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9.1: The State Governments

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    The American colonies began to transition to independent republics or states in the months after Lexington-Concord in 1775. First, the residents overthrew royal authority by closing courts and chasing royal officials out of office. Then, to meet the demands of war, they set up provincial congresses to fill the void left by the departing British governments. Finally, they worked to create lasting governments that would promote order and independence. Most states found it easier to depose their governments than to construct new ones. However, the people avidly took to the cause. “The building of this permanent founding of freedom,” says historian Gordon S. Wood, “became the essence of the Revolution.” As John Adams noted in 1776:

    “How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making… [a] government, more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children! When, before the present epoch, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?"

    Need for New Constitutions

    Even before the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress addressed the need to write new state constitutions. Many revolutionaries saw the formation of new republics as an instrumental part of the move toward independence. More importantly, the necessities of war prompted Massachusetts to ask Congress for guidance on replacing colonial authority. It needed an established body to help maintain order, tax the citizens, staff the militia, and ensure public safety. In June 1775, the Continental Congress instructed Massachusetts to resume its Charter of 1691, which Parliament annulled in the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774, as a temporary solution to the lack of government. New Hampshire and South Carolina then requested advice on whether or not to form new governments.

    Into 1776, members of the Continental Congress discussed whether to issue a resolution on the formation of state governments and how specific their instructions should be if they made a recommendation. It seemed most delegates wanted to say something, but the precedent they might set troubled them. For example, John Adams worried about making any resolution on government because “if such a Plan was adopted it would be if not permanent, yet of long duration: and it would be extremely difficult to get rid of it.” However, as the nation ebbed closer to declaring independence, calls for action by the Continental Congress increased, leading to two separate resolutions in May.

    On May 10, 1776, Congress recommended to the “United Colonies” that “where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.” On May 15, 1776, Congress resolved that it was “necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies.” By that point, New Hampshire and South Carolina had temporary constitutions in place, and the rest of the states began the process of forming governments almost immediately. In June, Virginia adopted the first permanent constitution.

    Historian Gary B. Nash sees these two resolutions as a “virtual declaration of independence.” Over the course of five years as the war continued, the former colonies worked diligently to fulfill the promise of independence by creating new governments. While their new constitutions varied by state, the people seemed to agree “that the consent of the governed was the only true source of political authority.” Some states applied this idea more radically than others, meaning some states implemented quite experimental constitutions while others followed the British model more closely. The internal debates over constitution-making led to divisions among Americans that the Founding Fathers obscured in their attempt to promote a vision of unity at the time of the nation’s creation.

    Political Thought Shaping the State Constitutions

    Most of the states followed an orderly process in forming their new governments. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, and Vermont, then in the process of declaring independence from New York, held special conventions to draft their constitutions. According to historian Marc W. Kruman, the conventions “located sovereignty in the people, who in turn, would instruct a political body to act on their behalf to form governments.” Given that the electorate chose the representatives for these conventions, they effectively consented to the government formed by the conventions. In South Carolina and Virginia, the state legislature wrote the constitutions. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, the legislature simply deleted all references to royal authority, and both governed themselves much as before, since they were essentially self-governing under their colonial charters. Most of the states completed their work in 1776 and 1777, although it took Massachusetts until 1780 to finalize its constitution.

    Based on their colonial experiences, most Americans agreed the people should be the source of political authority. They did not support the maintenance of a monarchy or the adoption of pure democracy; rather, they sought to implement republicanism. In the late 1780s, James Madison said a republican government “derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.” The people, broadly construed in Madison’s interpretation of republicanism, exercised their power by electing representatives to the governing body. In addition to their belief in republicanism, Americans shared similar assumptions about the structure of government, the role of the governor, and the nature of representation, though, they certainly did not agree on every detail.

    Structure of Government

    Many states believed in the need to define the people’s liberties before creating a government. Virginia took the lead on this issue when George Mason drafted the Declaration of Rights in 1776 and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777. The Declaration of Rights stated that “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights” which the state could not violate. Furthermore, it suggested a government “ought to be, [sic] instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community.” Finally, it protected the people’s common law rights, such as the right to a free press, the right bear arms, and the right to a speedy jury trial. Several states, including Delaware and North Carolina, followed Virginia’s lead in issuing a specific declaration on the rights of the people; other states, including New York and Georgia, embedded the ideas of the declaration directly into their constitutions.

