New York State officially came into existence on April 20, 1777, with the approval of the first state constitution by the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York in Kingston.
New York’s fourth New York Provincial Congress, elected the previous year, had changed its name to a group representing the State of New York which, technically, did not even exist until the new constitution was written and promulgated. The document, however, declared that the Convention had acted “in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State.”
The Constitution was officially proclaimed and publicly read the first time two days later, in Kingston on April 22, 1777. That is arguably the appropriate date for New York’s birthday.
The final draft was rushed, in light of the perilous military situation the new state faced. New York essentially consisted of the mid and upper-Hudson valley region. Its largest city, New York City, was occupied by the British, and within six months the new state would be invaded from the north, south, east, and west. The Constitution (preserved in the State Archives) included crossed-out words and interlinear substitutions. There wasn’t time to make a clean copy. Given the perils the new state faced, nor was it practical to give “the people” a chance to vote on the document that established “their” government. The Convention simply proclaimed it in effect.
New York had come into existence. It was a rushed, improbable, against-the- odds affair. But the new Constitution was a stunning, creative achievement that guided the new state through its earliest, formative years. It had no major revisions until the next state constitutional convention, in 1821, and even then the revisions were relatively modest.
The story of New York State’s coming-into- existence, taken as a whole is one of most engaging and exciting in American history.
But the story is often neglected or told piecemeal, e.g., scattered coverage of a series of military battles, with the central theme, the dramatic against-the- odds story of the creation of New York State, subdued or obscured.
We could use next year, 2017, to commemorate the 240th anniversary of the establishment of New York State on April 22. It would be particularly appropriate during a year when New Yorkers will be considering how to vote on a proposition on the fall ballot to authorize a state constitutional convention.
Over this past summer, I shared copies of this proposal with a number of programs in the hope of engendering interests. The activities outlined here would not cover all the Revolution in New York State by any means, or even all of the events of 1777. Instead, it focuses on how New York State came into existence in that year and particularly on the first New York State Constitution. Depending on what is done next year, we could celebrate New York’s birthday every year in April. This would be an opportunity every year to call attention to state and local history in general.
An exciting but little known story
Why isn’t the story better known? A few possible explanations:
– The events that led to the establishment of the state are not well covered in textbooks or in our public schools.
– The epochal Battle of Saratoga in October, arguably the turning point in the Revolutionary War, overshadows everything else that happened that year.
– New York’s first and longest-tenured governor, George Clinton (1777-1795, 1801-1804) receives scant coverage in the history books. John Jay’s national service — President of the Continental Congress, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, advocate for the U.S.
– Constitution, first Chief Justice of the U.S. — overshadows his state service — lead writer of the New York State Constitution, the new state’s first Chief Justice and its second governor (1795-1801).
– People may assume that the story, centering around writing the constitution and setting up the government, is unexciting or mostly about obscure points of constitutional law. Actually, 1777 may be the most exciting year in New York history!
Five key history makers
The story could center around the dramatic work of five New Yorkers in that epochal year:
*George Clinton (1739-1812) is perhaps the most under-appreciated leader in New York history. An Ulster County landowner and politician, he became a general in the Continental army, raised forces, built forts, and led in battles. Popular with the troops, he was elected the state’s first governor in 1777, defeating political insiders’ candidate Philip Schuyler. Clinton took the oath of office, delivered his first address to the legislature, and then left town to lead troops into battle. He was nearly captured by the British when they overran a fort he was defending on October 6, 1777. He stayed in the Continental Army until it was disbanded in 1783, in the meantime being re-elected to the governorship, a post he held until 1795, and again 1801-1804. As governor, his harsh policies toward loyalists alienated John Jay and others, and his tax, education, and land policies tended to appeal to lower and middle class citizens rather than wealthy landowners and businessmen. Apprehension about populist-minded governors like Clinton led Jay, Morris, and other champions of the New York constitution to press for a strong U.S. Constitution a decade later as something of a counterweight.
