Earlier Constitutions: A Brief History

Florida's five previous constitutions very clearly reflected the times in which their drafters lived. Much of their work is still in place in the 1968 constitution in such areas as the elected Cabinet system.

Constitution of 1838. It established a system much like the federal and other state governments, and strongly affirmed the system of slavery, prohibiting any legislation to emancipate slaves but authorizing legislation to prevent free blacks from entering Florida. Among its unusual features was that it denied many public offices to bank officers, clergymen, and anyone who had participated in a duel. A constitution was required by Congress before it would consider statehood, which was granted to Florida in 1845.

Constitution of 1861. In most respects, this copied the provisions of the 1838 constitution, but tied Florida to the Confederate States of America. Because the Civil War against the Union Army loomed, the militia provisions took on a new importance.

Constitution of 1865. Adopted shortly after the Civil War, it never became law; Florida had come under military rule before it could take effect. Although it acknowledged the abolition of slavery, it restricted jury service and even witness testimony to whites only (unless the victim was black) and denied newly-freed blacks (as well as women) the right to vote.

Constitution of 1868. This reflected the turbulent times of post-Civil War Reconstruction and military occupation. It extended voting and other rights to all males, and even allocated a seat in the State Senate and House to Seminole Indians. It centralized authority in the Governor, providing that county officials would be appointed by him, not elected locally. It also required a system of public schools, a state prison and other institutions, required taxes to be uniform, and protected the homestead of a debtor from forced sale.

Constitution of 1885. The framers were eager to impose checks on what they considered the abuses of Reconstruction governments. They were especially eager to weaken executive authority. They fragmented this authority by establishing an elected Cabinet and elected county officials, along with reducing elected state officials' salaries and limiting the Governor to one term. It authorized a poll tax (which lasted until 1937) that served to deny poor blacks, and many poor whites, the right to vote.

While the 1885 constitution was Florida's longest-lived, it was also the most amended, growing to over 50,000 words by 1968, compared to 6,000 words for the U.S. constitution. There were 212 amendments proposed and 149 adopted by voters in those years. By the 1960s, there were dozens of amendments proposed in each session of the legislature.

The fundamental governing document written by frontiersmen in a state with a population of 267,500 in 1880 had become hopelessly outdated for a state about to reach a population of 6.7 million in the 1970 census. As Chesterfield H. Smith, chair of the commission proposing the new constitution in 1968 put it, "Framed to provide the basis of state government for a rural society, before the discovery of electric lights, automobiles, television or jet aircraft, the existing document has become increasingly inadequate . . ."

Replacement of the outdated 1885 constitution was all the more remarkable because numerous other states during the 1960s had failed to accomplish major constitutional changes. Charlton Tebeau wrote in his A History of Florida (1971), "The rewriting of the much amended constitution of 1885 . .. was a monumental achievement at a time when voters in other states were turning down efforts at revision . . ."

Our current Florida Constitution was adopted in 1968. It is our sixth constitution and replaced the 1885 version, which had become antiquated and unwieldy.