    Screenshot (236).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Virginia Statute of Religious freedom | In 1777, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Statute of Religious Freedom. Jefferson was very proud of his effort to separate church from state and he wanted the statute to be included in his epitaph. And so, the U.S. government chose it as one of the inscriptions for the interior walls of the Jefferson Memorial. Author: Jim McKeeth Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY SA 3.0

    The Statute of Religious Freedom, which the Virginia legislature finally approved in 1786 at the urging of James Madison, ended state support for the Anglican Church and separated one’s religious belief from one’s civil liberties. As Jefferson said, “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” Most states adopted the principle of religious toleration for Christians in their constitutions, though some were more tolerant than others. Georgia Constitution suggested that people had “the free exercise of religion” so long as it was “not repugnant to the state.” However, it also indicated those eligible for public office “shall be of the Protestent [sic] religion.” The South Carolina Constitution, however, provided religious toleration only to those “who acknowledge there is one God…and that God is to be publicly worshipped.”

    With these liberties in mind, the states sought to establish balanced governments that would allow the people to participate in their government but would have checks on the people’s will. During the revolution, most Americans continued to see the British system as the most enlightened form of government in the world because it contained elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy in the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons respectively. When the system functioned properly, it would prevent the monarch from becoming despotic and the people from becoming disorderly. Therefore, the best way to prevent tyranny or anarchy was to create a system in which several bodies shared political power.

    To many Americans, the British perversion of its mixed government, especially Parliament’s attempts to undermine colonial charters, justified the move toward independence. As they approached constitution-making, the Americans envisioned an end to monarchy, but not an end to mixed government. The bigger question for most revolutionary leaders centered on which branch of the government should have the most influence. When Virginian Carter Braxton wrote a pamphlet calling on the representative assembly to elect members of the state’s upper house for life, Richard Henry Lee called the ideas “contemptible.” Lee did not object to having a bicameral legislature; rather, he objected that Braxton’s proposal seemed too aristocratic. Therefore, the Americans worked diligently to define the role of the governor and determine representation in the legislature so as to achieve a mixed government.

    Role of the Governor

    Americans in the Revolutionary Era held traditional views about power, especially when it came to the governor. Based on their reading of history and their own colonial experience, many believed that an appointed or an elected governor could become drunk with power and tyranny would ensue. Yet, they still saw the need for an executive of some kind to help manage the state. Consequently, most states modified the traditional role of the governor when drafting their constitutions. Fearing the restrictions of their rights, most states made the governor strictly an administrator. In his draft of the Virginia Constitution, Thomas Jefferson indicated the governor could not, among other things, veto legislation, call into or dismiss the assembly, declare war, raise an army, make peace, coin money, or pardon criminals. While not every state specifically spelled out governors’ powers, they clearly limited the role the executive would play in making laws.

    To further limit the governor’s power, most state constitutions had the legislature, not the people, choose the governor on an annual basis so that the governor would not become beholden to the voters. They also placed limits on the number of consecutive terms a governor could serve to prevent the emergence of an elected monarchy. Most states also curbed the governor’s power of patronage to prevent him from using his right to appoint officials to develop an independent source of power. Finally, the states supported the separation of powers. As the residents of Boston noted in instructions to their constitutional convention delegates, “It is essential to liberty, [sic] that the legislative, judicial, and executive powers of government be, as nearly as possible, independent of, and separate from each other” in order to avoid “a wanton exercise of power.” In insisting on the separation of powers and clearly demarcating the responsibilities of each branch, the states hoped to prevent the executive from influencing the other branches of government. Pennsylvania was the only state without a chief executive; instead, it opted to have an elected governing council appointed by the legislature. Meanwhile, New York vested considerably more power in the hands of its governor than did the other states.

    Nature of Representation in the Legislatures

    Americans saw the legislature as the most important branch of their state governments because they possessed most of the powers formerly held by the governor and they made the laws; this respect for the legislature later appeared in the U.S. Constitution. The legislature no longer served simply to check the power of the governor. Rather, they governed the state, which marked a clear shift in political power. As such, representation became the cornerstone of free government in the American states because it provided the best security of the people’s liberties. As the states drafted their constitutions, they focused on providing equal representation for the people so as to preserve or undermine elite control of the government depending on the radical or conservative nature of the state conventions. Given their respect for the British system of a mixed and balanced government, most states opted for bicameralism, or a two-house legislature. However, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Georgia implemented unicameralism, or a single-house legislature.

    Debates about the merits of virtual representation versus actual representation had played a large role in the road to the revolution and continued to play a part in determining the nature of representation. In the 1760s, the colonists increasingly protested that the members of Parliament could never represent their interests; in other words, they challenged the theory of virtual representation. Most colonists did not want to send representatives to Parliament; they wanted local assemblies to make the decisions affecting them. The Americans translated their concerns about virtual representation to their constitution-making in the late 1770s. In his Thoughts on Government, John Adams noted the assembly “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” Drafters took his ideas to heart as they planned for representation; however, they also believed the ablest men, the natural aristocracy, would serve in the assemblies. Moreover, these men, according to a contemporary newspaper, “would employ their whole time for the public good.”

