Thursday, September 17th is Constitution Day and on this date we commemorate the signing of the Constitution. This day also recognizes those who have become citizens of the United States by coming of age or by naturalization. The Law Library frequently celebrates this auspicious day with a lecture or scholarly debate. Over the years we have written about different aspects of the Constitution, its history and various Constitutional amendments. This year I thought it would be helpful to highlight one of our most important resources in answering questions about the Constitution and its history. What is this invaluable resource? It is The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation.
This publication, which celebrated its centennial in 2013, is available both in print and online. At the direction of the Librarian of Congress, this publication is prepared by staff from the Congressional Research Service and, since at least 1964, it has been published as a Senate document. Many of the staff here at the Law Library have an older edition of the print publication in our offices, and there are always two or three current editions available in the Law Library Reading Room.
The publication begins with one of my favorite sections, which is a “Historical Note on the Formation of the Constitution.” This section provides a brief history of the Continental Congress and the problems inherent in the Articles of Confederation. It then provides a more detailed discussion of the events that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The idea had been initially recommended in 1785 by commissioners from Virginia and Maryland who had met at Mount Vernon to draft a compact on the navigation and jurisdiction of the Potomac River. After negotiating this compact, the commissioners recommended that representatives from all the states should meet “to take into consideration the trade of commerce” of the Confederation. The proposal for a trade convention led to a recommendation that delegates from all the states should meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to examine the problems with the current system of government and craft “a plan for supplying such defects as may be discovered.”
The rest of the Historical Note provides details on the drafting of the Constitution and at the end of the note there are several paragraphs which detail the ratification of the Constitution by the states. Likewise, the Literal Print (text without annotations) section of the amendments to the Constitution includes information about the dates of passage of the amendments in Congress as well as dates on which the various states ratified the Amendments. Footnote 1 on page three of the Literal Print of the Amendments provides important information as to what the dates of ratification were understood to be: “In Dillon v. Gloss, 256 U.S. 368 (1921), the Supreme Court stated that it would take judicial notice of the date on which a State ratified a proposed constitutional amendment.” The date on which a governor approved the ratification or the date on which the secretary of the state certified the ratification were not “controlling” unless it could not be determined from state journals the date on which ratification had occurred.
The Historical Note and literal prints of the Constitution and Amendments are followed by the text of proposed amendments which were not ratified by the states. This is not a list of all proposed amendments to the Constitution over the last two centuries; it is rather the text of those six proposed amendments which passed Congress but were not ratified by the states. The bulk of the publication is the annotated text of the Constitution and Amendments. The annotations include cases decided by the Supreme Court which “bear significantly upon the analysis and interpretation of the Constitution” (Pub.L. 91-589, 84 Stat.1585). Each new edition of the Annotated Constitution includes recent Supreme Court decisions so that the document is kept up-to-date.
I love the U.S. Constitution, from the ringing rhetoric of the preamble “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution;” to the first three articles that set out our tripartite form of government; to Article V which provides a process for amending the Constitution; to the amendments themselves which reflect how we have changed as a country. The annotations in this publication allow for an even deeper understanding of these changes in history and law. Although the Annotated Constitution is a big volume (see picture), it is a marvelous source of information about this most important document in our country.