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U.S. Constitutional Convention 1787 (2021 Edition)

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Grand Convention at Philadelphia, May to September, 1787, Quill Project 2021 Edition.

Person icon People: 59, Procedure icon Procedures: 391, Document icon Documents: 89, Voting icon Decisions: 1468 View more »

The Constitution of the United States of America was written by a Constitutional Convention held in the summer of 1787. Between May and September, a group of delegates from most states met to debate in secret to negotiate a text that was then presented to the states of the Union.

They adopted a formal process for their discussions, considering precisely worded motions in a series of sub-committees as well as in the main Convention itself. The formal – sometimes even pedantic – nature of this process is what has enabled the reconstruction of events offered here.

The most important of these subordinate committees was the Committee of the Whole House, which met during the first weeks of the convention and involved every member of every delegation. The report of that committee was then reconsidered in detail by the same members sitting as the Convention itself, which gave them a second chance to consider the same issues. Some controversial issues were sent to smaller sub-committees, and then the whole report of the Convention was sent to a Committee of Detail. The report of that committee was then reconsidered clause by clause in the main Convention, with some final work and redrafting being done by smaller committees.

The work of the Convention is preserved in the Official Journal, as well as in a number of privately kept diaries. For any requested moment, the Quill platform enables the process of debate to be examined in detail, reconciles the various motions presented to the Convention with the votes that have been taken, and reconstructs as accurately as possible the texts as they would have been available to members of the Convention at the requested point.

Notes on the 2021 Edition

The 2021 edition of the Records of the 1787 Convention largely builds on work undertaken for the 2019 edition (which will remain available). The major change in this edition is our approach to the presentation of the primary sources upon which have been used to construct the model.

The 2016 and 2019 Quill Project publications displayed only the quotations from the various source materials necessary to reconstruct the various moments in the Convention, preferring the Journal, then Madison's Notes, then other extant material. Duplicate information, however, was omitted -- if the journal record alone was sufficient to reconstruct the fact that a particular proposal had been made, no other sources were presented.

A new approach has been taken for this edition. For the first time, this presentation allows readers to see the relevant quotations from all extant records that pertain to particular moments in the Convention, which have been added as additional descriptions to each event in the committee timelines, even where information is duplicated. We hope that this will allow readers to more easily compare the way in which particular events are described by different writers.

Adding these additional descriptions often presented their own difficulties. The less well-known records of the Convention were sporadic in their coverage, or written with less precision than Madison's, making it sometimes difficult to attribute the record to particular moments in the timeline. Where appropriate, the editors have included notes explaining their choices. Perhaps of greatest interest, given recent debates over the nature of the sources, is the ability to directly compare what is written in the Journal with that which was recorded and published by Madison.

Most significant among other changes is that the presentation of the work of the Committee of the Whole has been adjusted to more consistently represent the process of debate, which brings an additional clarity to these discussions. In addition, a revision of the presentation of voting records has been undertaken, including a more systematic attempt to track which delegations were quorate at particular times.

The work for the 2020 edition was undertaken by Lauren Davis, Elizabeth Green, and Grace Penn, at Pembroke College Oxford, over the course of 2020-21.

The 2019 Edition

The model presented here is chiefly based on the 1911 publication, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, by Max Farrand, with some modern additions. The new 2019 model, created and edited by Kieran Hazzard and Lauren Davis, is a significant revision to the 2016 publication by the Quill Project. This edition builds on the previous edition, created principally by Grace Mallon, while taking in to account recent publications and scholarship. The new edition is much more detailed, accurate and comprehensive, while employing a modelling philosophy designed to present the events in an easy to understand format. This edition also takes advantage of new technological features and developments within the Quill platform and has integrated additional material that could not be included for the 2016 proof-of-concept. The result is a more consistent and complete presentation of the surviving records.

There are several major additions and improvements to the modelling of the Convention undertaken in this edition. These include the integration of a greater range of sources in recreating the events of 1787, such as Lansing’s Notes, and the large body of material collected by James Hutson in his Supplement to Max Farrand’s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787.

