The Blessings of Liberty
A cooperative exhibit of the Montana Historical Society, the Secretary of State and the citizens of Montana based upon a display in the Montana State Capitol.
We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.
Preamble of the 1972 Montana Constitution
Before Montana was a state, it was a territory. During those early years, the President of the United States appointed territorial governors, justices, and other officials to govern Montana. Sometimes these appointed officials knew little about the West or about the particular problems in Montana. Even though the territory was taxed, its citizens had no vote in Congress. Montanans longed for statehood. As citizens of a state they could elect their own officers and be represented in Congress.
To achieve statehood, Montana Territorial citizens needed to prepare and accept a written constitution of which Congress approved. This important document contained the basic laws of the state, the duties of its elected officials, and the rights of the people governed. Montanans prepared constitutions in 1866, 1884 and 1889. A fourth constitution, written long after statehood, replaced the 1889 document.
In 1866 the Territory was too young and inexperienced to stand much hope of achieving statehood. Nevertheless, motivated by personal gain, Acting Governor Thomas Francis Meagher called a constitutional convention. Delegates reluctantly but dutifully prepared a document. This early constitution never survived a vote of the people or the purview of Congress. It was lost on the way to the printers in St. Louis.
Years passed. Montana Territory matured. In 1883 the Territorial legislative assembly called for a constitutional convention in Helena. Borrowing from the Colorado, California, and New York constitutions, delegates prepared a document that limited the power of the executive branch and placed authority in the legislature. However, the 1884 document stood little chance in Congress. A political stalemate prohibited any discussion of the admission of states that could potentially upset the balance of power.
In 1889, however, that impasse changed abruptly. At once, it was permissible to add not only Montana to the Union, but three additional western states as well. Montana’s Territorial government called a constitutional convention. The 1889 constitution reflected the one written five years before. Voters passed it by an overwhelming majority. Montana gained admittance to the Union on November 8, 1889.
By 1960 many Montanans recognized that the 1889 constitution had served primarily as a “tool” to achieve statehood. It was neither dynamic nor innovative; it encouraged neither leadership nor creative solutions.
Citizens approved a Constitutional Convention in 1972. Leo Graybill, Jr., an attorney from Great Falls, presided. The one hundred elected delegates produced one of the nation’s most progressive documents. It advocated single-member legislative districts, open-meeting requirements, and the care and protection of the environment.
From lost documents created for spurious reasons, to constitutions crafted for the purpose of achieving statehood, and eventually to a model instrument emulated by others to protect environment and personal rights, these constitutions are historical treasures—documents that preserve “The Blessings of Liberty.”
Preserving Our Constitutions
In the nineteenth century, long before felt-tip or ballpoint pens, people wrote with simple metal-tipped styluses dipped in iron-gall ink. Unfortunately, the brown-colored ink is highly light sensitive. The pigment not only fades over time, it effaces the surface of the document, creating perforations in the places where letters were once written. Those who hand-lettered Montana’s 1884 and 1889 constitutions used iron-gall ink.
Prior to 1979, Montana’s 1884, 1889 and 1972 Constitutions could be found in a metal file drawer located in the Secretary of State’s office. In this busy, working environment the constitutions suffered from handling, temperature and humidity fluctuations, and strong light from overhead fixtures. Something needed to be done to protect the priceless documents.
In 1979 the Forty-sixth Legislative Assembly appropriated funds for the conservation and restoration of the original constitutions. Specialists proposed that the documents be mended, deacidified, and reinforced by the Barrows Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia. When the constitutions returned to Montana, they were transferred to the State Archives at the Montana Historical Society in January, 1980. It is here that they are stored in environmentally-controlled facilities and made available for library research.
This exhibit was made possible by the generous assistance of
Secretary of State Bob Brown
Representative John Esp
Representative Jeff Laszloffy
[All photographs courtesy of Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. May be protected by copyright laws, Title 17, US Code.]
This online exhibit and the accompanying display in
the Montana State Capitol were supported by private donations to the
Montana Constitution Fund. Additional donations to the fund
can be addressed to:
Montana History Foundation
PO Box 863
Helena, MT 59624