Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Theophius Parsons and the Essex Result

Theophilus Parsons may be one of our most noteworthy alumni. Depicted in the mural above his classroom, the Little Red School House, and adjacent to his teacher, Master Moody, Parsons was likely in Master Moody’s first class. Parsons’ father, the Reverend Moses Parsons, pastor of the Byfield Parish Church, was the man responsible for choosing Samuel Moody as the first master of the Dummer School. Parsons studied here with Master Moody, continued his studies at Harvard University, and eventually opened a law office in Newburyport. While working as a lawyer in Newburyport, Parsons participated in a variety of important tasks, not least important of which was mentoring young lawyers. Law schools did not become the norm for a legal career until the late 1800s, so Parsons had several young men apprentice with him, including fellow Dummer alumnus Rufus King and future President John Quincy Adams. Parsons also served on the first Dummer Academy board of trustees. Perhaps the most important work was done in the area of political thought regarding the new nation.

In 1778, during the American Revolution, Massachusetts submitted a draft of a state constitution to the various towns for approval. Criticism of this initial document was widespread. Theophilus Parsons wanted to do more than criticize; he wanted to suggest an alternative. Gathering representatives from towns throughout Essex County, Parsons led meetings to discuss the proposed constitution and possible alternatives. The group published their political thoughts in a document that came to be known as The Essex Result. The archives owns an original version of this document. The document and ideas contained within formed the basis of the new Massachusetts Constitution, adopted in 1780, and the US Constitution of 1787.

The Essex Result was noted for proposing two major political ideas. The first of these is the notion that power in the new government should be divided between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, each with a distinct role to play and each with some power to check the other branches. The second significant proposal involved the protection of explicit rights, as included in the constitution. This had also been suggested by the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The two categories of rights most frequently mentioned in the Essex Result were freedom of conscience and rights of the individual, including privacy and the rights of the accused.

Because of its ability to fuse political ideology with practical concerns, The Essex Result was a very influential document in its era. The ideas contained in it formed the basis of a new Massachusetts State Constitution, adopted two years later in 1780. The Massachusetts Constitution, in turn, is widely considered the model for the US Constitution. These ideas, so important to our nation today, began with Theophilus Parsons and his work, The Essex Result.