Honor New Yorkers who fought to govern themselves

The original New York constitution is in the State Archives. The 240-year-old document has scratch-outs and writing in the margin.

“There was no time to make a clean copy,” historian Bruce Dearstyne, who worked as program director at the State Archives, told us.

Why the haste? The constitution was written on the run, in the midst of the Revolutionary War.

New Yorkers were dying — literally dying — for independence, and that first constitution includes its own version of the Declaration of Independence.

Members of the Provincial Congress kept working on the state’s constitution even as British royal forces advanced. New York City was occupied by the British and there were invasions from the north and west.

“As the year goes by, the Provincial Congress is running to White Plains, then north to Kingston, writing a constitution as they went...They were in such a rush, there was no public ratification, they just proclaimed it,” said Dearstyne.

George Clinton, the first governor, was sworn into office during a lull in battle and went right back to fighting afterward.

What those early New Yorkers fought for well over two centuries ago is valuable — our state constitution sets out our basic rights as citizens and defines the structure that governs us.

In 2017, New Yorkers will decide by ballot whether to have a constitutional convention to review the state’s governing documents.

We support a constitutional convention and commend the State Bar Association for creating a committee to examine the constitution and foster public understanding of the process. David Miranda told us in June, when he was elected president of the bar association, that he would oversee such a committee.

“I want the bar association to be a productive part of the dialogue,” he said, noting that the state constitution describes “things that affect everyday life, like the court system, ways of financing government, and keeping the Adirondacks live.”

Miranda has appointed Henry M. Greenberg to chair the committee on the New York State constitution, citing his “vast government and public law experience.” He sees the role of the bar association as increasing public understanding about how the state constitution affects the lives of 19 million New Yorkers.

“I’m not looking at this with a preconceived agenda,” Miranda told us, stating association members from both sides of the aisle — prosecutors and defenders, and those in both corporate and public practice — will be asked to contribute. The list of committee members, released on July 24, bears out that balance.

New York has held nine constitutional conventions, starting with the framing of the constitution in 1776 and 1777. The conventions were held at intervals of 20 to 31 years until 1967. That convention was the first in which candidates for membership ran in partisan elections — Democrats won a majority. The proposed changes were soundly defeated — not a single county voted in favor of the proposed new constitution.

It will have been half a century by the time the next convention — if voters approve it — is convened. That is decades longer than the earlier intervals between conventions and we believe it is high time in this rapidly evolving society for a fresh look at our governing document.

Over the centuries, the constitutional conventions have recommended, and the public has ratified, important changes. The 1821 convention, for example, led to changes so that the governor no longer had the right to dismiss the legislature at his will. It also increased the franchise for white male voters, removing property qualifications, and gave black men limited suffrage — although, since blacks were still required to own property, most were disenfranchised.

The New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, was established after the 1846 convention. Changes after the 1894 convention allowed voting machines and abolished convict labor in prisons. After the 1915 convention, cities got home rule and a conservation commission was set up to oversee natural resources; workers’ rights were expanded, too.

Although the 1938 convention did not adopt a new constitution, it added 57 amendments authorizing, among other things, a Social Security program, and setting out the rights of public works project workers.

Certainly, the constitution can be amended — after two successive legislatures approve an amendment and then the public does, too. But this is a piecemeal approach. A constitutional convention allows for an overarching look at needed changes and provides a forum for a vigorous exchange of ideas.

We commend the bar association for getting an early start with a balanced approach. We hope the convention itself comes to be — approved by the voters — and that, in this era of bitter and unproductive partisan politics, that the convention does not follow the unsuccessful party-elected model of the 1967 debacle.

What we need is a body that can work productively by reaching consensus on the important issues that affect our everyday lives. Let’s remember that New Yorkers died for a chance to govern themselves, and honor their sacrifices accordingly.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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