by Maurice A. Thompson
Director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law
A History Rooted in Limited Government
In May of 1850, 108 men from across the state gathered to rewrite Ohio’s original constitution, adopted in 1802. This conglomerate of 37 lawyers, 35 farmers, ten editors, eight merchants, seven medical doctors, and the remainder comprised of blacksmiths, surveyors, and millers, set out with a specific purpose: “keep the power in the hands of the legislature, and then tie its hands.”ii To do this, the delegates to the 1850-1851 constitutional convention authored constitutional provisions that left behind a “self-acting Constitution.”
The Ohio Constitution is special because it was passed in an era where the people of Ohio believed in individual rights and resented the authority that attempted to interfere with such rights,” and “had no use for any central authority.”iv This period in the state’s history has a familiar tenor: it coincided with the average citizen’s growing awareness of “the mad rush to rob the state treasury and heap up debts to be paid by generations yet unborn,”v and recognition that the legislature had become “the pliant tool of individual greed.”vi Much like today, this “mad rush” and “individual greed” involved bailouts and gifts to private corporations that claimed to be necessary to our way of life, particularly railroad and canal corporations.
In 1850, to put an end to such things, Ohioans called a constitutional convention.
“Preamble We, the people of the State of Ohio, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, to secure its blessings and promote our common welfare, do establish this Constitution.”
The preamble to the Ohio Constitution expresses the defining principle of limited government: Our freedoms are inherent in our existence as human beings. This view is consistent with the Lockean theory of rights that is typically accepted as underpinning the foundations of American government. Even the Ohio Supreme Court recently acknowledged that the Ohio Constitution contains “Lockean notions.”
Locke strongly influenced political thought in the American colonies, particularly among revolutionists. Thomas Jefferson eloquently encapsulated Locke’s ideas in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In Locke’s theory, might did not make right. Natural rights belonged to all people simply because they were human beings. Under the Lockean view, our rights are bestowed upon us by our creator; not from the legislative, executive, or judicial branches. Those branches of government were established to protect freedom. “In a state of nature– that is, in the situation in which humanity finds itself, when there is no government– all men are equal,” wrote Locke. Not equal in every respect, of course, for people have different talents, characters, and experiences, but equal in the “right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.” Since all are by right “equal and independent,” it follows that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” After all, men gave up the state of nature, and entered into societies, so that their united strength could secure peace and defend property.