Drafting the U.S. Constitution

September 17 is designated as Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787.

The National Archives is the home to the original, engrossed Constitution of the United States, which is displayed in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. But that isn’t the only version of the Constitution housed in the National Archives. Before Jacob Shallus, the assistant clerk for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, engrossed the parchment version on display, printers—who were sworn to secrecy—produced drafts of the Constitution for use by the Convention’s delegates. 

During the summer of 1787, while delegates met in Philadelphia, the company Dunlap & Claypoole, which consisted of printers John Dunlap—of Dunlap Broadside fame—and his partner David Claypoole, made two printings of committee proposals containing draft text of the Constitution. The two men had been printing for Congress for years. In fact, Dunlap had spent most of that summer in New York City, where Congress was meeting, so it’s likely Claypoole did most of the work for the Convention. Of the estimated 120 printed drafts that they made for the Convention, the National Archives has three. 

Two of them are the first printed draft as reported by the Committee of Detail on August 6, 1787. After the delegates had agreed to 23 general resolutions, based primarily on the Virginia Plan, they elected members to the Committee of Detail to draft a document. Committee members included Oliver Ellsworth (CT), Nathaniel Gorham (MA), Edmund Randolph (VA), John Rutledge (SC), and James Wilson (PA).

On August 6, 1787, Rutledge delivered a working draft of the proposed Constitution and provided printed copies to the delegates. Most obvious on the draft is the Preamble, which did not begin with the familiar, “We the People of the United States,” but rather started with, “We the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island…” etc. 

One of our copies (above) is from the papers of David Brearley, a delegate from New Jersey. It included his notations in the margins of the Convention’s work.

The other copy (below) is George Washington’s, who presided over the Convention. It was annotated by both Washington and William Jackson, the convention’s secretary. Washington and Jackson’s annotations included the additions and deletions that delegates adopted between August 6 and September 3.

Both the Brearley copy and Washington’s copy are eight pages on four folios. Seven of the pages have letterpress printed text with handwritten annotations (the documents were printed offset to allow room for notations). The eighth page contains a handwritten endorsement. The Brearley copy also has a handwritten notation on the back of page 4.  

The National Archives’ third copy is also housed in the papers of David Brearley. It’s the printed draft of the Constitution reported by the Committee on Style and Arrangement. The five members of that committee—Alexander Hamilton (NY), William Johnson (CT), Rufus King (MA), James Madison (VA), and Gouverneur Morris (PA)—were elected on September 8 to revise the style of and arrange the agreed upon articles of the Constitution. The committee worked the Constitution’s text into its near-final form, condensing the 23 articles into seven. Four days later, on September 12, 1787, the committee completed its draft. 

Dunlap & Claypoole also printed copies of the second working draft, which were distributed to the delegates on September 13. Brearley’s copy is also a folio and includes 4 letterpress pages and a handwritten endorsement page. It has Brearley’s handwritten annotations of the changes the delegates made after the document was printed, including the last-minute change to reduce the cap on the number of people House members could represent from 40,000 to 30,000.

Finally, on September 17, “by the unanimous consent of the States present,” delegates signed the Constitution, scribed by Shallus, and then submitted it to Congress for transmittal to the states for ratification. Dunlap & Claypoole were once again tasked with printing and produced 500 copies of the now-final text, but this time there was no need for secrecy. Unfortunately, the National Archives does not have one of these copies, though one of them sold on auction last summer for a record-breaking $43 million.

Also on September 17, the delegates voted that George Washington, as President of the Convention, was to “retain the Journal and other papers, subject to the order of Congress, if ever formed under the Constitution.” Later that evening, Jackson turned over the official records of the Constitutional Convention to Washington. 

Washington held on to the papers until March 19, 1796, when he, now President of the United States, deposited the official records of the Constitutional Convention with Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. Most of those records remained in the custody of the State Department until they were transferred to the Library of Congress in the early 20th century. The State Department, however, held on to some papers, including Washington’s draft Constitution, and sent it to the National Archives in the late 1930s when they transferred their historic records.

Brearley’s copies had a slightly different path to the National Archives. After the Convention, Brearley kept some of his papers, including the two draft versions of the Constitution. On May 22, 1818, almost 20 years after Brearley’s death, Gen. Joseph Bloomfield, the executor of Brearley’s estate, transmitted Brearley’s papers to the Department of State. Unlike Washington’s copy, which the State Department kept, they sent Brearley’s copies to the Library of Congress.

In June 1952 the records of the Constitutional Convention held by the Library of Congress, including Brearley’s drafts, were transferred to the National Archives, where they are now part of Record Group 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. On December 13, 1952, the Library also transferred to the National Archives the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Along with the Bill of Rights, the Declaration and Constitution are on permanent display in the National Archives Museum.

I want to give a big thank you to NARA staff member Trevor Plante for helping me determine the provenance of these documents.

Learn more about the National Archives and the Constitution:

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