    Many revolutionaries believed a direct connection existed between the length of service in an assembly and the propensity for corruption or manipulation by the governor. Thus all the states, except South Carolina, held annual elections for their lower house. While delegates to the upper house served longer terms, they too faced regular election. Maryland’s constitution provided for the election of delegates to the lower house every year and the upper house every five years. To ward off against the possibility that legislatures would act for special interests, most states required legislators to live within the community they represented. Georgia’s constitution required that a person live in the state for at least one year and the county for at least three months before representing a county in the legislature.

    Some states also made an effort to ensure the equality of representation in the legislature. Pennsylvania’s constitution based representation on the number of taxable residents in an electoral district and provided for reapportionment based on a census every seven years. North Carolina’s constitution continued the colonial practice of having a set number of representatives from each county in the state and had provisions for including new counties in the legislature. Finally, most states set property qualifications for members of their assemblies, with the lower house set at one level and the upper house set at a higher level. Some delegates did argue they could only live up to John Adams’s call to make legislatures an “exact portrait” if they chose members from the middling sorts. However, the majority thought those with more property could better serve the public good.

    Divisions on the Road to Republican Government

    As the people thought about creating their state governments, questions about the structure of the legislative branch and the extension of voting rights tended to divide them more than did other issues. Historian Francis D. Cogliano suggested that the American people split into two camps, democrats and elitists, on the political questions raised by the revolution. The democrats were men whose involvement in the war made them more politically aware. Most hailed from humble origins and distrusted the elites’ ideas about the structure of the government and the electorate. They wanted to give the common people more power in drafting state constitutions because the common people would bring honesty, common sense, and plain understanding to the process. The elitists, the leading figures in colonial politics, on the other hand, favored a government closely modeled on the British system and an electorate composed primarily of propertyholding men. They feared excesses of democracy, especially a decentralized government, would lead to anarchy. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, which wrote the most radical and most conservative constitutions respectively, struggled to balance the interests of the democrats and the elitists. Meanwhile, New Jersey temporarily expanded the electorate in a way that no other state seriously considered when it allowed single women to vote.


    Given that the democrats controlled the constitutional convention, Pennsylvania adopted the most radical state constitution of the Revolutionary Era. When it came time to select the members of the convention, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers allowed all taxpaying men who would swear an allegiance to the revolutionary cause to vote for delegates. Since most elites remained loyal to Britain, they could not participate in the process of making the constitution. A majority of the voters in 1776, and the delegates they selected to frame the government, came from the middling ranks of society. The small farmers, merchants, lawyers, and artisans who served as drafters firmly believed in the democratization of politics; they thought all people, not just property owners, should have a say in the government.

    During their deliberations, as Gary B. Nash notes, the delegates “considered and then rejected three of the most honored elements of English republican thought.” They chose not to implement bicameral legislature; they felt a unicameral legislature would better serve the common good. They decided not to have a governor; instead, they implemented a weak elected governing council to manage the state, not to make laws. Finally, they abandoned traditional notions about voting rights; they expanded suffrage to all taxpayers instead of all property holders, meaning most adult males could vote—a policy known as taxpayer suffrage. Beyond these changes, the delegates proposed to have annual elections for the assembly by secret ballot instead of by voice, to open all legislative sessions to the public, to make all proposed laws subject to public debate for one year, to impose term limits for government service, to create a Council of Censors to meet every seven years to review the legislature’s performance, and to provide for reapportionment every seven years based on a census.

    Through these measures, the framers hoped to create the most democratic form of republican government possible. Skeptical of wealthy property holders, who governed Pennsylvania in colonial times, many democrats saw their constitution as a means to check the growth of absolute power. Inside and outside of Pennsylvania, however, the elitists reacted negatively to the work of the convention. The criticisms began as soon as the convention released the proposed constitution for public comment. Pennsylvanian Benjamin Rush described the constitution as “rascally.” Meanwhile, North Carolinian William Hooper called it “a Beast without a head.” Many elitists hoped to cripple the constitution after its adoption in 1776. They called for the legislature to amend the constitution; they withdrew from the legislature to deny the majority a quorum, blocking any new measures necessary to fight the war; and they refused to serve as justices of the peace, sheriffs, and militia officers even when elected to do so.

