New York Constitution

The Constitution of the State of New York establishes the structure of the government of the State of New York, and enumerates the basic rights of the citizens of New York. Like most state constitutions in the United States, New York's constitution's provisions tend to be more detailed, and amended more often than its federal counterpart. Because the history of the state constitution differs from the federal constitution, the New York Court of Appeals has seen fit to interpret analogous provisions differently from United States Supreme Court's interpretation of federal provisions.

New York State has had five constitutions, adopted in 1777, 1821, 1846, 1894, and 1938. In the 20th century alone it held three constitutional conventions, the efforts of two of which (1915 and 1967) were rejected by the electorate. The constitution produced by the 1938 convention (itself substantially a modification of the 1894 constitution), as modified by subsequent amendments, the latest of 2002, now forms the fundamental law of the State.[1]

Currently, the New York State Constitution has 56,326 words, including the title.


Constitution of New York, 1777

The Province of New York was established by its colonial charter. The constitution of 1777, which replaced the charter, was framed by a convention which assembled at White Plains, New York on July 10, 1776, and after repeated adjournments and changes of location, terminated its labors at Kingston, New York on Sunday evening, April 20, 1777, when the constitution was adopted with but one dissenting vote. It was not submitted to the people for ratification. It was drafted by John Jay. [2]

This constitution was a combination document, containing its Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, and its Constitutional Law. It called for a weak bicameral legislature and a strong executive branch. It retained provisions from the colonial charter such as the substantial property qualification for voting and the ability of the governor to prorogue the legislature. This imbalance of power between the branches of state government kept the elite firmly in control, and disenfranchised the majority of the male New York population. Slavery was legal in New York until 1827.

Under this constitution, the Assembly had a provision for a maximum of 70 Members, with the following apportionment:

  1. For the city and county of New York (at that time comprising only what is today Manhattan), nine.
  2. The city and county of Albany, ten
  3. Dutchess County, seven.
  4. Westchester County, six.
  5. Ulster County, six.
  6. Suffolk County (eastern Long Island), five.
  7. Queens County (now Queens and Nassau Counties), four.
  8. Orange County (now Orange and Rockland Counties), four.
  9. Kings County (Brooklyn), two.
  10. Richmond County (Staten Island), two.
  11. Tryon County (now Montgomery County), six.
  12. Charlotte County (now Washington County), four.
  13. Cumberland County (partitioned January 15, 1777 for the creation of the State of Vermont), three.
  14. Gloucester County (partitioned January 15, 1777 for the creation of the State of Vermont), two.

This apportionment stood unchanged until seven years after the end of the Revolution, when a census was held to correct the apportionment.

On the subject of enfranchisement, Article VII of the new constitution had the following to say:

VII. That every male inhabitant of full age, who shall have personally resided within one of the counties of this State for six months immediately preceding the day of election, shall, at such election, be entitled to vote for representatives of the said county in assembly; if, during the time aforesaid, he shall have been a freeholder, possessing a freehold of the value of twenty pounds, within the said county, or have rented a tenement therein of the yearly value of forty shillings, and been rated and actually paid taxes to this State: Provided always, That every person who now is a freeman of the city of Albany, or who was made a freeman of the city of New York on or before the fourteenth day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five, and shall be actually and usually resident in the said cities, respectively, shall be entitled to vote for representatives in assembly within his said place of residence.


Constitutional Convention 1801

The Constitutional Convention of 1801 was not convened to propose a new constitution. Instead, it formed purely to resolve differences of interpretation of §23 of the 1777 Constitution, which provided for a Council of Appointment. Governor Jay sent a special message to the New York State Assembly on February 26, 1801, and the same message to the New York State Senate on the following day, in relation to the Council of Appointment, reciting the differences which had existed between council and governor, not only during his own term, but during the term of his predecessor, Governor Clinton. Governor Jay claimed that under the Constitution the governor had the exclusive right of nomination. Some members of the Council of Appointment claimed a concurrent right of nomination. This the Governor denied, and in this message he recommends that it be settled in some way.

