The Constitution of the Republic of Texas (1836), the first Anglo-American constitution to govern Texas, was drafted by a convention of fifty-nine delegates who assembled at Washington-on-the-Brazos on March 1, 1836. A constitution was adopted by the convention fifteen days later and ratified by a vote of the people of the republic on the first Monday in September 1836.
The ever-present threat of attack by Mexican cavalry tended to stifle originality in the document. Almost of necessity the haste to complete their task led delegates to lift portions from the Constitution of the United States and from several contemporary state constitutions. The use of such models produced a document embodying some familiar features. Like the United States Constitution it was admirably brief (less than 6,500 words) and contained generous grants of power to state officials, especially the chief executive. Furthermore, great numbers of specific limitations and restrictions upon government often found in state constitutions of the time were avoided. Finally, the well-known words and phrases of older American constitutions were preserved, making understanding easier.
Typical American features included a short preamble; separation of the powers of government into three branches-legislative, executive, and judicial; checks and balances; slavery; citizenship, with “Africans, the descendents of Africans, and Indians excepted”; a Bill of Rights; male suffrage; and method of amendment. The legislature was bicameral, the two houses being the Senate and the House of Representatives. The executive resembled the American presidency, and the four-tiered judiciary system comprised justice, county, district, and supreme courts, of which the district courts were the most important.
Some of the constitution’s atypical provisions undoubtedly reflected Jacksonian ideas current in the states from which many delegates had come; fourteen, for example, came from Tennessee. Ministers and priests were declared ineligible to hold public office. Imprisonment for debt was abolished, and monopolies, primogeniture, and entailment were prohibited. Terms of office were short, ranging from one year for representatives to four years for some judges. Annual elections were required.
Among the most important provisions adapted from Spanish-Mexican law were community property, homestead exemptions and protections, and debtor relief. Contrary to common-law practice in the American states, Texas courts were not separated into distinct courts of law and equity.
The amending process was so complex that, although in the ten-year life span of the constitution several amendments were suggested, none was ever adopted. Amendments could be proposed in one session of Congress, referred to the next session for a second approval, and then submitted to a popular vote.
Of nearly paramount importance at the time of adoption were provisions relating to land. The document sought in many ways to protect the rights of people in the unoccupied lands of the republic, lands that were the main attraction to the immigrants who had come to Texas. In its “Schedule,” for example, the constitution affirmed “that all laws now in force in Texas…shall remain in full force.” Later, in the “General Provisions,” a citizen who had not received his land grant was guaranteed “one league and one labor of land” if the head of a family; single men over seventeen years were assured of “the third part of one league of land”; and orphan children “whose parents were entitled to land” were declared eligible for all property rights of their deceased parents. The constitution also sought to void all “unjust and fraudulent claims.”
Preference of the predominantly Anglo-American settlers for the legal system they had known “back in the states” is apparent in a provision that called for the introduction of the common law of England as early as practicable and declared it the rule to be used in deciding all criminal cases. Although the constitution of 1836 was a revolutionary document written and adopted in haste, it was a product of the social and economic conditions of the time as well as of the constitutional and legal heritage of Texas, the southern and western states, and the United States. Therefore, Anglo-Americans immigrating to the Republic of Texas found institutions of law and government in accord with their experience.