The New Jersey Constitution of 1776

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Throughout its history as a state, New Jersey has had three different constitutions. These documents reflect the social and governmental conditions of the state at the time they were written. Of the three constitutions the first, the Constitution of 1776, is most directly a product of the time in which it was written. This document, for better or worse, has had a profound effect on the development of democratic government in the Garden State. The two governing documents that followed this original constitution took their form largely as a response to governmental problems created by the deficiencies of the Constitution of 1776.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this first constitution is that it remained the state's foundation of government for over 65 years. Despite its limitations, this document is at least partially responsible for the creation of many institutions of government that contemporary New Jerseyans consider indispensable.

In order to understand New Jersey's first document of government, one must appreciate the circumstances under which it was drafted. In 1776 the recently declared independent colonies were faring poorly in their war with Great Britain. General Washington and his army had undergone a number of military defeats in New York. With New Jersey seemingly the next target of British forces, the new state's citizenry was divided: many of its leaders had fled to New York to throw their support to the British there, and patriot and Tory factions within the state itself constantly plotted and battled against each other. New Jersey was a state at war and quite nearly a state at civil war; the Constitution of 1776 reflects the turbulence and uncertainty of the period. It was a document composed during a state of emergency in order to provide a basic framework of government without which New Jersey would collapse into anarchy.

The document was composed in the span of five days and ratified within 48 hours as a temporary charter of government. What the designers of the document did not foresee was that it would be the founding component of New Jersey government for the next 68 years. Since the Constitution of 1776 was composed as a stopgap measure, it did not usher in any real innovations in democratic government. In one sense the document is very pragmatic; it does not so much appeal to eternal and self-evident principles as do the Declaration of Independence and the constitutions of some of the other states.

Rather, the Constitution of 1776 reflects the two supreme considerations on the minds of New Jerseyans at the time: first, that they no longer had any connection with Great Britain, the King and the King's royally-appointed governor and officials, and the civil order, however insufferable, the provided; second, invasion seemed imminent and the struggle to maintain independence was already upon the colonies -- thus, some sort of government had to be established in order to muster and procure the forces, supplies and cooperation of the citizenry to meet the defense of New Jersey's and the other colonies' recently declared liberty.

Text of the Constitution of 1776
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