Since the original Constitution had no provisions as to how to amend it, on April 6, the legislature passed a law with the title An Act Recommending a Convention for the purpose of considering the question of the interpretation of §23 of the Constitution, and also that part of the Constitution relating to the number of members of both Senate and Assembly. The Senate was originally composed of twenty-four members, and the Assembly of seventy members, and provision was made for an increase in each branch at stated periods, until the maximum should be reached, which was fixed at one hundred senators and three hundred members of assembly. The increase in membership had apparently been more rapid than was at first anticipated. At that time the Senate had increased to forty-three members, and the Assembly to one hundred and twenty-six members.

The election of the delegates took place in August, and the Convention met on the second Tuesday in October at Albany. It ended on October 27, 1801.

Among the delegates were DeWitt Clinton, James Clinton, William Floyd, Ezra L'Hommedieu, Smith Thompson, Daniel D. Tompkins, John Vernon Henry, William P. Van Ness, and U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr who presided. Tompkins was one of the 14 who voted against the right of nomination being given to the members of the Council of Appointments and the Governor concurrently, a minority which was defeated by 86 votes for this compromise. Previously, both motions, to vest the right of nomination either exclusively in the gorvernor or exclusively in the council members, were defeated.

The changes in this version of the constitution were:

  • The number of senators was permanently fixed at thirty-two.
  • The assembly was given one hundred members, and provision was made for a possible increase to one hundred and fifty, by additions to be made after each census.
  • The right of nomination, formerly vested in the governor only (as John Jay, the author of the Constitution, meant it), was given now to each member of the Council of Appointment and the Governor concurrently.

[4], [5]

Constitutional Convention 1821

In 1821, the power struggle between Governor DeWitt Clinton and the Bucktails faction of the Democratic-Republican Party led to the call for a constitutional convention by the Bucktail members of the legislature, against Clinton's fierce opposition, with the intention to transfer powers from the executive to the legislative branch of the government. In November 1820, the legislature passed a bill which authorized the holding of a convention with unlimited powers. Governor Clinton cast the deciding vote in the Council of Revision to veto the bill. The Bucktails had not a majority of two thirds in the legislature to override the veto. During the regular session of the legislature which began in January 1821, a new bill was passed that put the question to the people. At the state election in April the people voted in favor of the convention, which convened between August and November at Albany. U.S. Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins presided. Between January 15 and 17, 1822, the new Constitution, as amended by the Convention, was put before the voters for ratification as a whole, and was accepted: for 74,732; against 41,402. [5]

Chancellor James Kent, Chief Justice Ambrose Spencer, U.S. Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins, Justice William W. Van Ness, Jacob R. Van Rensselaer, Stephen Van Rensselaer, James Tallmadge, Jr., Jonas Platt, and Peter A. Jay disapproved of the amendments, and did not sign the new Constitution.

Martin Van Buren, Erastus Root, Samuel Nelson, Nathan Sanford, Samuel Young and Ogden Edwards approved and signed.

Peter R. Livingston, Alexander Sheldon, Jacob Radcliff, Peter Sharpe, Rufus King, and Nathaniel Pitcher were also among the delegates.

The changes in this version of the constitution were:

  • State elections were moved from the last week in April to the first week in November. Beginning in 1823, the terms of the governor (two-year term), lieutenant governor (two-year term), State senators (four-year term) and assemblymen (one-year term) coincided with the calendar year.
  • The lieutenant governor was given the right to succeed to the governor's office "for the residue of the term" whenever a vacancy occurred, unlike John Tayler in 1817 who became Acting Governor until the election of a successor.
  • The Council of Appointment was abolished and the vast majority of the formerly appointive offices became elective, the state offices by joint ballot of assembly and senate, the others by local popular or legislative elections.
  • The Council of Revision was abolished. Its power of veto to new legislation was transferred to the governor, whose veto could be overcome by a two-thirds vote of the legislature.
  • The governor's right to prorogue the legislature at his will was abolished.
  • White voters were given an extended franchise, as property qualifications were removed.
  • Negroes were given limited suffrage - while property qualifications for whites were removed, property qualification ONLY for blacks were passed. This effectively disenfranchised black voters, who for the most part did not own sufficient property in order to vote.
  • A Canal Board was to be formed by the Commissioners of the Canal Fund (the sate cabinet officers) and the Canal Commissioners
  • Eight Circuit Courts were created, one in each senatorial district. Until then the justices of the New York State Supreme Court had held traveling circuit court.