    The debate caused a major divide in Pennsylvania, which continued into the post-revolutionary years. In 1790, the elitists ultimately won the battle over the constitution when the state adopted a new constitution that included a bicameral legislature, a governor with veto power, and an independent judiciary. However, the new constitution retained taxpayer suffrage. Moreover, with the exception of Virginia and Delaware, the states followed Pennsylvania’s lead in expanding the electorate. Some implemented taxpayer suffrage, while others lowered the property qualifications for voting.


    For all of its revolutionary ferment in the 1760s and 1770s, Massachusetts adopted the most conservative constitution of the Revolutionary Era. While the elitists controlled the process, the democrats repeatedly called for measures to disperse power among the people. Initially, the General Court, the legislature, moved slowly because it seemed unsure whether they even had the right to author a constitution. By the time it secured permission from the electorate to frame the government, elitists in the legislature wanted to draw out the constitution making in hopes of curbing the most radical ideas of the democrats in the state.

    In 1777, the General Court asked the towns to authorize the two houses to work as one body to write a constitution, which it would submit to the voters for inspection. Essentially, the united legislature would serve as the constitutional convention. To garner as much support as possible for the drafting process, the legislature temporarily expanded the electorate to all free adult males. A majority of towns approved the proposal, though some dissenting towns thought a special constitutional convention should be called and others wanted more than just inspection of the new constitution. To address the concerns of the towns, the legislature agreed to hold new elections for the General Court before work on the draft began, allowing the voters to choose the people from their town to work on the constitution. Finally, in the summer the newly elected Generally Court selected a drafting committee.

    The structure of the legislature, unicameral or bicameral, and the composition of the electorate proved the most contentious issues for the drafting committee during the six months of debate on the constitution. The elitists won a bicameral legislature with strict property qualifications on who could serve; the democrats won taxpayer suffrage for the lower house but not for the upper house and the governor. In 1778, the drafting committee completed its work, and the legislature submitted the constitution to the voters for approval. Four out of five towns rejected the proposed constitution, with many towns voting unanimously against it. Many people objected, said Gary B. Nash, to what they “saw as an attempt to deny political rights to ordinary men.”

    The concerns of the ordinary people over the proposed constitution suggested the impact the fight for independence had on ideas of democratization. Frustrated elitists, after eight months of stalling, concluded they had no choice but to propose a separate constitutional convention because the state’s economic problems continued to grow worse and the sitting government had lost much of its legitimacy. The people overwhelmingly approved voting for a special convention in 1779. At that point, John Adams returned to Massachusetts from Paris where he had been working on securing an alliance with France. Braintree chose him as one of their delegates to the convention. The drafting committee, which he was not chosen to serve on, asked him to draw up the first draft of the new constitution.

    Adams wrote a very conservative constitution that drew largely on his Thoughts on Government. He began with a declaration of rights but proceeded to create a government strikingly similar to the colonial system in terms of providing for a bicameral legislature and a powerful governor. Adams also eliminated the provision for taxpayer suffrage for the lower house; all voters had to own property. Moreover, he increased the property qualification for running for the upper house and for governor. Since the constitution clearly tilted toward the elitists, Adams suggested that all free adult males vote in a referendum on the constitution. In so doing, if the document passed, then the democrats could not legitimately complain about any perceived disenfranchisement. In 1779, the convention sent Adams’s constitution to the voters. In 1780, the delegates declared that two-thirds of the voters approved the constitution; shortly thereafter, it took effect. Massachusetts still uses Adams’s constitution with a few modifications. Nevertheless, social divisions caused by objections to representation in the legislature plagued Massachusetts throughout the 1780s.


    State constitutions generally extended suffrage to more American men by providing for taxpayer suffrage or reducing the property qualifications for men. Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia continued the colonial practice of denying free blacks the right to vote, but, in the other states, the constitutions did not distinguish between free blacks and free whites. No state considered letting slaves, servants, felons, or the mentally disabled vote. Revolutionary fervor, however, did cause some Americans to question whether women should have the right to vote. Although political leaders around the country discussed the issue, only New Jersey went so far as to allow single women suffrage.

    Opponents of women’s suffrage pointed to women’s dependent state to justify disenfranchisement. The Essex Result, likely written by Theophilus Parsons of Massachusetts, suggested women did not possess the discretion to vote because of the “natural tenderness and delicacy of their minds, their retired mode of life, and various domestic duties.” Furthermore, most states still practiced the doctrine of coverture. Married women could not own property nor did they pay taxes; therefore, in many states they did not meet the qualifications for voting. Proponents of women’s suffrage noted the inequity in barring single, property-holding women from voting. Virginian Hannah Corbin suggested to her brother Richard Henry Lee, a member of the Continental Congress, that single women should either possess the right to vote or should be exempt from paying taxes on their property; he privately agreed with her. While delegates to the constitutional convention mulled over voting rights, an anonymous New Jersey politician, made the same point.

