New Hampshire Constitution of 1784

The history of early constitution making in New Hampshire was marked by popular mistrust of political authority. The interim constitution of January 5, 1776, which established a two-house legislature (without an executive) for the duration of the conflict with Great Britain, was vigorously opposed within the colony. Initially condemned by some in Portsmouth as an unnecessary and impertinent statement of independence, the 1776 constitution was also rejected by the western inhabitants of the New Hampshire Grants, who objected to its eastern-centric apportionment of representation.

In 1778, 1781, and 1782, the New Hampshire Assembly presented drafts of permanent constitutions to the state’s town meetings, each time falling short of popular expectations. It was not until October 31, 1783 that the assembly proposed a plan for government that received the majority assent needed for ratification. Formally accepted in June, the New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 opened with a ‘‘bill of rights.’’

John Locke, whose philosophy deeply informed early American understandings of government and liberty, had argued people had originally existed in a state of nature and were endowed by Providence with certain natural rights. When, in order to serve the common good and secure their liberties, individuals formed and consented to governments, they necessarily agreed to surrender a portion of their autonomy. Nonetheless, their most basic rights remained inalienable according to Locke. Like many in revolutionary America, New Hampshire freeholders were not satisfied by constitutional recognitions of the people’s sovereignty, which only implicitly assured the protection of personal liberty.

In accordance with the Whig conception of power as ever encroaching upon liberty, it was imperative to the New Hampshire town meetings that their constitution contained an explicit enumeration of ‘‘first principles,’’ provisions that would secure the natural rights of its consenting citizens. Perhaps chief among these were the security of private property and freedom of religion. The prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures and the firewall against an established church that the 1784 New Hampshire bill of rights set up suggest the primacy of these principles. Nonetheless, trial by jury, freedom of the press, freedom of speech (in the legislature), and the right of citizens to assemble and petition their representatives were also expressly safeguarded in the document.

Due to the dissent of its fastidious propertyholding populace, New Hampshire did not form a permanent constitution until after the Revolutionary War had been won. The Constitutional Convention would not meet in Philadelphia until 1787, however, and the centrality of the federal Bill of Rights to the ratification of the Constitution of the United States was presaged in the history of constitution making in New Hampshire.

JAMES CORBETT DAVID

References and Further Reading

  • Vexler, Robert I., ed. Chronology and Documentary Handbook of the State of New Hampshire. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1978.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998 [1968].

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