The first constitution of the state of Tennessee was adopted in 1796. The constitution was drafted in Knoxville by a convention consisting of 55 delegates. Once it was completed, the delegates sent the Constitution to Washington City for review by the Congress before it adjourned. President Washington signed the bill giving Tennessee immediate statehood on June 1, 1796. Most of the provisions regarding declarations on rights, taxes, and legislative authority were drawn from the North Carolina and Pennsylvania constitutions. According to historian J. G. M. Ramsey, Thomas Jefferson described the Tennessee constitution as the “least imperfect and most republican of the state constitutions.” The original 1796 constitution is kept at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Click here to see a digital image of the 1796 Constitution and download a transcription.
The constitution was revised in 1834 to update the court system and address some of the problems in the original constitution. By 1834, Tennessee’s population was more than 6 times greater than the population in 1796, reaching almost 700,000. This revision focused mostly on taxation, the courts, and how to govern a state that was becoming less rural and more urban. Click here to see a digital image of the 1834 Constitution and download a transcription.
The constitution was revised again in 1870 after the Civil War. The biggest change in this version of the constitution was the permanent abolition of slavery in Tennessee. Another purpose of the framers of this constitution was a reaction against the overreaching actions of Governor William G. Brownlow. The constitution essentially remained unchanged until it was amended in 1953 making it “the nation’s oldest unamended state constitution.” Further amendments followed in 1960, 1966, 1972, 1978, 1998, 2006, 2010 and 2014. Today, the 1870 Constitution is still the fundamental charter for the State of Tennessee. Click here to see a digital image of the 1870 Constitution and download a transcription.