*John Jay (1745-1829). Jay is the hero of this story. He was a reluctant revolutionary who swung over to the cause of independence because of harsh British policies. He was a member of the Continental Congress and then a delegate to the fourth New York Provincial Congress. “We have a government….to form and [no one] knows what it will resemble,” he wrote in July 1776. “Our politicians, like some guests at a feast, are perplexed and undetermined which dish to prefer.” Jay chaired the drafting committee, advancing ideas, writing text, negotiating, lobbying, and sometimes debating against opponents who wanted a weaker governor or a wider franchise. He forged the key compromises and wrote more of the final text than anyone else. He fought for abolition of slavery but lost. He inserted a clause about freedom of religion but, suspicious of Catholics because he felt they owed their first allegiance to the Pope, inserted a provision that “liberty of conscience” was not to be construed as to justify “practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state.” Selected as the state’s first Chief Justice, he got to interpret his own handiwork in the courts.
*Robert Livingston (1746-1813), Hudson River land baron, favored compromise and reconciliation with the British in the early 1770’s but like his colleagues Jay and Morris concluded wrongheaded British policies made revolution inevitable. Elected to the second Continental Congress, he served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Elected to the Fourth New York Provincial Congress, the one that wound up writing the State Constitution, he pushed for a document that would embody the power of large landowners and well-off people. He feared social upheaval and mob rule and distained those delegates who were “unimproved by education and unrefined by honor.” Livingston weighed in on key issues such as who could vote, but he worked closely with Jay to get compromises that everyone could live with. He was selected as Chancellor in the new government, the state’s highest judicial office at that time. He was later active in national politics and later served as Minister to France, where he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
*Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), the third of the leading drafters of the Constitution, was affluent, spirited, well connected socially, and at first disdainful of “the mob,” as he called the rebel group Sons of Liberty. But by mid 1776, he had come around to the position that “there is no redress but by arms” against British tyranny. Morris was a wordsmith who crafted key phrases to make sure the document was clear and understandable. He was particularly concerned with key issues such as religious freedom. Later, Morris was a delegate to the national Constitutional Convention and drafted much of the wording for that document
*Philip Schuyler (1733-1804). Schuyler was the key behind-the- scenes and runner-up character that year. An Albany land magnate, he supported the Revolutionary cause, was appointed a General in the Continental army, and organized an abortive invasion of Canada in 1775 which he had to abandon because of ill health. Schuyler supported the move to declare independence but he cautioned that the struggle would not be easy. He contested with Horatio Gates for command of the Northern Department, got it, organized resistance to invading British forces under Burgoyne, but was removed from command in August 1777 after a subordinate surrendered Fort Ticonderoga, against Schuyler’s orders, without firing a shot. His rival Gates was appointed to take over command. Schuyler demanded and received a court martial and was found not guilty of neglect but it took until October 1778. Jay and other political insiders backed him for governor in the first election in the summer of 1777, but another general, George Clinton, defeated him. Horatio Gates, using tactics similar to what Schuyler had been using, defeated Burgoyne and got the victor’s glory at Saratoga. Schuyler very graciously agreed to house Burgoyne under house arrest at his mansion in Albany. Later, he was elected to the Continental Congress, refused to serve, but then relented and did his duty. He was one of New York’s first U.S. Senators but was later ousted by Aaron Burr, got the seat back, but had to resign due to ill health. Burr went on to kill Schuyler’s son-in- law, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel in 1804.
There were several very important days in New York’s story in 1777, including the Battle of Oriskany on August 6 and the Battle of Bennington (actually fought in Wallomsac, NY) on August 17.
But this initiative might focus on these eight:
April 22. The new Constitution, adopted on April 20, was officially promulgated.
September 9. Chief Justice John Jay, in a “charge” to his first jury, eloquently summarized the principles upon which their new state had been founded.
September 10-13. Governor George Clinton’s first speech to the new State Assembly assessed the state’s military and financial situation and set out his view of executive power; the Assembly responded three days later; and the new governor responded to the Assembly the same day.
October 16. British troops destroyed New York’s capital, Kingston; the new government had evacuated and went on-the- run, reassembling in February 1778 in Poughkeepsie
October 17. British General John Burgoyne surrendered to patriot forces at Saratoga.
Three key documents
*The first State Constitution, promulgated April 22, 1777.
*Chief Justice John Jay’s “charge” to his first jury, September 9, 1777. Jay used the occasion to instruct the jury on the principles upon which the Revolution was being fought and the main points of the new state constitution. The “charge” took on the status of an important state document and was widely reprinted and circulated.
