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“The Constitution in the Cultural and Political Imaginings of the American Public”

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The final version of the United States Constitution was agreed upon by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention on September 15, 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On September 17, Jacob Shallus, an assistant clerk for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, was hired to copy out the document in a clear italic script on a piece of parchment. On September 18, 1787, a printed copy was authorized and printed by John Dunlap and David Claypoole. It is therefore evident that, in their earliest forms, manuscript and print versions of the Constitution were contemporaneous and existed side-by-side. However, in modern cultural imaginings of the public, American and abroad, the authoritative copy of the Constitution that comes to mind is the manuscript copy penned by Jacob Shallus for exclusive use of the Convention delegates. The printed copies have largely faded from memory. This was not always the case: the parchment Constitution did not definitively supersede its printed counterparts until the latter half of the 19th century. Today, with the rise of digital technologies that have recovered and made publicly available earlier drafts and editions in both manuscript and print, we are in a unique position to reassemble these various mediums in a more comprehensive frame of reference. Doing so not only grants us a more complete picture of history and encourages public and individualized interaction with the Constitution—it also opens up the possibility of grappling with its actual content in a way that more closely resembles the grueling and painstaking deliberations undertaken by delegates to the 1787 convention.

According to the article titled “The Constitution: How Was it Made?” on the National Archives website, Jacob Shallus was paid $30 for the 40 hours he spent engrossing the final version of the Constitution agreed upon by Convention delegates so that the final document was ready for signing on September 17. Simultaneously, the printers John Dunlap and David Claypoole were at work in their workshop preparing 500 copies of their first edition of the Constitution, “some to be given to the Convention delegates as they departed, and some to be transmitted to the Congress of the Confederation.”1 A copy of this first edition has been digitized by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and can also be found under our resource collection “Drafts and Editions of the Constitution.” Given the temporal congruence of these two acts of textual preparation, it would appear that at the outset, neither form was privileged over the other—the need for their production was of equal urgency and importance, but they were intended for different purposes and audiences. The document that had been engrossed by the calligrapher Jacob Shallus marked physically and symbolically the approval of convention members as it provided them the space for officially signing off on the final version of the Constitution. Printed copies of the Constitution, by contrast, were disseminated among delegates as working papers.2 The drafts owned by Edmund Randolph and Jacob Broom do in fact demonstrate that these printed copies served a functional purpose as Broom’s copy bears evidence of active reading in the form of marginal annotations commenting on the text.

While Dunlap and Claypoole’s edition served a predominantly legal purpose (the HSP Digital Library describes the document as “this is the official edition, printed on large type, single columns, by the Convention, for submission to Congress, with the Resolutions, and Letter, added”), the medium of print was also used for the Constitution’s wider circulation among the public. On September 19, 1787, just a day after Shallus’ engrossed copy was ready, the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser (run by Dunlap and Claypoole) also printed a version of the Constitution for circulation.3 It was presumably in this format that the literate American public would have had access to the nation’s founding document that had been debated for the past four months behind closed doors. And readers did actively engage with the American Constitution in this form, as demonstrated by the marginal annotations “in an unknown hand” on the digitized copy held by the HSP Digital Library. Other newspapers also printed full copies of the Constitution in 1787: for example, the Maryland Gazette printed the “Plan of the New Federal Government” on September 22, 1787.

On September 28, 1789, Congress “voted unanimously…to send the proposed Constitution to the People of each state for ratification, [and] Secretary of Congress Charles Thompson reprinted 100 copies of the September 18 print for transmission to the states.”4 Legal historian Akhil Reed Amar continues: "the September 28 reprint…was itself reprinted—with great fidelity—in lots of up to 10,000 for mass distribution to the polity…And this was the version that 9 out of 14 ratifying conventions expressly included in their formal instruments of ratification submitted to Secretary Thompson."

By 1789, Congressed authorized the printing of a “correct copy of the Constitution of the United States” which was printed in 1789 by Francis Childes and John Swaine [and] followed…the printed archetype of September 28, 1787—not the engrossed parchment”5. Suffice to say, that the American public of the late eighteenth century was much more familiar with the copies of the Constitution made available to them through print; the engrossed parchment had faded, or never even entered, the public eye.

According to the National Archives website, the copy of the Constitution penned by Shallus was in the possession of the Department of State from 1796 on. The Archive’s entry on “A More Perfect Union,” states that the Constitution did not travel alongside the Constitution to Independence Hall in Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Celebration. Nevertheless, Akhil Amar writes that “in 1876 the State Department put the hand-signed engrossed parchment on public display side by side with the hand-signed engrossed parchment of the Declaration of Independence….” He interprets this as the decisive moment in which notions of an authoritative copy of “The Constitution” shifted from print copies to the engrossed parchment due to the ‘centennial magic’ of the Declaration and the need for national reconciliation in the wake of the Civil War. He further elaborates: "Only two years later, in 1878, the parchment was first reproduced under the direction of Congress as the apparent official text of the Constitution. Since then, ‘the engrossed copy of the Constitution has been the commonly accepted archetype…’”

The engrossed Constitution was moved from the State Department and put on display in the Library of Congress in 1924, under the direction of an executive order given by President Warren Harding. Although the cornerstone for the National Archives building was laid in 1933, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were not transported to the Archives until December 13, 1952. More recently, in 2003, the National Archives underwent a massive conservation project which treated and re-encased the two documents to ensure their preservation. Today, visitors to the National Archives can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, “America’s Founding Documents,” on display in the Archives’ “Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.”

