The framers of Mississippi’s first charter of governance modeled the document on the content and style of the frontier constitutions of sister states Tennessee and Kentucky. As a result, the six articles of this statehood constitution contained rather standard features for its time, such as a functional division of power into separate legislative, executive, and judicial departments; a declaration of civil liberties; and nominal recognition of popular sovereignty.
Jefferson Military Academy in the town of Washington, Mississippi, hosted the summer convention of aristocratic delegates, mostly attorneys and landowners, drawn from the sparsely settled fourteen counties in the southernmost part of what would become the state. A representational imbalance gave a disproportionate advantage to the wealthy conservatives from the western Mississippi River counties, much to the dismay of the more liberal delegates from the eastern Piney Woods region. Territorial governor David Holmes presided.
Legislative representation and the right to vote were the pivotal issues facing the convention. On the first matter, compromise produced at least one seat per county in the General Assembly as well as extra seats for populous towns. The convention adopted a formula for apportionment based on the population of white male property owners in voting districts. Mississippi became the last admitted state to require real property holdings as preconditions for holding legislative office. Under this document, candidates for the State Senate, who would serve three-year terms, had to prove land assets of 800 acres, while candidates for the House, who would serve one-year terms, had to own 150 acres. Mississippi was also the last state to place restrictions on the franchise for white males. Along with standard age (twenty-one years) and residency requirements (one year in the state and six months in the county), the convention required either service in the militia or the remittance of a tax before white men could cast their ballots.
A weak executive branch, long a hallmark of Mississippi politics, originated in institutional limitations contained in the 1817 document. The elected governor (two-year renewable term) exercised veto and appointment power but no other substantive authority. Officeholders had to be thirty years of age, US citizens for two years, and Mississippi residents for five years and had to possess six hundred acres of land or property valued at two thousand dollars.
The first judiciary resembled the federal model, both in structure and in selection method. The constitution created a supreme court and such inferior tribunals of law as lawmakers deemed necessary. It further called for appointed judges (a selection method that citizens soon challenged) who served, as did their federal counterparts, during “good behavior.”
Miscellaneous provisions included a ban on clergy holding high office, a Jeffersonian-style testament to education as essential to an enlightened citizenry, and—unlike all other states except Kentucky and Georgia—a statement on emancipation. The legislature could liberate slaves whose owners consented or who could prove that they had rendered distinguished service to the state.
Delegates labored through five weeks of summer, and on 15 August they voted forty-five to one in favor of the draft prepared by a special committee chaired by George Poindexter. On 10 December 1817, Mississippi became the twentieth state.
- Barbara Carpenter, ed., Understanding Mississippi’s Constitutions (1989)
- George Etheridge, Mississippi Constitutions (1927)
- Mississippi Law Journal (April 1986)
- John W. Winkle III, The Mississippi State Constitution: A Reference Guide (1993)