Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1776

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (ratified September 28, 1776) was the state’s first constitution following the Declaration of Independence, and has been described as the most democratic in America. It was drafted by Robert Whitehill, Timothy Matlack, Dr. Thomas Young, George Bryan, James Cannon, and Benjamin Franklin. Pennsylvania’s innovative and highly democratic government structure, featuring a unicameral legislature, may have influenced the later French Republic’s formation under the French Constitution of 1793.

Innovations of the 1776 Constitution

The 1776 Constitution contained seven of the six points of the United Kingdom’s People’s Charter, over 50 years before that document was written. Some of the radical innovations included:

Voting franchise for all men who had paid taxes, but without property qualifications.
A unicameral legislature, with members elected for one term.
A twelve-member Supreme Executive Council to administer the government.
A judiciary appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms, and removable at any time.
The provision that all approved legislation wait to be enacted until the next session of the Assembly, so that the people of the state could assess the utility of the proposed law.
A President elected by the Assembly and Council together. Thomas Wharton Jr. was chosen in 1777 to be the first President of the Supreme Executive Council.
A Council of Censors (elected every seven years) to conduct an evaluation of the activities. They could “censure” actions by the government deemed to have violated the constitution. The Council of Censors was the only body with the authority to call a convention to amend the constitution.

The Constitution also made Pennsylvania’s official title the “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” (as it remains today). The term “commonwealth” is used by only four states – Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky. The revolutionaries in Vermont directly copied many of the provisions of the Pennsylvania constitution. This happened because Dr. Thomas Young, a participant in the writing of the Pennsylvania constitution and mentor for Ethan Allen, wrote a letter to the Vermont constitutional convention suggesting both that Vermont be the new republic’s name and that Vermont model its constitution on the new, radically democratic Pennsylvania one.

The Constitution of Pennsylvania
-September 28, 1776

WHEREAS all government ought to be instituted and supported for the security and protection of the community as such, and to enable the individuals who compose it to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of existence has bestowed upon man; and whenever these great ends of government are not obtained, the people have a right, by common consent to change it, and take such measures as to them may appear necessary to promote their safety and happiness.

AND WHEREAS the inhabitants o f this commonwealth have in consideration of protection only, heretofore acknowledged allegiance to the king of Great Britain; and the said king has not only withdrawn that protection, but commenced, and still continues to carry on, with unabated vengeance, a most cruel and unjust war against them, employing therein, not only the troops of Great Britain, but foreign mercenaries, savages and slaves, for the avowed purpose of reducing them to a total and abject submission to the despotic domination of the British parliament, with many other acts of tyranny, (more fully set forth in the declaration of Congress) whereby all allegiance and fealty to the said king and his successors, are dissolved and at an end, and all power and authority derived from him ceased in these colonies.

AND WHEREAS it is absolutely necessary for the welfare and safety of the inhabitants of said colonies, that they be henceforth free and independent States, and that just, permanent, and proper forms of government exist in every part of them, derived from and founded on the authority of the people only, agreeable to the directions of the honourable American Congress.
We, the representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, in general convention met, for the express purpose of framing such a government, confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain, by perfecting the arts of government) in permitting the people of this State, by common consent, and without violence, deliberately to form for themselves such just rules as they shall think best, for governing their future society, and being fully convinced, that it is our indispensable duty to establish such original principles of government, as will best promote the general happiness of the people of this State, and their posterity, and provide for future improvements, without partiality for, or prejudice against any particular class, sect, or denomination of men whatever, do, by virtue of the authority vested in use by our constituents,
ordain, declare, and establish, the following Declaration of Rights and Frame of Government, to be
the CONSTITUTION of this commonwealth,
and to remain in force therein for ever, unaltered, except in such articles as shall hereafter on experience be found to require improvement, and which shall by the same authority of the people, fairly delegated as this frame of government directs, be amended or improved for the more effectual obtaining and securing the great end and design of all government, herein before mentioned.


I. That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

II. That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

III. That the people of this State have the sole, exclusive and inherent right of governing and regulating the internal police of the same.

IV. That all power being originally inherent in, and consequently derived from, the people; therefore all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants, and at all times accountable to them.

V. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community, And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal.