Although the documents did not arrive until 1952, the design for the Rotunda was completed in 19376 ; its lofted ceiling, neoclassical pillars and symmetrical design evokes a sense of awe in any visitor. It is designed to be grand and overwhelming, eliciting respect and admiration. This sense of grandeur also imbues the documents on display with an immense sense of authority. In this configuration, the parchment Constitution has, most apparently, superseded its printed counterparts. So much so, in fact that President Herbert Hoover, at the laying of the Archives’ cornerstone, said:

“There will be aggregated here the most sacred documents of our history—the originals7 of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution of the United States.”

By using the word “original,” President Hoover’s remarks seem to portray the parchment Constitution as being not only the “first” in a temporal sense, but also “primary” in terms of textual and legal authority. His statement reflects the image most Americans hold in their head when they think of the Constitution: Shallus’ engrossed copy in the Rotunda of the National Archives. This is such a widely held view that the National Archives even sells “historic facsimiles” of America’s founding documents on parchment paper.

The transition of the authoritative copy can be explained by a variety of practical, historical and cultural matters: printer errors were compounded in reprints until no authoritative copy could be identified, the parchment was lost and rediscovered, and, quite frankly, lends itself better to display than the pages of a newspaper would.8 Due to the number of printed copies available and their reproducibility, they might subsequently be seen as less valuable and therefore less important to preserve. Nevertheless, the history of the Constitution’s production, in its various forms, should not be forgotten—rather, it should be studied alongside the copy penned by Jacob Shallus. The Constitution’s authority should not stem from its physicality or the grandeur of its presentation, but rather from the text itself—a text that depended equally on the framers of the document and on the ratifiers in state conventions who voted to adopt it as the supreme law of the land. It just so happens that, as Amar writes, the September 28 print, which differs slightly in spelling and punctuation from the parchment copy, was the working document sent to the states and therefore adopted by all the people of the United States in state ratifying conventions. In this case, given that the study of an entire nation’s Constitution is at hand, it might be worth widening this conceptual framework to include printed copies, annotated drafts and newspaper reprints so that we might revisit how common (non-government-position-holding) Americans might interact with this document not as a matter of state, but as an embodiment of the laws governing their existence and participation in government. Rather than letting the Constitution become “a[n]… untouchable relic of a bygone age when giants walked the earth,”9 an approach which takes into consideration the many drafts and copies of the Constitution encourages ordinary citizens to be involved with the process, just as the framers, ratifiers and all the federalists and anti-federalists participating in the debate about ratification were.

The fact that the text of the Constitution is now widely available online, in facsimile and critical editions presents the most modern parallel of the printed editions. All Americans, in fact all people, with access to a computer and the internet, have access to a copy of the Constitution should they desire it. The enshrinement of the manuscript, while an enormously important task of historical preservation, may been seen in part to contribute to a narrative of singularity inconsistent with the aims undergirding the initial dissemination of the document. Rather than viewing the manuscript copy as a definitive copy of “The Constitution,” it might be more productive and accurate to think of the existence of many Constitutions. For it was the final iterations of the text itself, whatever form it took, that was most important. While the textuality of the various documents matters, the Constitution as a digital form today contains, for the most part, the same text as the printed and manuscript forms, meaning all (reliable) variant forms should be considered equal in terms of authority—the Convention delegates spent months debating the intricate details of the language itself (this process being the subject of the Quill project’s convention platform) meaning that the content, not the document’s mystification, is what matters. Redefining the various forms taken by the Constitution in its creation and dissemination enables modern Americans, and scholars from around the world, to take more of an interest in the nation’s founding document. It reveals that, though “The Constitution” is held and preserved by the National Archives, the basis for American government resides in various mediums, the most important of which are the ones leading to it being read. Rather than being conceptualized of as an historical artifact that belongs behind glass in a museum, the American Constitution should be viewed as a dynamic text that is meant to be critically engaged with by the nation’s citizens who, in so doing, not only become politically more informed but also participate in a tradition of textual transmission, annotating and editing dating back to the formation of the document itself.

Eileen Jakeway

  1. Henry Bain “Errors in the Constitution—Typographical and Congressional” in Prologue Magazine: Fall 2012, Vol. 44, No. 2 

  2. In “Our Forgotten Constitution: A Bicentennial Comment,” (Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository: 1987), Akhil Reed Amar remarks that the first printed copies were mostly likely commissioned for the delegates to follow along with as the engrossed copy was read aloud to them and presented for their signatures. He writes: “More likely, each delegate simply referred to his own printed copy of a draft Constitution that the Committee of Style had distributed on September 12, and that had served thereafter as the Convention’s working paper” (283). This September 12 print varied slightly in punctuation from the print disseminated on September 18 to the remaining delegate members, which later served as the basis for the authoritative September 28 reprint. 

  3. While beyond the scope of this blog post, it would be of note to compare the first and second editions Dunlap and Claypoole printed for Congress with the copy printed in the newspaper to see if/how they differ. For more on typographical errors in the Constitution, see Henry Bain, “Errors in the Constitution—Typographical and Congressional” in Prologue Magazine: Fall 2012, Vol. 44, No. 2. 

  4. Akhil Reed Amar, “Our Forgotten Constitution: A Bicentennial Comment” in Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository (1987), 283. 

  5. Akhil Reed Amar, “Our Forgotten Constitution: A Bicentennial Comment” in Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository (1987), 284. 

  6. See A Short History of the National Archives Building, Washington, DC; 

  7. Emphasis mine. 

  8. I have not yet explored the publication/distribution history of the Declaration of Independence. 

  9. Amar, 290.