Constitutional conventions are a distinctly American political innovation, first appearing during the era of the Revolutionary War (1775-83). Georgia was among the first states to use a meeting of delegates to create a constitution. In October 1776, just three months after the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain, Georgia’s first constitutional convention met and produced the state’s inaugural constitution, known as the Constitution of 1777. Several other states also chose the convention method as a means of adopting new constitutions, while some used their provincial congresses to frame a founding document for a new state government.
At issue regarding these different methods was the legitimacy of the constitution-making process. Whig ideas about proper representation in government, effective checks on political power, and popular sovereignty informed American efforts to establish independent colonial governments during the Revolution. Because the colonists questioned the legitimacy of Parliament’s rule over America, the issue was vital to the creation of their own self-government. Constitutional conventions became one method of establishing fundamental law through participation by the voters. Slow to evolve in process and form, these conventions demonstrated the important distinction between regular legislation and constitutional change.
Georgia’s first convention called for a delegation of representatives from twelve parishes (the basis for the governmental units that became counties) as well as from the towns of Savannah and Sunbury. The delegates’ objective was to replace the Rules and Regulations of 1776, which had served merely as an expedient and temporary charter during heightened hostilities in April 1776. The convention met in Savannah on the first Tuesday in October and adopted Georgia’s first official constitution. As written constitutions were a novelty under British systems of government, the delegates had enough foresight to anticipate that amendments and revisions might be necessary. To this end the Constitution of 1777 provided that another convention could be called by the people for the purpose of altering the document only if petitions calling for such changes emanated from a majority of the state’s counties and were signed by a majority of voters within each county. Otherwise, the General Assembly would determine if a convention were necessary.
Thus Georgia established a state convention, which became a standard practice for constitution making in the United States into the twentieth century. By the end of the American Revolution, most of the existing states had utilized a constitutional convention of one form or another. By 1787 another role had developed for these gatherings—the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and its ten amendments. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution took place in state conventions as called for by the U.S. Congress, which was still under the authority of the Articles of Confederation. (The convention method has only been used once to ratify a federal amendment.)
During a special convention in Augusta, Georgia ratified the U.S. Constitution on January 2, 1788. In addition to resolving problems caused by the Articles of Confederation’s weak central government, Georgia lawmakers had a special interest in ratifying the new constitution. They hoped that a stronger central government would help the state in its negotiations with the Creek Indians, who still claimed large parts of the state as their own. That same year, Georgia began to seriously consider amending the state Constitution of 1777.
The democratic ideals fostered by the American Revolution promoted a widespread insistence for government accountability and greater political participation by the citizenry. Constitutional conventions became an important element of implementing these ideals. The state began to retool its constitutional process in the conventions of 1788 and 1789 to give it more popular legitimacy and to secure confidence in the process, particularly through reforms that encouraged greater participation by Georgia voters. On November 4, 1788, a constitutional convention met in Augusta to modify the Constitution of 1777. Using the recently ratified U.S. Constitution as a model, the convention discarded the old state charter and drew up an entirely new document. This initial action parallels the actions of the Philadelphia national convention in 1787. Both meetings disregarded instructions from the established legislatures and embarked on a rewriting of fundamental law. In doing so, both conventions deliberately exceeded their designated authority.
Once the new constitution was complete, the Georgia convention followed its own mandate of submitting its work to voters for ratification through a second convention, to which delegates were elected by the people in December 1788. This second convention convened in Augusta on January 4, 1789. It too exceeded its mandate from the Georgia General Assembly. Instead of merely rejecting or ratifying the new constitution, the delegates embarked upon a rigorous inspection of the document and then proceeded to revise it. Upon completion the legislature once again called for counties to elect delegates, this time to a third convention for the purpose of finally ratifying the proposed (and revised) constitution. On May 6, 1789, this third meeting in Augusta adopted the Georgia Constitution of 1789. That this document resulted from three separate conventions reflects both the ambiguities of the convention process in American history and the influence of certain revolutionary ideals on political practices in the early Republic.
The Constitution of 1789 called for the state to hold elections in 1794 for delegates to yet another constitutional convention. On the first Monday in May 1795, representatives met in Louisville to consider amendments to the state constitution. With only a few modifications, including changes to apportionment and procedural activities in the legislature, the convention adjourned after two weeks on May 16. It also designated Louisville as the permanent state capital, an act that seemingly could have been accomplished by regular legislation. The amendments went into force without popular ratification.
