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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government

NYS ConCon 2017



Peter J. Galie and Christopher Bopst

December 2015

The U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787; New York State’s first Constitution was adopted ten years earlier, in 1777. The first constitutions of twelve of the first thirteen states (all but Rhode Island) preceded the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed the national Constitution built on these constitutions both by way of imitation and avoidance of what seemed to be missteps. The separate, but parallel, development of state and national constitutions is known as dual constitutionalism.

State constitutions, like the U.S. Constitution, provide the framework for governance, distribute and limit power, and protect liberties. In addition, they complete the national document. States are referred to fifty times in forty-two sections of the national Constitution. The national Constitution does not even contain a definition of citizenship, and says very little about voting.

Other dimensions of American life, such as public business and policymaking, are left untouched by the national Constitution. No national constitutional provision dictates that New York must keep the Adirondacks and Catskills “forever wild”; the state Constitution does (N.Y. Const., art. XIV, sec. 1). The U.S. Constitution does not mandate the state to care for the needy; the state Constitution does (N.Y. Const., art. XVII, sec. 1). The U.S. Constitution says nothing about education; the state Constitution has an article devoted to it (N.Y. Const., art. XI). In spite of an ever-expanding national government, state constitutions and the policies made pursuant to them are most likely to affect the daily lives of citizens. Finally the state Constitution protects rights. In many areas the New York Constitution provides greater protection for individual rights than the national Constitution.

Throughout its history, New York has adopted four Constitutions (1777, 1821, 1846, and 1894), and has convened nine constitutional conventions (1777, 1801, 1821, 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, 1938, and 1967). The Constitution of 1894, as amended (including substantial revisions by the 1938 convention) is the document currently in force. Over 225 amendments have been added to the constitution since 1895, resulting in a document of over 50,000 words distributed among twenty articles as follows:

Unlike the national amending process, the state process is majoritarian and participatory. There are two methods for altering the New York State Constitution: legislatively initiated amendments and constitutional conventions. Amendments require: 1) first passage by a majority of the elected members of each house of the legislature; 2) second passage by a majority of the elected members of each house of the legislature following the next general election of Assembly members; and 3) approval by a majority of voters voting on the amendment in a general election. Constitutional conventions, which have the authority to submit proposals directly to the voters without the consent of the legislature, can be convened in one of two ways, both of which require the approval of the voters. The legislature can place a convention question on the ballot at any time. In addition, Article XIX requires that in 1957, and every twenty years thereafter, the question of whether to hold a convention to revise and amend the constitution shall be submitted to the voters. The last four convention votes were 1957 (mandatory), 1965 (legislative proposal), 1977 (mandatory), and 1997 (mandatory). Of these, only the 1965 convention question was approved by voters.

From Colony to Constitutional Republic: The Constitution of 1777

New York’s Only Limited Constitutional Convention: 1801

Participation and Property: The Constitutional Convention of 1821

The Constitution of 1846: Canals, Commerce, and the Common Man

The First Rejection: The Constitutional Convention of 1867-68

The Constitution of 1894: Confronting a “New” New York

The Second Rejection: The Constitutional Convention of 1915

Constitutional Reform and the Depression: The Convention of 1938

A Modern Constitution? The Constitutional Convention of 1967

More detail on the history and current Constitution can be found in Peter Galie, Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), and Peter Galie and Christopher Bopst, The New York Constitution, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially “Part One: The History of the New York Constitution.”