*Governor George Clinton’s first speech to the State Assembly, Sept. 10, 1777
Who could plan and lead commemorative activities?
This would be particularly timely in 2017 when there is certain to be a good deal of discussion of constitutional issues leading up to the vote in the fall on whether to hold a new state Constitutional Convention.
The Governor’s office, building on Governor Cuomo’s oft-stated view that New York’s historical greatness should be an inspiration to us today, might take the lead. Or, some other organization might take the lead, coordinating work with others in a cooperative efforts.
Other key organizations might include:
Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown. The estate of the Livingston family, home of one of the principal writers of the constitution, Robert Livingston.
Historical Society of the New York Courts
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, Katonah. Home of the lead writer of the State Constitution.
New York State Archives, Albany. The Archives holds the original version of the first State Constitution. It has announced plans for a “Path to Statehood” exhibit with founding documents of New York State and other documents that shaped New York’s path to statehood, on November 8 – 27.
New York State Bar Association, Albany. The association is interested in legal history and will be involved in discussions in 2017 about whether there should be a new state constitutional convention.
New York State Museum, Albany. The Museum, the state government’s public history program and the home of the New York State Historian, is already working on a number of commemorations for next year, including the Erie Canal Bicentennial, the Centennial of World War I, and the Centennial of Woman Suffrage in New York State. State Historian Devin Lander is leading development of an agenda with priorities for the coming years.
Rockefeller Institute of Government, SUNY. This agency is taking the lead on organizing public discussions about the vote in November 2017 on holding a constitutional convention.
Saratoga National Historical Park, Stillwater. The site of the Battle of Saratoga.
Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, Albany. Home of New York Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler.
Senate House State Historic Site, Kingston. Site of the meeting of the first State Senate.
Officially designated local government historians, particularly in the eastern part of the state, where most of the action in 1777 took place.
Historical societies and museums.
College and university history departments
The commemoration could be used as a launch point for discussion of many issues. Just a few possibilities are outlined below.
At the beginning of the year 1777, New York was hemmed in, its prospects dim. It had joined the other colonies in declaring its independence but had not yet made good and had no government. It’s largest city was occupied by the British. North of the city was a no-man’s- land with lots of loyalists. It was threatened from the north by one of the largest invasion forces ever assembled on the North American continent; from the West, by another invading force, moving from Oswego, and hostile Indian tribes; from the south by a planned invasion up the Hudson River; and from the east, by other British forces with Vermont troops, allies against the British, restive in their relationship with New York and determined to get free of potential New York control and set up their own state (which they did, in 1791). By the end of the year, four invasions had been turned back and New York State was a viable entity.
New York moves from rebellion to Revolution as rebels-on- the-run in the Fourth Provincial Congress/Convention of Representatives of the State of New York retreat from New York City to White Plains to Fishkill to Kingston in 1776-1777 ahead of British troops.
Writing on-the- fly and under time pressure a constitution that establishes an independent state at a time when there were few precedents or model and in fact the concept of a “state” will still being invented. The delegates to the Provincial Congress/Convention, by adopting the Constitution, in effect proclaimed New York State into existence.
Creating three branches of government with particular attention to the governor, creating a strong executive but with novel constraints.
Balancing individual rights and law and order. Some liberties protected, but no Bill of Rights (that came later, by legislation).
A radical document that asserted independence and created a new state/a conservative document that was intended to more or less safeguard the social and economic status quo through checks and balances, restrictions on the franchise, and other provisions.
Major limitations and problems, e.g., no women in the Provincial Congress/Convention. Status and rights of women not addressed in the constitution. Why was this the case? This might be a point of departure for a wide range of historical interests about women’s rights and equality.
Slavery, a reprehensible practice and a blot on New York’s history, left intact. John Jay and a few others argued for its abolishment in the discussions of the constitution, but he found little support. Slavery was not abolished until many years later, when Jay, then governor, signed a bill for its gradual abolition in 1799. This might form the basis for lots of discussions, including New York’s history with slavery, abolition, civil rights, and other areas.
Getting the new government off on the right principles, e.g., the initial public declarations of the first Governor and the first Chief Justice.
