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Extremely Rare 1777 New York State Constitution - the first edition in any form - and the Establishment of Provisional Government
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After independence was declared, each state had to create a new government to replace their colonial charters. New York’s Constitutional Convention, originally convened as the Fourth New York Provincial Congress, assembled at White Plains on Sunday evening, July 10, 1776. Fleeing northward as the British Army forced George Washington’s Continental Army out of New York City, it deliberated at several locations. John Jay, Robert R. Livingston, and Gouverneur Morris drafted the new Constitution, which, with only one dissenting vote, was enacted at Kingston on April 20, 1777.

A second pamphlet printed the Ordinance passed when the Convention convened again on May 8, 1777, in Kingston, to establish a temporary government. The Convention appointed fifteen men as a Council of Safety, “invested with all the powers necessary for the safety and preservation of the State, until a meeting of the Legislature.

[NEW YORK STATE CONSTITUTION]. Pamphlet. [Fishkill, NY: Samuel Loudon, 1777]. Signed in print by President pro tempore Leonard Gansevoort. [3]-33 pp., 5⅝ x 8⅝ in. 23755.01
With: Pamphlet. An Ordinance of the Convention of the State of New-York, For organizing and establishing the [Gover]nment, Agreed to by the Said Conven[tio]n. [Fishkill, NY: Samuel Loudon, 1777]. Signed in print by Convention President Abraham Ten Broeck. 12 pp. 5½ x 8⅜ in. 23755.02

Inventory #23755       Price: $5,500

Historical Background

The Constitution established a weak bicameral legislature and a strong executive branch led by a governor. It retained the Colonial Charter’s property qualifications (leaving the majority of adult males in the state disenfranchised) and the ability of the governor to prorogue (dismiss) the legislature. It also reprinted and affirmed the Declaration of Independence passed by the Second Continental Congress nine months earlier (with New York initially abstaining). One of the secretaries took the Constitution thirty miles south to Fishkill, where it was printed.

Due to the war, the Constitution could not be submitted to the electorate for ratification, and the entire state government could not be established under regular order. Thus, Congress passed an Ordinance for establishing the government. It appointed Robert R. Livingston as Chancellor, John Jay as Chief Justice, and others as judges, attorney general, sheriffs, and clerks. It also provided the required forms of oaths for the various officers, and instructed the sheriffs to prepare for and hold elections. It provided that any freeholders who had fled from the southern counties could vote for governor and lieutenant governor in any other county of the state, and appointed representatives and senators for those counties until elections could be held.

The 1777 Constitution was revised in 1801, with minor adjustments, and replaced by the New York Constitution of 1821.[1]

Excerpts from the 1777 Constitution:

WHEREAS the many tyrannical and oppressive usurpations of the King and Parliament… on the rights and liberties of the people of the American colonies, had reduced them to the necessity of introducing a government by Congresses and Committees, as temporary expedients, and to exist no longer than the grievances of the people should remain without redress.” (p3)

AND WHEREAS this Convention having taken this declaration [of Independence] into their most serious consideration, did on the ninth day of July last past, unanimously resolve, that the reasons assigned by the Continental Congress, for declaring the United Colonies, free and independent States, are cogent and conclusive: and that while we lament the cruel necessity which has rendered that measure unavoidable we approve the same, and will at the risqué of our lives and fortunes join the other Colonies in supporting it.” (p12-13)

By virtue of which several acts, declarations and proceedings… all power whatever therein hath reverted to the people thereof, and this Convention hath by their suffrages and free choice been appointed, and among other things authorized to institute and establish such a government, as they shall deem best calculated to secure the rights and liberties of the good people of this State, most conducive to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and of America in general.” (p13)

I. This Convention therefore, in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State, doth ORDAIN, DETERMINE and DECLARE, that no authority shall on any pretence whatever be exercised over the people or members of this State, but such as shall be derived from and granted by them,” (p13)

III. AND WHEREAS, Laws inconsistent with the spirit of this constitution, or with the public good, may be hastily and unadvisedly passed: BE IT ORDAINED, that the Governor for the time being, the Chancellor and the Judges of the Supreme Court, or any two of them, together with the Governor, shall be, and hereby are, constituted a Council to revise all bills about to be passed into laws by the legislature....” (p14)

VI. AND WHEREAS, an opinion hath long prevailed among divers of the good people of this State, that voting at elections by Ballot, would tend more to preserve the liberty and equal freedom of the people, than voting viva voce. To the end therefore that a fair experiment be made, which of those two methods of voting is to be preferred:” (p16)

Condition

Defective examples, but of great import and rarity. Both need conservation.

Constitution: Stitched; lacking title page and final blank, final leaf detached but present, minor dampstaining, moderate vermin damage touching a couple of page numbers; uncut.

Evans 15472 (also lists a 34-page printing, with priority undetermined); Sabin 53626.

Rare: the Ransom copy at Swann, October 2, 2012, is the only other known to have sold at auction since 1944. Loudon printed 2,090 copies for distribution to the public. Very few survive.

Ordinance: Stitched; heavy vermin damage affecting all pages, with loss of most of the title page. Evans 15477.


[1] The 1821 Constitution abolished the Council of Appointment; the vast majority of formerly appointed offices were made elective by joint ballot of the Assembly and State Senate or by local popular or legislative elections. The Council of Revision was abolished, as was the Governor’s right to prorogue the legislature at will. Property qualifications for white men to vote were removed, and black men were theoretically granted the vote, but with property qualifications which effectively disfranchised nearly all of them.


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