Following orders from the Continental Congress, the New Jersey Provincial Congress devised a new framework of government for the state. Passed in July 1776, the new state constitution remained in force until 1844. Providing for annual elections, the constitution established an upper house called the Legislative Council and a lower house called the General Assembly. A joint meeting of the Council and the Assembly elected the governor. Essentially a figurehead, the governor lacked the power to veto laws passed by the legislature, could not pardon criminals, and did not have the authority to appoint individuals to state offices. These powers devolved on the legislature, which was thought to best represent the voice of the people. The governor and Legislative Council, meeting together, acted as the state's supreme court and court of appeals.
Different counties in New Jersey initially used different methods of voting, some favoring viva voce voting and others the paper ballot system. After 1797, however, all the counties shifted to the secret ballot. Representation was apportioned according to geographic units; each of the state's thirteen counties elected one councilor and three assemblymen to the legislature. The constitution included a provision that allowed the legislature to "add to or diminish the number or proportion" of representatives if "a majority of representatives" deemed it "equitable and proper." Although a few slight adjustments were made in 1804, 1815, and 1818, the state did not in this period fully accept the principle that representation should be proportionate to population. In addition, officeholders had to own a certain amount of property. Members of the lower house had to possess real or personal property of at least £500 in value, and members of the upper house had to own property valued at twice that much.
New Jersey's suffrage laws were unique. Under the 1776 constitution, any adult inhabitant who possessed real or personal property valued at £50 or more was entitled to vote. Laws passed in 1790 and 1797 made it clear that the legislators intended the constitution to enfranchise both unmarried women (single and widowed) and free blacks who met the property requirement. Although a few other states during this period did allow free blacks to vote, no other state allowed women to cast ballots. Ongoing hostility, however, resulted in the law's repeal. In 1807 the legislature eliminated all property qualifications for voting but confined the vote to white males. Thus the franchise was extended to all adult white male taxpayers at the same time that women and free blacks lost the right to vote.
The 1807 law represented a rare show of bipartisan cooperation between Federalists and Republicans. Long-standing differences between East Jersey, which was primarily Presbyterian in religion and looked to New York City for its cues, and West Jersey, which was predominantly Quaker in religion and took Philadelphia as it model, had persisted from the colonial era. After the factions united to ratify the United States Constitution on December 19, 1788, the old divisions between East and West Jersey resurfaced. Counties in the southern part of the state formed the West Jersey "Junto," which tended to support Federalist policies and candidates, while East Jersey increasingly gravitated toward the emerging Democratic-Republican Party.
Throughout the 1790s, the parties battled for control. In 1798 voters reacted against the Alien and Sedition Acts by electing three Republican members out of five to represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite Federalists' subsequent attempts to gerrymander districts to their advantage, the Republican surge continued. After 1800, New Jersey Republicans gained control of the state legislature, the governorship, and the congressional delegation. With only a brief Federalist interlude during the War of 1812, the Republicans’ dominance continued unabated until the fracture of the Republican Party itself during the Jacksonian era.
Republican domination was enhanced by the state's method of electing members to Congress. Whereas most state legislatures divided their state into districts and allowed each district to select its own representative to Congress, after 1813 New Jersey chose to use the at-large method of electing congressmen. Voters throughout the state cast ballots for all the eligible candidates. The candidates with the highest totals were elected. As Republicans well knew, this system tended to result in the election of members from the majority party and to eliminate the possibility of representation for the Federalist minority. Thus both persuasion and procedural tactics enabled the New Jersey Republicans solidify their own power while eradicating the divisive legacy of the state’s colonial past.
- Fleming, Thomas.
New Jersey: A Bicentennial History(New York: Norton, 1977).
- Fee, Walter R.
The Transition from Aristocracy to Democracy in New Jersey, 1789–1829.Somerville, NJ: Somerset Press, 1933.
- Klinghoffer, Judith Apter and Lois Elkis.
"'The Petticoat Electors': Women's Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776–1807,"Journal of the Early Republic, 12 (Summer 1992), 169–193.
- Kruman, Marc W.
Between Authority and Liberty: State Constitution Making in Revolutionary America.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
- McCormick, Richard P.
Experiment in Independence: New Jersey in the Critical Period, 1781–1789.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1950).
- Zagarri, Rosemarie.
The Politics of Size: Representation in the United States, 1776–1850.Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).
Assembly: A gathering of persons for the purpose of deliberation and decision; a deliberative body, a legislative council. Please also see House of Representatives.
Oxford English Dictionary
Assembly or General Assembly: the name given to the lower house in New Jersey and New York.
1788 - 1825: New Jersey, New York
Office Scope: State
Role Scope: County