Constitutional Convention 1846

The delegates convened at Albany on June 1, 1846, and adjourned on October 9. The new Constitution was put before the voters at the next state election in November and was adopted. Yes: 221,528 votes, No: 92,436 votes.

John Tracy presided. George W. Patterson, Ambrose L. Jordan, Charles H. Ruggles, David R. Floyd-Jones, Charles O'Conor, Samuel J. Tilden, Levi S. Chatfield, William B. Wright, Michael Hoffman and William C. Bouck were among the delegates. [7]

The changes in this version of the constitution were:

Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868

According to the Constitution of 1846, twenty years after its elaboration the electorate was asked if they wanted a constitutional convention to be held, which was answered in the affirmative at the New York state election, 1866 with 352,854 votes for, and 256,364 against the convention. On April 23, 1867, the delegates were elected, and the convention had a small Republican majority.[8] The convention met in June at Albany, New York, adjourned on September 23, met again on November 12,[9] and adjourned again in February 1868. Afterwards the draft was discussed in the New York State Legislature for another year and a half, the questions being if to vote for the whole Constitution or separately for some or all articles. In the end, the new Constitution was rejected by the voters at the New York state election, 1869 with 223,935 votes for and 290,456 against it. The Republicans advocated the adoption, the Democrats the rejection of the new Constitution, and by 1869 the Democrats had a majority in the state. Only the "Judicial Article" which re-organized the New York Court of Appeals was adopted by a small majority, with 247,240 for and 240,442 against it.

William A. Wheeler presided. Waldo Hutchins, George Opdyke, George William Curtis, Horace Greeley, Ira Harris, Martin I. Townsend, Charles Andrews, Charles J. Folger, Augustus Frank, Augustus Schell, Henry C. Murphy, Homer A. Nelson, George F. Comstock, Sanford E. Church, Marshall B. Champlain, Elbridge T. Gerry, Gideon J. Tucker, Samuel J. Tilden, James Brooks, William Hitchman, Abraham B. Tappen, Erastus Corning, Amasa J. Parker, Edwin A. Merritt, Leslie W. Russell, Thomas G. Alvord, Horatio Ballard, Elbridge G. Lapham, Frank Hiscock,[10] and Israel T. Hatch were among the delegates.[11]

The changes in this version of the constitution were:

  • The New York Court of Appeals was totally re-organized. Instead of eight judges, four elected statewide and four selected from the New York Supreme Court, it had now one Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals and six associate judges, all elected statewide.
  • The Clerk of the New York Court of Appeals was not elected statewide anymore.
  • The term of office of the judges of the Court of Appeals and the justices of the New York Supreme Court was extended from 8 to 14 years, and the rotative renewal (every two years one judge or justice had been elected to an 8-year term; in case of a vacancy, a special election was held to fill the remainder of the term only) was abolished. Instead, vacancies were filled as they occurred (by death, resignation, or term expiration), always to a full 14-year term.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention Committee of Safety and Council of Safety of the State of New York, 1775, 1776 1777 (Printed by Thurlow Weed, printer to the State) Vol. I. Albany: 892–898. 1842. 
  3. ^ Thorpe, Francis Newton (1909). The Federal and State Constitutions Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America, Compiled and Edited Under the Act of Congress of June 30, 1906. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. ISBN.  [USMARC Cataloging Record]
  4. ^ [1] New York court history
  5. ^ a b John Stilwell Jenkins: History of Political Parties in the State of New-York (Alden & Markham, Auburn NY, 1846)
  6. ^ [2] New York History
  7. ^ Google Book The New York Civil List compiled by Franklin Benjamin Hough (Weed, Parsons and Co., 1858)
  8. ^ Result in The Tribune Almanac for 1868 compiled by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune
  9. ^ The Constitutional Convention in NYT on November 19, 1867
  10. ^ Frank Hiscock took the seat to which had been elected his brother L. Harris Hiscock who was murdered on June 4, 1867.
  11. ^ Complete list of delegates in New York Convention Manual issued by the Secretary of State's office, New York, 1867

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