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TN History for Kids

Middle Two: The other constitution in your life

Original copies of the Tennessee Constitution
were hand written

Much like the U.S. Constitution explains the way the federal government is set up, the Tennessee Constitution explains how Tennessee's government is set up.

By now you've learned a few things about the U.S. Constitution, but probably not very much about the Tennessee Constitution. Let's talk about the similarities and differences in these two documents.

Similarities

Both call for a government with three branches (kind of like a tree might have three branches). Both explain how the people who run those branches are to be chosen. Both call for a legislative branch with two chambers – a house and a senate. Both talk a lot about individual rights – the U.S. Constitution in the Bill of Rights, and the Tennessee Constitution in its Declaration of Rights.

Check out this clause:

“That all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; for the advancement of those ends they have at all times, an unalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they think proper.”

This sounds like it might come from the U.S. Constitution, right? It’s actually Article I, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution. How about that?

There is a small Tennessee Judiciary Museum in
the Tennessee Supreme Court building in Nashville

Differences

Here are some of the differences in the two documents:

* The U.S. Constitution was written in 1783. Tennessee's constitution was written in 1870, after the Civil War.

* The United States has only had one Constitution. This is Tennessee's third constitution. Previous ones were written in 1796 and 1834.

* To be president of the United States, you have to be 35 years old and a natural-born citizen (which generally means born in the U.S.). But to be governor, you only have to be 30 years old. And you don't have to have been born in Tennessee; you only have to have lived here for seven years.

Governor Austin Peay
PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives

Former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, for instance, was born in New Jersey. He could run for president if he wanted to. But former California Governor (and actor) Arnold Schwarzenegger was born in Austria, and therefore would not not be eligible to run for president.

* Under the U.S. Constitution, if the president dies in office, the vice-president becomes president. Under the Tennessee Constitution, if the governor dies, the Speaker of the Senate becomes governor. Because of this, the Speaker of the Tennessee Senate is also known as the Lieutenant Governor.

By the way, the last Tennessee governor to die in office was Austin Peay, who died in 1927.

* The U.S. Constitution says nothing about lotteries. The Tennessee Constitution was amended a few years ago to allow for a state-run lottery.

Three more things about the Tennessee Constitution:

1. Some clauses are a bit odd.

For example: Look at Article IX. Section 1. It says ministers can't serve in public office. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional in 1978, which means it can't be enforced, but it still hasn't been removed from the Tennessee Constitution.)

Meanwhile, Article IX, Section 3, prohibits people who have dueled from holding office. Since people don't duel as much as they used to, this section seems a bit out of date, to say the least.

The Tennessee Supreme Court building in Nashville

2. Some sentences in the Tennessee Constitution are constantly argued about.

Take Article II, Section 22. "The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret."

What is that supposed to mean?

Every year state legislators argue with reporters about whether this clause allows the legislature to have committee meetings without inviting in the public during the closing days of the General Assembly.

3. Both the Tennessee and U.S. constitutions can be changed.

In fact, the Tennessee Constitution has undergone many changes.

Two recent examples: In 2002, the Tennessee constitution was changed to allow lotteries, which before then were illegal. In 2014, voters approved four amendments (additions) to the constitution. One changed the way judges are selected. The other change made it clear that Tennessee can never have an income tax, which is a tax on the amount of money people make.

Click here to find out about the three branches of Tennessee government.