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Constitution Day: Records of the Constitutional Convention

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Today, September 17, is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.  This day has been designated by Congress to recognize the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 and to recognize all who have become citizens in the last year.  I thought it would be interesting this year to talk about the history of the Constitutional Convention and the publication of its records.  Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 was published in 1921 and is the most complete version of the records of the Constitutional Convention.  The introduction to this publication provides a fascinating insight into the number of different sources for information about the Convention.

In February 1787, the Continental Congress decided to consider a letter from John Dickinson, who had been the chairman of the Annapolis Convention.   The letter recommended in fairly strong terms that the Articles of Confederation be revised.  Congress upon taking up this letter agreed with the commissioners on the “inefficiency of the federal government and the necessity of devising such farther provisions as shall render the same adequate to the exigencies of the Union …“  They likewise agreed with the Annapolis commissioners that this convention should begin work on the second Monday in May, which was May 14th.  The first group of delegates arrived in Philadelphia by May 14th as directed but it was not until May 25th that a sufficient number of delegates had arrived to make a quorum for business.

The convention began by electing various officers including George Washington as president of the Convention and William Jackson as secretary.  A decision was also made to keep the records of the convention secret at that time.  As well as the records kept by the secretary, a number of the participants kept notes for their own reference.  The most well-known of these note- takers was James Madison.

Before the convention adjourned the secretary for the proceedings, William Jackson, was directed to give the journals and other records of the convention to Washington.   Jackson complied with this directive after he famously destroyed “all the loose scraps of papers” he had in his possession.  Washington then deposited these documents with the U.S. Department of State.  In 1818, Congress passed a joint resolution (ch. VIII, 3 Stat. 475) directing that Jackson’s materials be published and President Monroe asked John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, to oversee the publication.  It was not until this time that anyone seemed to realize that Jackson’s notes were not a tidy transcription of the proceedings but rather notes that were in some disorder.  Jackson was still alive and Adams consulted him without much success.

After consulting with other attendees of the convention, including Charles Pickney and Madison, Adams published the Journal, Acts and Proceedings of the Convention …  which formed the Constitution of the United States in 1819.  The publication included the journals of the Convention and information about votes taken by the Convention. Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson had not dated the votes and in some cases a vote tally appeared without information on the subject of the vote.

After the publication of this journal and waiver of secrecy, other convention attendees or their literary heirs began to publish their own materials.  In 1821, Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled at Philadelphia in the year of 1787 … from the Notes taken by the late Robert Yates, EsqYates had been a delegate from New York but he had left the Convention on July 5, 1787 when he realized that proposal was for a new constitution rather than the amendment of the existing Articles of Confederation.  His notes, while not always detailed, nonetheless provided information about the positions taken by various delegates during the debates.

James Madison’s notes of the convention were published 15 years later after Madison’s death.  They were published in a collection of his papers, The Papers of James Madison.  Madison had striven to make sure he had detailed record of the proceedings:

I chose a seat in front of the presiding member, with the other members on my right and left hand.  In this favorable position for hearing all that passed, I noted in terms legible and in abbreviations and marks intelligible to myself what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members; and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the Convention I was enabled to write my daily notes during the session or within a few finishing days after its close.

Other delegates had seen Madison as a semi-official recorder of Convention and had given him copies of their speeches and motions for inclusion in his notes.  Although Madison lauded himself for his diligence and carefulness in his recording of events at the Convention, after the 1819 publication of Jackson’s journals, he revised his notes of the proceedings and even modified his records of votes based on Jackson’s published Journal and Ralph Yates’ notes.

Other attendees at the Constitutional Convention took notes as well, though none as thorough or extensive as Madison.  Rufus King, James McHenry, William Pierce, William Paterson, and Alexander Hamilton all took notes of varying degrees of detail and length.  When Farrand assembled his Records of the Federal Convention, he was able to rely on all these resources as well as documents printed by the Convention itself to assemble his fascinating look at what happened in Philadelphia so many years ago.

Convention at Philadelphia, 1787. Hartford : Published by Huntington & Hopkins, 1823. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,


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