1.1.1 New England (1620-1787): Revolutionary Constitutions

  • During the American Revolution (1776-1783), all the New England colonies except Rhode Island enacted constitutions in order to provide a basic governmental framework for their new status as independent states.  The constitutions were not entirely novel:  many of them borrowed heavily from colonial charters.  But the constitutions represented an important leap forward: they rejected the English tradition of an unwritten constitution shaped by custom and judge-made laws. Constitutions would now be changeable only by formal action of the whole people through their legislatures or through constitutional conventions.
  • Other states accepted Thomas Jefferson’s view that there should be no state involvement with religion, a view embodied in Virginia’s 1779 Statute of Religious Freedom (see § __).  But New England was not ready to abandon its belief in the state’s obligation to promote morality and order through religion.  Most New England constitutions stated that worship was a civic duty, although citizens did not have to support any particular denomination and could worship according to “the dictates of [their]own conscience.” Massachusetts and Connecticut required citizens to pay for the support of local churches and ministers.  New Hampshire did the same, but exempted dissenters from paying taxes to support the local majority church.  Only Rhode Island and Vermont rejected the idea of tax-supported churches, and even they suggested that freedom of worship was limited to choice of denomination and did not include the freedom to refrain from worship.
  • New England states also used their constitutions to expand the right to vote.  In 1777, Vermont became the first state to eliminate all property qualifications for voting.  Other New England states preserved modest property requirements but some also extended suffrage to persons who served in the militia or paid taxes.    


Constitution adopted

Relation between church and state

Key features of bill of rights

Extent of suffrage


Maine (part of Mass. at this time)


Citizens have duty to worship but may do so “in the manner most agreeable to the dictates of [their] own conscience”

Municipalities must establish churches and support Protestant ministers

Freedom of the press

Adult males meeting minimum property and income requirements (£3 of income, £60 of property)



Freedom of religion; no preference to be given to “any Christian sect or mode of worship”

Freedom of speech

Not addressed

(1818 constitution limited suffrage to adult males who had property worth $7, had paid tax or had served in militia and who had “good moral character”)

Rhode Island

1663 (colonial charter continued in effect)

“[N]oe person … shall be in any wise molested … or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion”; no provision for tax-supported churches and ministers


No explicit bill of rights

Not addressed

New Hampshire

1776, 1784,


Similar to Massachusetts, except that dissenters are not obligated to pay taxes for municipal churches and ministers

Freedom of the press, freedom of assembly

Adult males paying poll tax


1777, 1793

Citizens free to worship according to dictates of own conscience; no provision for government support of churches and ministers

Freedom of speech

Slavery prohibited (gradual emancipation)

All adult males

Massachusetts Constitution (1780) - courtesy New York Public Library

“It [is] the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver fo the Universe.  And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained … for worshipping god in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience.” -  Massachusetts Constitution (1780)

“As morality and piety, rightly grounded on evangelical principles, will give the best and greatest security to government … the people of this state ... do hereby fully impower the legislature to ... make adequate provision at their own expence, for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” – New Hampshire Constitution (1784)

New Hampshire State House - courtesy Wikimedia Commons