Before leaving, the delegates provided for another convention to meet on the second Tuesday in May 1798, with each county required to send three delegates. This convention met in Louisville on the heels of the Yazoo Land Fraud, which involved dishonest land speculation, bribery of state officials, and blatant legislative corruption. The political agitation provoked by this scandal informed the character and proceedings of the 1798 convention and inspired an entirely new constitution. The resulting document placed notable limitations on the legislature’s power over the sale of public lands and modified the procedures for constitutional revisions. It dismissed the convention method and granted the amending power to the General Assembly. In essence, before amendments could be in force, they would have to pass both houses of the legislature by two-thirds vote, be published before the next state elections, and be approved by two-thirds vote of the new houses. Such a process still afforded voters a measure of participation in potential changes to the fundamental law of the state.
Georgia amended the Constitution of 1798 twenty-three times. Although the state constitution omitted any mention of constitutional assemblies, the state still resorted to the convention method on occasion. While a special convention in 1821 was denied by popular referendum, the legislature attempted constitutional reform in 1833 and 1839 by calling for a convention. Both conventions were contentious sessions involving new schemes for representation in the Georgia assembly. The resulting proposals from each failed to satisfy Georgia voters and thus were unsuccessful. As a result Georgia amended the 1798 Constitution without the convention method until 1861. The only other attempt at popular referendum came in 1840, when the General Assembly submitted to voters a preference for either annual or biennial legislative sessions. Voters favored biennial meetings, and subsequently the General Assembly, using the legislative procedure provided in the 1798 Constitution, passed an amendment to that effect.
In 1850 state conventions took on another role. As sectional tensions over slavery took center stage nationally, Georgia and several other southern states became concerned enough to call special conventions in 1850 to articulate their grievances. The Georgia State Convention of 1850 brought together popularly elected delegates from each county to decide whether or not the state should secede from the Union. It was, in fact, a turning point in that crisis. The convention took a moderate rather than radical stance through a document entitled the Georgia Platform, which noted Georgia’s general discontent with national trends toward slavery but its willingness to remain in the Union as long as no future federal policies encroached on the state’s rights in these matters. Georgia’s political, economic, and geographical importance to southern solidarity helped to defuse the secession crisis at that time. This meeting, however, set the precedent for the Georgia Secession Convention of 1861.
The political crises throughout the 1850s and the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 produced a frenzy of responses across the South. In December 1860 the Georgia legislature called for another special convention to determine the state’s relation to the Union. Once again, popularly elected delegates met in January 1861, but this time they voted in favor of secession. The assembly then immediately became a constitutional convention, drafted a new constitution, and submitted it to the people for ratification. (It is interesting to note that the convention did not submit the Ordinance of Secession for popular sanction.) The Georgia Secession Convention of 1861 thus combined both a constitutional duty and an official political forum for state-federal relations into one mechanism. It would be the first and last of its kind.
Georgia has held only three constitutional or official state conventions since 1861. Two of the three were Reconstruction conventions, held to meet requirements by the federal government for the state’s readmission to the Union. These meetings, in 1865 and 1867-68, were responsible for the political rebuilding of Georgia following the Civil War (1861-65). The constitutional convention of 1865 met in accordance with instructions from U.S. president Andrew Johnson and proceeded to adopt a new state constitution abolishing slavery in Georgia. After Congress assumed responsibility for Reconstruction, Georgia called another convention in 1867 for the purpose of rewriting the state constitution to extend suffrage to Black men, as mandated by Congress. Although these assemblies also addressed other changes to the state constitution, they were called primarily as the result of the Southern defeat in the Civil War and the resulting federal Reconstruction policies.
Georgia’s final constitutional convention (to date) gathered to write a new constitution following Reconstruction. In July 1877 delegates from across the state met in Atlanta to draw up a constitution free from the constraints mandated by Congressional Reconstruction. The result was the Georgia Constitution of 1877, which was, for the first time since 1861, submitted for popular ratification. This document remained in force, with numerous amendments, until 1945, when Georgia abandoned the convention method of constitution making in favor of the constitutional commission, which had grown in popularity.
The state convention in Georgia played a crucial role in the history and growth of the state, and its influence extended into the twentieth century. From its Revolutionary War origins to its modern disappearance, the convention provided a forum for political participation outside the normal structures of state governance. Sometimes inconsistently conducted and often manipulated to certain ends, it was a mechanism that could offer legitimacy to the state’s fundamental law through popular participation and ratification at a time when Georgia was in its earliest stages of development.