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July 6th, 2010

The Iowa Constitution; Precedents to Convention, Part 2

By Chris

The first of Iowa’s Constitutional Conventions met in 1844.  The Constitution proposed by that Convention was considered and rejected by the people in an election in April 1845.  Unsure whether the voters rejected the Constitution due to being confused by boundary considerations in the US Congress, it was submitted to the voters a second time, in August 1845.  The Proposed Constitution was defeated a second time.  A second constitutional convention was called.

The second constitutional convention met in 1846, the constitution was presented to the voters in an election in August 1846.  Although the document was widely considered flawed, the boundaries were acceptable, and had been approved by the US Congress.  Fearing that Iowa might lose its chance at statehood to Wisconsin, the voters approved the Constitution.  The boundaries were acceptable; the rest could be amended later.

The 1844 and 1846 Constitutional Conventions had both been controlled by hard money Democrats.  In an attempt to limit money to coins and to bills redeemable in coins issued by the US Government, the constitution did not permit banks of issue.  However, there was not enough money issued by the US Government to meet the needs of the economy.  What money that was issued by the US Government tended to be hoarded, as it was needed for tax payments and land purchases.  Banks of Issue were banks that could issue currency.  They were also the source of most currency in circulation at the time.

Prohibiting banks of issue did not keep bank-issued currency out of Iowa.  Currency came in from other states and territories.  Since the banks issuing the currency were from out of state, it was difficult to know whether a note offered in payment was good; was the bank printing the note sound, and was it still in business.  A weekly feature of many newspapers was a list of banks whose notes were good or those not good.

With this economic uncertainty, the people soon wanted to change the Constitution to allow Banks of Issue in Iowa.  The status of local banks would be known.  Under the 1846 Constitution, there was only one procedure for amendment.  The Legislature would pass a law to be signed by the Governor and have an election to decide if there would be a Constitutional Convention.  If the answer was yes, there would be an election of delegates.

In 1853 the legislature passed a law to call for an election on the Convention Issue.  The election was vetoed by Governor Hempstead, a hard money Democrat.  The legislature passed another law meeting the Governor’s stated objections, but the legislature adjourned and the Governor pocket vetoed the legislation.

In December 1854 the legislature passed a law calling for the election, Governor Grimes, who entered office as a Whig and left as a Republican, signed the legislation.  The people approved the convention in August 1856.  Delegates were then elected in November.

The Delegates convened in the Supreme Court Chambers of the Old Capital in Iowa City beginning in February, 1857.  At the opening of the session, the delegates were asked to be sworn into office with an oath to uphold the Constitutions of the United States and of Iowa.  The delegates thought it inappropriate to swear to uphold the Constitution of Iowa since they were convened to potentially do it great harm.  They swore only to abide by the Constitution of the United States.

In the new article on amending the constitution, Article X, a remnant of the prior method of amending the constitution, i.e. calling a convention, was retained.  In reaction to the experience with Governor Hempsted, the proposed Article no longer included a veto power; leaving the Governor out of the process completely.  The decennial question was added, with the intent that the legislature could not block the will of the people.  There was concern that the measure would result too frequently in Constitutional Conventions and a suggestion that the question should be every 20 years instead, but the interval was left at 10 years.

A new method was added to amending the Constitution as Section 1.  Two General Assemblies would pass the proposed amendment.  An important part of the process was that the Amendment had to be published four months prior to the election of the second General Assembly to act, so it could be part of the controversy of the election.   After approval of two consecutive General Assemblies the proposed amendment would be presented to the people for a vote.  Some delegates expressed the view that if the people wanted a particular amendment they would elect a General Assembly that would give it to them.

A concern with the new method was that the General Assembly would devolve into a continuous Constitutional Convention; spending excessive time on the constitution to the neglect of ongoing business and continually harass the voters with numerous constitutional amendments.  They were, however, aware that they themselves had been called into convention to deal with primarily with one issue, and were re-writing the entire document.  A method to change the Constitution without calling a convention was needed.  This Section 1 method is the only method that has been used to amend the 1857 Constitution.

The Constitution was submitted to an election on November 3, 1857 along with a first proposed amendment.  Fearing that allowing colored people to vote would doom the new constitution, the convention submitted a separate proposal (the codicil) to strike “white” from the qualifications of voters.  The Constitution of 1857 passed 40,311 to 38,681; the codicil failed passage 8,479 to 49,267.

Since passage of the Constitution of 1857, 55 proposed amendments have been presented to the electorate, 6 failed passage, 2 were overturned by the Supreme Court for defective procedure.  Forty seven proposals have become Amendments to the Constitution of Iowa.  Some of the amendments have been superseded by later amendments.  All three departments of the state government have been affected.  Amendments have changed general election day, the manner of selection judges, succession on death of the Governor, the manner and terms of office of the executive offices.  Even the manner of amending the constitution has been the subject of an amendment; shielding some writers from the details of history.

The two methods of amending the constitution, The Section 1 procedure through the legislature is intended and adapted to small changes in the constitution.  This has not prevented the legislature from proposing multiple amendments at the same time, and achieving major changes.  The first five amendments were proposed in the election of 1868, though all were of the form: “strike ‘white’ Article _ Section _.”  Four amendments each were passed in the elections of 1884 and 1968, and three each in 1970 and 1972.

If there is any specific proposal for reform that is needed, whether it needs a single amendment or several, there is nothing that a Constitutional Convention can do that the legislature cannot.  If a Constitutional Convention is to be called for a specific change, the vote on the decennial question must be in favor, and as demonstrated by the events of 1921, they must also elect a legislature that is amenable to that change.  Following the call for the convention a majority of the Con Con delegates must also be favorable.  To get the Amendment to the ballot requires winning two consecutive elections of legislative bodies in either case.  There is no advantage in this regard to an attempt to amend the Constitution by the Convention route.

A constitutional convention should only be called if there is a radical revision or rewrite of the Constitution needed.  That case has not been made.


Benjamin Shambaugh, History of the Constitutions of Iowa, Historical Department of Iowa 1902 (Available in Google books)

The Journal of the Constitutional Convention of 1857; (available through the website of the State Library of Iowa)

Acton and Acton, To Go Free, A Treasury of Iowa’s Legal Heritage, Iowa State University Press 1995

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The Iowa Republican

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