Less than a week after the Declaration of Independence, and after a century of British rule, New Yorkers comprising the Fourth Provincial Congress met to establish a government and write a constitution. Its principal authors were John Jay (1745-1829), Robert Livingston (1746-1813), and Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816). Their combined age was under 90 — younger than some people who today ski or play tennis. On April 20, 1777 the delegates approved New York’s first Constitution.
The document, containing less than 7,000 words, provides for a senate, assembly, and governor. It continued the existing courts, including the State’s Supreme Court. Above that court, however, they created the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors — akin to the English House of Lords — as the final judicial authority, consisting of three State Supreme Court justices, Senate members, the Chancellor, and the Lieutenant Governor. When that court became the New York Court of Appeals under the constitution of 1846, the State Supreme Court was continued…thus the odd nomenclature by which the Supreme Court of New York is not the State’s highest court.
Allocating powers between the executive and the legislature was a primary concern, considering that an executive has to get the job done, while remembering that their most recent executive was George III. They ultimately gave the executive relatively strong powers — as contrasted for example with Pennsylvania where the executive was all but stripped of power — but well enough in check to satisfy their sense of balance.
According to Professor John Kaminski, one of the country’s leading authorities on constitutional development, the New York 1777 constitution served in that way as a model for the federal constitution a decade later, in that the division of power was as Goldilocks would have it: “just right.”
Article 32, 1777 New York State Constitution, Courtesy of New York State Library
And this convention doth further, in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State, ordain, determine, and declare, that a court shall be instituted for the trial of impeachments, and the correction of errors…to consist of the president of the senate, for the time being, and the senators, chancellor, and judges of the supreme court…
Senate House, Kingston, Ulster County, NY. Building where the First New York State Constitution was signed. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS NY,56-KING,7–1W
On August 27, 1776 American forces were defeated in the Battle of Long Island, marking the start of a British advance that would push the New York State Convention drafting the State Constitution upstate to Kingston, where the document was signed on April 20, 1777. Battle of Long Island by Domenick D’Andrea, Courtesy The National Guard.