As soon as the new government was established, it became a government-on- the-run as British forces advanced up the Hudson and destroyed the Capital, Kingston, in October. This was the first example of the new state’s remarkable resilience and fortitude.
New York as a leader — the U.S. Constitution in 1787 is similar in many ways to the New York constitution of 1777, demonstrating the strength of our constitution and also presenting a reminder that Gouverneur Morris, one of the main writers of our constitution, actually wrote most of the U.S. Constitution, and John Jay was one of the main advocates for its adoption and helped implement it as the nation’s first Chief Justice.
New Constitution stood the test of time, in effect until the next constitutional convention, 1821, and even that did not make major changes.
Possible initiatives and venues
Whatever activities are undertaken next year, once again, the central function and role of this New York History Blog would be essential. It is the only statewide source for information on commemorative historical events and initiatives. This would confirm, once again, how important this Blog is to New York’s historical enterprise.
There are many possibilities for initiatives. Just a few:
*A web site, blog, and social media venues on “NEW YORK STATE BEGINS” to suggest events, provide guidelines and encourage local celebrations, pageants, or other special presentations, point to model programs, and enable everyone interested to stay in touch.
* Local public events at Albany, Kingston, Saratoga, and other places
* Proclamation by the Governor on April 22
*A state publication available free on the Web on the first State Constitution. (William Polf’s booklet, produced in 1977 by the NYS American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, cited below, has been digitized and made available by the State Library.)
*Programs for teachers on teaching about the first State Constitution and constitutional history and law in New York State
*A social studies curriculum unit or document packet for Grades 4 and another for Grades 7-8, on the first Constitution and constitutional history of New York State.
*Essay contest in the schools on constitutional history culminating in awards and ceremonies during New York State History Month (November) next year. The New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, Section 57.02, established New York State History Month. The law says that:
The commissioner of education, through the office of state history is hereby authorized to undertake projects to recognize New York state history month. Such projects may include the creation of an essay contest for state residents who are enrolled in any elementary or secondary education program which shall reflect upon the importance of New York state history. Any project or projects created pursuant to this subdivision may, in the discretion of the commissioner of education, authorize non-monetary awards to be given to project participants or project winners as such commissioner may deem appropriate.
*Public exhibit of the first State Constitution in the Capitol and a moving exhibit around the state (with necessary security and safeguards), tied where possible to public events discussing the vote on whether to hold a new state constitutional convention.
*Public seminar at the State Museum, possibly in partnership with the State Bar Association and Rockefeller College, broadcast on public television, on the first constitution and New York’s constitutional history.
*Public readings of the Constitution on April 22.
*A made-for- TV special show, possibly produced by Public Television’s WMHT, which has a special interest in history. The show would concentrate on the process of formulating the Constitution and then establishing the government.
*Discussions of the constitution on public media such as WMHT’s “New York Now.”
*Special Path-Through- History driving tours to encourage people to visit key historic sites associated with the dramatic events of 1777, particularly on days of special presentations, celebrations, or pageants. For instance, Katonah (John Jay’s home) to Kingston (Constitution written and promulgated) to Albany (Schuyler’s home and site of house arrest for Burgoyne) to Saratoga (site of the decisive battle.)
*College and university seminars.
*A Broadway play/musical. This is a big, dramatic story, like so much of New York’s history. It is worthy of something bold and dramatic, like the hit musical Hamilton (which its creator and lead actor, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was inspired to write after reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton), or the 1969 Broadway show, 1776. This would require adapting history to fit the stage, but creating dramatic events and scenes for this exciting story would be relatively easy.
Additional information on the first State Constitution
Edward Countryman, A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790 (1981)
Bruce Dearstyne, “April 22, 1777: New York State Begins,” in The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (2015)
George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (1960)
Peter J. Galie, Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York (1996)
Don R. Gerlach, Proud Patriot: Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783 (1964)
John P. Kaminski, George Clinton: Yeoman Politician of the New Republic (1993)
James J. Kirschke, Gouverneur Morris: Author, Statesman, and Man of the World (2005)
William Polf, 1777: The Political Revolution and New York’s First Constitution (booklet published by NYS American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1977)
Walter Stahr, John Jay: Founding Father (2005)
Illustration: A map of New York in 1777.