Tennessee 225: Evolution of the Volunteer State’s constitutions

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Andy Bennett has spent a large portion of his life studying Tennessee’s constitutions.

“I started getting into the state constitution in law school, when I took a course on state constitutions,” he said.


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Bennett became a member of the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office before he was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2007.

“I litigated state constitutional issues and wrote opinions.” Bennett continued, “On the Court of Appeals, I occasionally write opinions.”

In Tennessee’s 225 years of history, only three constitutions have been passed.

“The first constitution was like all the other constitutions of the early states, and it had a weak governor and a very, very strong legislator,” Bennett explained.

The first constitution was written in 1796, when Tennessee delegates from the eleven counties petitioned the Federal Government to become a state.

“In January of 1796, five delegates from each county – 55 total – gathered in Knoxville to write a constitution, and it took them 27 days.” He added, “Which actually is a very short amount of time but, they did a lot of borrowing.”

Before becoming a territory in 1789, Tennesseans lived under the constitution of North Carolina that was written in 1776.

Bennett said, “They borrowed a lot of that, and they borrowed a lot from the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790. It was one of the more recent state constitutions and viewed as modern.”

Tennessee was the first territory to apply for statehood.


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“The constitution was sent to Congress, and Congress debated of the admission of Tennessee until June first of 1796, when George Washington signed the X that made Tennessee a state,” he said.

The second constitution was drawn up nearly 40 years later.

“Overtime the legislatures sort of tend to gather the power that they can, and sometimes they go too far,” said Bennett, “Some people in Tennessee felt that in some things the legislature had too much powers, so that was one of the reasons for having a constitutional convention in 1834.”

The 1834 Constitutional Convention included changes to the taxation prevision by taxing land by value instead of acreage. It’s also when the Tennessee Supreme Court was written into law to never be abolished.

“The first constitution of Tennessee did not really set up a court system. It left all that to the legislature, so in 1830, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued several opinions that the legislature did not like. There was a movement to abolish the Tennessee Supreme Court,” a movement that failed, said Bennett.

Then about 35 years later, another constitutional convention was called.

“It was mostly a reaction to the Civil War and things that happened in reconstruction,” Bennett said. “For example, of course, it granted every male the right to vote.” He added females were still left out.

There hasn’t been a full blown constitutional convention since then. “The 1870 constitution is the one we still live under.”

In fact, it stood un-amended until 1953, which the Tennessee State Library and Archives said is a world record.

Bennett said there have been limited constitutional conventions in the past, but even that process has evolved.

“After 1977, the legislature moved to the other method of amending constitutions, which is legislative proposals. They propose and amendment, if the majority legislature likes it, approves it, it’s published in a newspaper six months before the next election of the General Assembly, ” he said. “So, the people can talk about it with their reps and all. And then, the next assembly has to pass it by 2/3 vote in each house. Then goes to the people for a vote.”


Tennessee 225: Celebrate Tennessee’s 225 years of history with these special reports

History buffs who want to review Tennessee’s constitutions can do so by visiting the Virtual Tennessee Archives online.

All three are on display June 1, 2021, at the Tennessee State Library and Archives for one-day-only.

June 1st marks our state’s 225th birthday!

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