Tennessee Government

Tennessee Government

Compiled by Fred Smoot

The original Constitution of Tennessee, 1796, gave suffrage to every free man, allowed free Negroes the right to vote, permitted freedom of speech and of the press, and guaranteed the right of trial by jury. Future legislators were forbidden to permit any "tendency to lessen the rights and privileges" of the people, or to require a religious test as qualification for public office. This last provision was retained in both the later constitutions.

The revision of 1834 promoted education and, like the earlier constitution, recognized slavery. The new version was regarded as adequate until 1870. A new constitution, drawn up in that year, granted the Governor the power of veto, provided for a supreme court, chancery, and circuit courts, and "such inferior tribunals as the legislature may deem advisable." Intended to serve for only a few years, the constitution has been in force ever since. Except for the clauses recognizing the abolition of slavery, forbidding future laws for "the right of property in man," setting up a judiciary, forbidding State participation in public investments, and giving suffrage to Negroes, the present constitution is substantially the same as the one it superseded.
Laws in Tennessee are made by the General Assembly, consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives which convene every two years. There are thirty-three Senators and ninety-nine Representatives, all elected for two-year terms. To become a law a bill must be read on three different days and passed each time in the house where it is sponsored, with the same procedure repeated in the other house; it must then go to the Governor for final approval.
The appellate court, reorganized in 1925, operates in each of the three divisions of the State and has final authority in civil cases. Lesser judicial agencies designed to meet the needs of a growing population, rural and urban, have been established from time to time.
Recommendations of the Tennessee Planning Commission resulted in the Reorganization Bill (1936) which centralized executive control in the office of the Governor. This administrative rearrangement provided more efficient means for carrying out programs of social security, conservation, public works, health, education, and financial management. The newest of nine departments directly under the Governor is the department of conservation. The nine commissioners administer 81 divisions and boards. There are also 27 special commissions, principally involving the professions, appointed by the Governor. For the ten-year period ending June 30 1936, there was a total disbursement of nearly $500,000,000, with 47.56 per cent of the tax dollar going to highways and highway bridges, 18.58 per cent to education, 7.48 per cent to penal and charitable institutions, and 26.38 per cent to all other activities.
There are 34 counties in the eastern, 40 in the middle, and 21 in the western division of the State. In these 95 counties all the functions of State and city government are duplicated in administrative detail.

Source. This work was extracted from:

Tennessee, A Guide to the State Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects
Administration for the State of Tennessee

American Guide Series
First Published in December 1939


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