Constitution Day: Translating the Constitution

Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Constitution Day is celebrated on September 17, 1787—the day that the majority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention approved the document they had been working on in Philadelphia since May. But the Constitution wouldn’t become the official framework of the federal government until June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it, as laid out in Article VII:

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

The months between signing and ratification were a busy period for the country. The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention had been kept secret, so each state needed to inform its voters of what exactly the proposed new government contained. Congress therefore directed the state legislatures to call ratification conventions in each state, with delegates specifically elected to approve or disapprove the new government.

However, this meant that each state from New Hampshire to Georgia had to receive a copy of the text, submit it to public debate, elect delegates, meet, vote, and return the results to Philadelphia. In an era where the speed of travel was limited by horseback, stagecoach, and boat, this was no quick feat. After the end of the Convention the news of the Constitution spread out in a wave, and thousands of copies were republished by local printers and distributed for debate. A flurry of newspaper articles, pamphlets, and public meetings followed, hotly debating whether the Constitution would be a good framework for a new national government.

Part of the debate and ratification process involved translation: non-negligible portions of the electorate spoke languages other than English. To reach them, the document was translated into Dutch in New York and German in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

In New York, Charles Webster of Albany printed the text of the Constitution in Dutch in 1788, published as “De Constitutie, eenpariglyk geaccordeerd by de Algemeene Conventie, gehouden in de Stad von Philadelphia, in ‘t jaar 1787.” The Dutch translation was commissioned “by Order van de [of the] Federal Committee,” a group lobbying for the ratification of the Constitution in New York. Eligibility in New York to vote for convention delegates was open to any free white male over 21 years of age, so getting the word out to voters before the election of delegates to the state ratification convention in April was of vital importance to the Federalist cause. 

About one-third of the Pennsylvania’s population spoke German as its primary language, and on September 24 and 25, the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered 3,000 copies of the Constitution to be printed in English and 1,500 copies of the Constitution to be printed in German and “distributed throughout th[ e] state for the inhabitants thereof.” The Assembly’s official German printing (“Verfahren der Vereinigten Convention, gehalten zu Philadelphia, in dem Jahr 1787, und dem Zwolften Jahr der Americanischen Unabhangigkeit”) was done by Michael Billmeyer; meanwhile, the Philadelphia-based Gemeinnutizge Philadelphische Correspondenz printed the Constitution in German on September 25, and on September 26 it appeared in the Neue Unpartheyische Lancaster Zeitung of Lancaster.

In Maryland, the state government authorized a German translation of the Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in November of 1787, published by Matthias Bartgis of Frederick. The resolution as voted upon by the House of Delegates in November 1787 read: 

“Ordered that the printer in Frederick Town be directed to translate into the German language the proceedings of the committee on Federal constitution and resolves of the general assembly thereon, to be distributed, and print 300 copies, said copies to be equally distributed in Frederick, Washington and Baltimore counties.”

Within the first 20 days after the end of the Convention, at least 55 of the approximately 80 American newspapers had printed the Constitution. Three states ratified it by the end of the year—Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—followed by Georgia and Connecticut in early January.

Ratification came slower for states such as Massachusetts, which criticized the document for its lack of constitutional protections for freedom of religion, speech, and the press. A compromise with the promise of amendments that would come to be known as the Bill of Rights led to ratification in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. 

New Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21, 1788, allowing the new federal government under the Constitution to begin on March 4, 1789. Though overshadowed by the more famous documents of Constitutional debate such as the Federalist Papers, the efforts of German and Dutch language printers to translate and publish the Constitution, and the state governments that commissioned non-English printings of the Constitution, are a reminder that the United States has never been a monolith.

Learn more about the U.S. Constitution and Constitution Day in these posts:

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