VI. That those who are employed in the legislative and executive business of the State, may be restrained from oppression, the people have a right, at such periods as they may think proper, to reduce their public officers to a private station, and supply the vacancies by certain and regular elections.

VII. That all elections ought to be free; and that all free men having a sufficient evident common interest with, and attachment to the community, have a right to elect officers, or to be elected into office.

VIII. That every member of society hath a right to be protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property, and therefore is bound to contribute his proportion towards the expense of that protection, and yield his personal service when necessary, or an equivalent thereto: But no part of a man’s property can be justly taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent, or that of his legal representatives: Nor can any man who is conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms, be justly compelled thereto, if he will pay such equivalent, nor are the people bound by any laws, but such as they have in like manner assented to, for their common good.

IX. That in all prosecutions for criminal offences, a man hath a right to be heard by himself and his council, to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the witnesses, to call for evidence in his favour, and a speedy public trial, by an impartial jury of the country, without the unanimous consent of which jury he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; nor can any man be justly deprived of his liberty except by the laws of the land, or the judgment of his peers.

X. That the people have a right to hold themselves, their houses, papers, and possessions free from search and seizure, and therefore warrants without oaths or affirmations first made, affording a sufficient foundation for them, and whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded or required to search suspected places, or to seize any person or persons, his or their property, not particularly described, are contrary to that right, and ought not to be granted.

XI. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the parties have a right to trial by jury, which ought to be held sacred.

XII. That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments; therefore the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained.

XIII. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

XIV. That a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles, and a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality are absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty, and keep a government free: The people ought therefore to pay particular attention to these points in the choice of officers and representatives, and have a right to exact a due and constant regard to them, from their legislatures and magistrates, in the making and executing such laws as are necessary for the good government of the state.

XV. That all men have a natural inherent right to emigrate from one state to another that will receive them, or to form a new state in vacant countries, or in such countries as they can purchase, whenever they think that thereby they may promote their own happiness.

XVI. That the people have a right to assemble together, to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the legislature for redress of grievances, by address, petition, or remonstrance.

SECT. 21. All commissions shall be in the name, and by the authority of the freemen of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sealed with the state seal, signed by the president or vice-president, and attested by the secretary; which seal shall be kept by the council.


I do swear (or affirm) that I will be true and faithful to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania: And that I will not directly or indirectly do any act or thing prejudicial or injurious to the constitution or government thereof, as established by the-convention. –

I-do swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of _____and will do equal right and justice to all men, to the best of my judgment and abilities, according to law.

SECT. 41. NO public tax, custom or contribution shall be imposed upon, or paid by the people of this state, except by a law for that purpose: And before any law be made for raising it, the purpose for which any tax is to be raised ought to appear clearly to the legislature to be of more service to the community than the money would be, if not collected; which being well observed, taxes can never be burdens.
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:

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.
~ ~ ~ ~

Denization in Britain, as an exercise of royal power, was applicable throughout the British dominion to all British subjects. That is, it was exercisable in the colonies. Denization occurred by a grant of letters patent from the king, an exercise of the royal prerogative. Denizens paid a fee and took an oath of allegiance to the crown. The denizen was not a subject nor an alien: but had a status akin to permanent residency today;
“A denizen is a kind of middle state, between an alien and a natural-born subject, and partakes of both.” – (Blackstone: Commentaries, Book 1, Chapter X, p374)

The denizen was not a natural-born subject because he did not have any political rights: he could not be a member of Parliament or hold any civil or military office. However, the status of denizen allowed a foreigner to purchase property, although a denizen could not inherit property.

Denization was expressly preserved by the Naturalisation Act of 1870. Denization fell into obsolescence with the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 (4 & 5 Geo. 5) c. 17, which instituted certificates of naturalisation, instead of—as it was with divorce until the year 1858 with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 *(20 & 21 Vict.) c. 85—necessitating the procuring of an expensive private act of Parliament or possibly of a colonial legislature.

There was no process by which a ‘foreigner’ not of British parents could become a British subject. However, ‘naturalisation’ granted all the legal rights of citizenship except political rights (e.g. holding office). Naturalisation required an act of parliament be passed. Alternatively, denization allowed a person to gain the rights of citizenship other than political rights.

Denization was therefore an exercise of executive power, whereas naturalisation was an exercise of legislative power.



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