Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series

pa-consEarlier this week C-SPAN was at Messiah College to film a lecture in my “Pennsylvania History” course for its “Lectures in History Program.”  I was scheduled to teach the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 on Monday. I probably could have picked another, perhaps more exciting, topic for C-SPAN, but I have been spending time thinking about this state constitution lately and thought I could use it to make some larger points about Carl Becker’s famous statement about the Revolution as a debate over “home rule” and “who would rule at home.”

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was the most democratic state constitution in the newly established United States.  It had a unicameral legislature and a plural executive.  Power rested in the legislature. While there were other states (Vermont and Georgia) that had unicameral legislatures, the Pennsylvania government was unique because it gave the right to vote and the right to hold office to all males, regardless of wealth or land ownership.  This meant that the one-house legislature was virtually unchecked by a governor or an upper-house.  Members of the legislature had to swear an oath of loyalty to this new government.  Proceedings were open to the public and published in newspapers in both English and German.  This was democracy at work.  Several historians and political scientists have pointed to the influence of Thomas Paine on its framers.

My intention in this post and others that follow is not to provide a full history of the Pennsylvania Constitution. (Paul Selsam’s 1935 The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 is still the best book on the subject).  Rather, I am particularly interested in some of the religious dimensions of the constitution and the religious context that may or may not have shaped some of it. Stay tuned for more posts over the next several days.

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