by Jim Vetter, Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center

The Original Constitution

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The past two years have seen an increased discussion on liberty, the role of the Federal government, and the US Constitution.  Much focus has been on the US Constitution due to Washington’s egregious overreach in 2009 & 2010, and adding the last straw to the camel’s back with National Health Care.   It is refreshing to see more Americans regularly reading the US Constitution and other writings by the founders to understand original intent and get us back on track.

What is a Constitution?

As part of our reading, how many have asked what a constitution actually is and also what it is not?  The word constitution is sometimes thrown around loosely and often implied to mean different things to different people.

A constitution is defined as a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed.  Our US Constitution is simply the framework for operation of the Federal government.  It establishes the Federal Government as an agent to act on behalf of the sovereign states in certain limited areas.  The powers granted are specifically the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.  Most of the document discusses how the different branches of the Federal government work- judical, executive and legislative.

More than the Federal Constitution

Just as we don’t look to Washington alone, so to should we not look solely to the US Constitution.  It is not the all defining, all governing document.  It only discusses how the Federal government is meant to operate.  As our 9th and 10th amendments make clear, there is a whole other universe of governance and rights:

  • 9th amendment- the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
  • 10th amendment- the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

As James Madison said,

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.  Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”  So why do we focus so much on the US Constitution when so much lies elsewhere?

The Bill of Rights and Beyond

The US Constitution is not the only place to fully understand the rights and liberties of the States and individuals.  Although our US Constitution includes a Bill of Rights, the Bill of Rights was primarily an explicit check on the Federal government by anti-federalists.  Their concern was that the language in the US Constitution could be misconstrued to provide the Federal Government with too much power at expense of the States and the People.  At the time, the Constitutional convention was meant to amend the Articles of Confederation and not create an entirely new Constitution.  Anti-Federalists saw the creation of an altogether new Constitution as going too far, especially with regard to the initial language before the Bill of Rights was added.  Author Albert Nock contends in his book “Our Enemy, the State” that the Convention was effectively a coup d’etat.  At a minimum, time has proven the anti-federalists correct.

Dusting off The Declaration and our State Constitutions

So how frequently do we look to sources outside the US Constitution to understand our liberties and retained powers?  Not as often as we should!  The basis for our liberties are best articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and in individual State Constitutions.

I keep a large copy of the Declaration of Independence framed in my den.  It is the ultimate controlling document that describes the aspirations and intent of the Founders.  As Jefferson penned,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  —  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,  —  That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

This is what we are about as Americans, and why generations of legal immigrants have sought citizenship and our shores.  It captures our spirit and essence.   The US Constitution is just the cold architecture of federal governance to partially meet these ends on our behalf.

Most of the architecture of governance resides amongst the Constitutions of the individual, sovereign States.  Few people have taken the time to read the Constitution that is most important in their lives-  that of their home state.  Part of it is due the deviation we have taken as a country where we have treated the States as administrative entities of a “national” government.  We have neither a national government nor administrative entities.  The States are powerful sovereigns, and the Federal government is just a limited agent.

So what’s in a State Constitution?

Take the time to read your State Constitution and discover what it contains.  Unlike the US Constitution, nearly all State Constitutions start with a Declaration of Rights or Bill of Rights.  These important sections reinforce the liberties and rights of its citizens and many describe the nature of the relationship of the State to the Federal Government.

As shown in Table 1 at the end of this article, many State Constitutions established prior to the War Between the States mirrored the Declaration’s intent that the people have the unalienable right to alter or abolish government to meet our ends.  These State constitutions truly captured the spirit and intent of the Revolution and the founding unlike the US Constitution.  However after the Northern use of force beginning in 1861, the language in subsequent State Constitutions was often weakened or conditioned upon certain limitations and prohibitions related to perpetuity of the Union or recognition of supremacy over State Constitutions.  This pattern is very apparent with those Constitutions established between 1863 and 1912.  The presence of these limitations in early-admitted states such as North Carolina and Mississippi represent Reconstruction related changes.  It should be noted that the such negative prohibition ceased with Arizona and were gone by the time Hawaii and Alaska became part of the United States reflecting the diminishing fervor of Reconstruction related thinking.

Detailed aspects of our State Constitutions are certainly worthy of exploration and should be subject to further discussion and perhaps future articles.


As citizens, the US Constitution deserves our recognition and attention to understand how our Federal government works and is limited.  However, if you believe in the original intent of the Founders and are a true “tenther”, take more the time to read the Declaration of Independence and the especially the State Constitutions.  As the Founders told us, these are most important sources.  Share what you uncover with neighbors, friends, the grassroots and your State officials so that we can correctly regain the true nature of our governance and liberty.

Table 1
and Prohibitions

to Change, Alter and









1787 Delaware
1787 New
1787 Pennsylvania X
1788 Connecticut X
1788 Georgia
1788 Maryland X X X
1788 Massachusetts X X
1788 New
1788 New York
1788 South Carolina X
1788 Virginia X
1789 North Carolina X
1790 Rhode Island X
1791 Vermont X
1792 Kentucky X
1796 Tennessee X
1803 Ohio X
1812 Louisiana X
1816 Indiana
1817 Mississippi X X
1818 Illinois
1819 Alabama X
1820 Maine X
1821 Missouri X
1836 Arkansas X
1837 Michigan
1845 Florida
1845 Texas X X
1846 Iowa X
1848 Wisconsin
1850 California
1858 Minnesota X
1859 Oregon X
1861 Kansas
1863 West Virginia X
1864 Nevada X X
1867 Nebraska
1876 Colorado X
1889 Montana X X
1889 North Dakota X X X
1889 South Dakota X X X
1889 Washington X
1890 Idaho X X
1890 Wyoming X X X
1896 Utah X X X
1907 Oklahoma X X X
1912 New Mexico X X X
1912 Arizona
1959 Alaska
1959 Hawaii

-Jim Vetter [send him email] is the Outreach Director for the Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center.