    Beginning in 1775, New Jersey’s Provincial Congress received petitions from residents asking for taxpayer suffrage; the state legislature responded by reducing the property qualifications for voting. When the Continental Congress instructed the colonies to write constitutions, the expanded electorate in New Jersey selected delegates to the constitutional convention. The drafting committee initially suggested language granting all “freeholders and householders…worth fifty pounds” the right to vote. For over a year, delegates to the constitutional convention discussed voting rights, as evidenced by the changes in the suffrage clause from the initial to the final draft. According to the New Jersey Constitution, adopted in 1776, “All inhabitants of this Colony…who are worth fifty pounds…clear estate…and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.” Therefore, women who met the property requirements could cast ballots. Suffrage for single women in New Jersey ended in 1807 when the state revised its constitution. However, the fact women could and did vote under the original constitution set a precedent for ending the gendered division of the political community.

    Sidebar \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Political Role of Women in the Early Republic

    On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John that she longed to hear the Continental Congress declared independence. More importantly, she suggested that when the delegates, including her husband, came together to write a new code of laws that they “would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.” She also implied that American women would engage in their own rebellion should they have no voice in the new government. In his response, John noted “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.” John Adams recognized the importance of the women in his life. He would not have been able to serve in the Continental Congress if Abigail did not run the family farm, and all through his years of public service he relied on her for advice on a variety of political issues. However, in 1776 he could not conceive of a shift in the public role of women in American society and his attitude did not seem to bode well for the shortterm future of women’s rights. And yet, later that same year, New Jersey saw fit to allow at least some women the right to vote. Given the public debate during and after Revolution about women’s rights, historians have disagreed on why New Jersey gave women the right to vote.

    Mary Beth Norton maintains “the constitution’s phraseology probably represented a simple oversight on the part of its framers” because the inclusion of women did not spark much debate in New Jersey. In other words, if the public had known about this “novel extension of the suffrage,” then they most surely would have discussed the issue more than they did. On the other hand, Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis argue that the inclusion of women was no oversight, given that delegates debated the issue of suffrage for over a year. Klinghoffer and Elkis suggest “the revolutionary-era political strife responsible…for the politicization of new population segments, including women, was so strong in New Jersey that it led to the extension of the suffrage to single women.” Along the same lines, Marc W. Kruman and Gary B. Nash suggest the discussion of women’s suffrage alone showed how much the revolution transformed American life. In the end, the effort to end women’s suffrage in New Jersey, says Linda Kerber, was “one of a series of conservative choices that Americans made in the postwar years as they avoided the full implication of their own revolutionary radicalism.”


    While fighting a war with Great Britain, the rebellious colonies also framed their individual governments because revolutionary leaders saw constitution-making as an important part of the move toward independence. So in 1776, the Continental Congress instructed the states to set up new governments. For the next five years, the states worked on their constitutions. While the governments they created varied by state, the framers agreed on the need to form republican governments based on the consent of the governed. They also worked diligently to secure the people’s liberties from abuse by the state. To ensure that outcome, most states opted for mixed governments composed of a legislature, a chief executive, and a judiciary. Moreover, a majority of states granted extensive power to the representative assembly, whether they adopted a bicameral or a unicameral system, and they made the governor an administrator rather than a legislator. To prevent corruption, they worked to ensure equal representation in the assemblies and a regular rotation of officeholders. At the same time, most states retained property qualifications for government service. While most states agreed on the structure of government, questions about the structure of the legislative branch and the composition of the electorate divided the population. In Pennsylvania, elitists opposed the decision to adopt a unicameral legislature. In Massachusetts, democrats opposed retaining high property qualifications for voting. In New Jersey, the delegates took the unprecedented step of allowing single women the right to vote. The debates over the provisions of the state constitutions showed how much the political thought in the Revolutionary Era affected the American people; they also influenced the drafting of a national constitution.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    As the states began to adopt constitutions during the Revolutionary War, they chose to create republics over monarchies or democracies.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Which of the following men drafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom?

    1. George Mason
    2. George Washington
    3. James Madison
    4. Thomas Jefferson


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Pennsylvania adopted one of the most conservative constitutions of the Revolutionary Era.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    No state constitution in the Revolutionary Era allowed women the right to vote.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 9.1: The State Governments is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.