Committee of Detail Improved

Frustratingly, the work of the Committee of Detail and that of the other subcommittees was not recorded by the committees, either officially or in any extant private diary. Where it has not been possible to reconstruct the exact work of a committee, the available texts (at least, for example, the committee's final report) have been presented instead. However, this edition has modelled the documentary reconstruction undertaken by William Ewald and Lorianne Updike Toler in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography , Vol. CXXXV, No. 3. This has resulted in a much clearer picture of the process of framing a constitution which took place in the Committee of Detail.

New Resources

There are several new resource collections available to readers. Those looking for the rival plans proposed to the Convention or the major milestones reached as the final document took shape will find these easily available. We have taken the decision to include information about the informal meetings of delegates that took place outside of the official structure of the Convention. These meetings are attested to in diaries and private correspondence – though because of their nature, no presentation of such meetings can ever be complete. These fringe meetings give an insight into the side-line strategizing and negotiating, as well as the social events and friendships which existed between delegates.

The final major addition is an editorial commentary on the veracity of Madison’s Notes. Mary Sarah Bilder’s book, Madison’s Hand, details the reasoning, method and evidence behind the editing which Madison undertook several years after the Convention. As his notes are the main source of information for what was said in the Convention and many of its decisions her work has significant implications for our understanding, particularly in the last two months, after several of the earlier dairy writers had left. Within the model, all of the additions mad by Madison identified by Farrand, have been placed within angle brackets. The commentary will help readers to find where Madison made larger changes and the nature of these changes according to Bilder’s account.

Methodology

A number of editorial choices have had to be made throughout, and these are explained more fully in the descriptions throughout the work and in separate editors' notes that explore more difficult and technical points of detail. In modelling the work of the Convention, the starting point remained the official journal, kept by William Jackson, the Convention's secretary. Which was compared to the other surviving records of each day, in order to reconstruct the process and debates which took place.

In only extremely rare instances (at least in the plenary sessions and the Committee of the Whole) is there any difficulty in reconstructing the wording being considered by the Convention. No significant discrepancies exist between surviving accounts. On the other hand, reconstructing the exact sequence of events within each session proved more difficult. Jackson in particular took liberties with that aspect of the record. Where any ambiguities exist, they are explained in the editors' notes. For the most part, however, the sequence of proposals and decisions can be confidently reconstructed from the surviving sources. Where ambiguities remain, it is as much the result of a slightly confused and (even for participants) confusing process during the final stages of revision, as they are a result of deficiencies in record-keeping.

Full Record

This page shows the complete source-material for this negotiation.

Users with the appropriate permission can use this screen to make changes to the convention records from here.

Full Record »

Guided Research Tools

Guided Research Tools

This page gives access to the main visualizations used to explore the work of committees or individuals.

It is the best place to start if you have specific research questions to investigate.

Guided Research Tools »

Calendar View

Calendar View

This view shows a timeline of the events with an indication the
flow of documents between committees.

This will help make sense of the relationship between committees. The page also shows how busy committees were at different times.

Calendar View »

Statistics View

Statistics View

This view offers summary information about the process of negotiation.

Statistics View »

Topic Overview

Topic Overview

This view shows a summary of the topic keywords associated with events during this negotiation, and
allows users to find events associated with each keyword.

Topic Overview »

Activity Summary

Activity Summary

This page offers a series of views for exploring the work of those involved in this process of negotiation, focusing on the hierarchical
relationship of proposals rather than on the sequence of events. Other tools presented here show the volume of work handled by each committee, or the number of events that each
individual played a leading roll in.

Activity Summary »

Current Document Library

Current Document Library

A tool mostly useful for those using Quill to run meetings.

This page shows the documents currently agreed to or under consideration by various committees.

Current Document Library »

Cite as: Lauren Davis, Kieran Hazzard, Elizabeth Green, Grace Penn, and Grace Mallon (eds.), U.S. Constitutional Convention 1787 (2021 Edition), Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, 2021).