Alabama's six constitutions and its secession ordinance will be on display in Huntsville beginning Sunday to mark Alabama’s 200 years of statehood.
The seven documents will be available in the Huntsville Museum of Art until Aug. 11 before returning to Montgomery, where they will be on display at the State Archives from Nov. 3 to Dec. 31.
Among the six constitutions on display will be the current one, originally drafted in 1901, which has evolved into the longest constitution in the U.S. and possibly the longest in the world.
Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, said the Constitution of 1901 was written to be “exceedingly constrictive,” reflecting a state that has always lacked trust in government.
“When they wrote the Constitution of 1901, they prohibited money being spent on internal improvements," Lathram said. "This meant that the state was not allowed to build any roads, schools or public buildings.”
The Legislature later passed constitutional amendments, approved by voters, allowing money to be spent on infrastructure. These amendments make up roughly 10% of the constitution's 946 amendments.
Steve Murray, director of the State Archives, said he wouldn’t be surprised if that number passed 1,000 this legislative quadrennium.
Because the drafters feared government gaining too much power, they also restricted the powers of cities and counties. About 500 of the 946 amendments are local constitutional amendments that only affect certain cities and counties.
In the 2020 election cycle there will be at least 20 proposed constitutional amendments. One of those, if passed by the people, would grant the Legislative Services Agency the power to basically rewrite the constitution.
Lathram said this would be important because much of our constitution is outdated.
“There are provisions regulating telegraphs and railroads in there,” he said, and numerous other provisions that have been rendered meaningless by time or federal law.
“Nobody would be more surprised than the people who wrote it that we are still using it today," Lathram said. "You have to think that these people were writing their fifth constitution in 40 years and just didn’t expect it to be a long-lasting document.”
Alabama had five previous constitutions dating back to 1819, all of which will be on display.
“The star of the show is the 1819 constitution because without it, we wouldn’t be a state,” Murray said.
Before statehood was possible, Congress had to approve. At the time, Alabama had no representation in the U.S. House or Senate. A Georgia senator, Charles Tait, stepped up to sponsor the appropriate legislation, which passed in March 1819.
Two months later, two delegates from each of Alabama’s 22 counties were elected to serve their respective areas in a constitutional convention.
Though the territorial capitol was in St. Stephens, about 60 miles north of Mobile, the convention was to be held in Huntsville.
The convention convened July 5, 1819. After four weeks, the constitution had been adopted and signed. Shortly thereafter, a copy of the document was sent to Washington for approval.
It was not until Dec. 14, 1819, that President James Monroe signed off on the proposed constitution.
Since it had taken the federal government months to approve the document, Alabama went ahead with elections. By the time the document was approved, Alabama had already elected a governor and a legislature.
Since 2017, the historic documents that will be on display have been undergoing extensive restoration.
“All of the documents have been cleaned, had minor damages repaired and secured the ink on the parchment since it doesn’t soak in like it does on paper,” Murray said.