protections against arbitrary government and the source of legitimate republican government. The Preamble identifies the constitution as “a voluntary association of individuals” originating in a “social compact” that protects both individual rights and the common good. The United States Constitution and state constitutions from Iowa to California even now echo the language of the Massachusetts Constitution.[2]


See also: Preambles to state constitutions

The preamble of the Massachusetts Constitution bears some resemblance to the United States Constitution:

Text of Preamble:

The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquillity their natural rights, and the blessings of life: and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation, and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.

We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.[3]

Part the First: Declaration of the Rights

Part the First of the Massachusetts Constitution is entitled "A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," known as a bill of rights, identifies the origin and purpose of all legitimate government. It contains 30 sections.

Article I of this part begins by stating:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.[3]

This article was later be amended by substituting the word "people" for the word "men."

Part the Second: Frame of Government

Article I of this part begins by stating:

The department of legislation shall be formed by two branches, a Senate and House of Representatives: each of which shall have a negative on the other.

This part encompasses the remaining six chapters of the constitution that describe the powers of the bicameral legislature, the governor, his advisory council and the judiciary. Other provisions honor Harvard College, detail oaths of office and encourage the study of the liberal and useful arts, to inculcate civic and private virtues. At the state level, the advancement of intellectual and moral character and the articulation of governmental powers belong together.[2]

Amending the constitution

Main article: Article XLVIII, Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution and see also Laws governing ballot measures in Massachusetts

The process of amending the Massachusetts Constitution is governed by Article XLVIII, Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, which is itself the 48th amendment to the state's constitution.

Initiated amendments

Article 48 allows only the indirect initiative amendment and imposes a number of restrictions on such proposed amendments:

  • Petitions that relate to "religion, religious practices or religious institutions" are prohibited.
  • Petitions that relate to the "appointment, qualification, tenure, removal, recall or compensation of judges" are prohibited.
  • Petitions that would reverse judicial decisions are prohibited.
  • Petitions relating to the "powers, creation or abolition of courts" are prohibited.
  • Petitions that apply only to "a particular town, city or other political division or to particular districts or localities of the commonwealth" are prohibited.
  • Petitions that would make "a specific appropriation of money from the treasury of the commonwealth" are prohibited.
  • Any petition relating to Amendment 18 is prohibited through citizen initiative; however, Amendment 18 was altered through other paths.
  • Petitions "inconsistent with" a list of "rights of the individual" are prohibited; those rights include:
  • "The right to receive compensation for private property appropriated to public use."
  • "The right of access to and protection in courts of justice."
  • "The right of trial by jury."
  • "Protection from unreasonable search unreasonable bail and the law martial."
  • "Freedom of the press."
  • "Freedom of elections."
  • "The right of peaceable assembly."
  • The sections of the constitution that prohbit various matters from being taken up by citizen initiative are also, themselves, prohibited from change through the process.
  • Petitions that are "substantially the same as any measure which has been qualified for submission or submitted to the people at either of the two preceding biennial state elections" are prohibited.
  • The Massachusetts General Court is allowed to refer an alternative substitute measure to the ballot to compete with the proposed citizen initiative.
  • The state legislature is allowed to amend the text of an initiated constitutional amendment through a three-fourths vote in joint session.
  • 25% of the members of two successively elected sessions of the Massachusetts General Court must support the proposed amendment in order for it to go on the ballot. There are 200 legislators altogether -- 40 in the Massachusetts State Senate and 160 in the Massachusetts House of Representatives -- so a proposed amendment must earn 50 positive votes. The proposed amendment does not need to earn a 25% vote from both chambers, but rather, from a joint session. (This means, for a hypothetical example, that if 50 members of the state house voted in favor of an amendment, it would require no support from any state senator to qualify for the ballot.)


When the state legislature presented the voters with a proposed constitution in 1778, it was rejected because the people of Massachusetts thought that this was too important an issue for the government to present to the people. Massachusetts then held a special convention in 1780 where specially elected representatives met to decide on the best framework for the new state government. This idea of a special convention of the people to decide important constitutional issues was part of a new way of thinking about popular rule that would play a central role in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787-1788.[4] Exceptional for the times, it also was submitted for popular approval, requiring a two-thirds vote for final ratification. These features put the philosophy of social-contract theory into genuine practice. As the Preamble explains, “The Body-Politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each Citizen, and each Citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain Laws for the Common good.”[5]

Although it was not the first state constitution to include a bill of rights, the Declaration of Rights in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 is notable because of its unequivocal statement, in Article I, that: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” For many who participated in the four-year debate leading to the Constitution’s adoption, this declaration was intended to abolish slavery in the Commonwealth. Relying on Article I, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did just that in 1783. In 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was the first state court in the country to abolish slavery by judicial decision.[5]

Drafted by John Adams, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 also had the most well-developed doctrine of separation of powers. It provided for a genuine system of checks-and-balances: a two-house legislature, a strong executive with veto power and an independent judiciary with life tenure. Article XXIX of the Declaration of Rights states, “It is the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.” Furthermore, the reassuring guarantee that ours is “a government of laws and not of men” first appears in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.[5]

Overall, it took four years to forge a document to satisfy the people of Massachusetts.[5]

See also

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