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The Framing of the United States Constitution: A Beginner’s Guide

This post is coauthored by Barbara Bavis, instructional librarian, and Robert Brammer, senior legal information specialist.

We often receive questions from patrons who are interested in researching the original intent of the framers of the United States Constitution. Since the framers were not necessarily all of one mind and, on occasion, there was no debate on certain provisions, there is no perfect answer to this question. That said, there are many sources that you can turn to for more information about the framing of the United States Constitution.

I. Sources Available Online

Luckily, many of the resources available regarding the framing of the United States Constitution have been digitized and made freely available on Library of Congress websites.  Below, you will find a summary of the documents of interest, broken down by time period, and details regarding where they can be found online.

Peale's silhouettes of Georgia delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 1787. Photograph by Major H. Wyant (Created in 1937). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Reading Room. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a42686

Peale’s silhouettes of Georgia delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 1787. Photograph by Major H. Wyant (Created in 1937). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a42686

Constitutional Convention of 1787

Researchers will likely want to begin their research with The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, colloquially named Farrand’s Records, after its initial editor, Max Farrand. Farrand’s Records is a four-volume set of documentary records of the Constitutional Convention, containing “notes taken at that time by James Madison, and later revised by him, [ . . . ] notes and letters by many other participants, as well as the various constitutional plans proposed during the convention.” Researchers can find the first three volumes of Farrand’s Records, along with the general index (which takes up most of the fourth volume), digitized at the Library of Congress’s A Century of Lawmaking for A New Nation website, which we have discussed on this blog in the past. Researchers will also want to consult the Journals of the Continental Congress, the records of the daily proceedings of the Congress as kept by the office of its secretary.

Ratification

Next, researchers will likely want to turn to The Federalist, commonly known as the Federalist Papers, which can be found on Congress.gov, the official website for U.S. legislative information.  The Federalist Papers consist of a series of essays, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, that were published under a pseudonym in newspapers throughout New York state.  These essays were written to advocate for the ratification of the Federal Constitution (at that time, proposed), by outlining and promoting the features of a stronger federal government and providing discussion of the problems with the Articles of Confederation.

For additional information about the Federalist Papers, you may want to review the “About the Federalist Papers” website on Congress.gov, or the “Primary Documents in American History: The Federalist Papers” web guide on the Library of Congress website.

In order to be operative, nine of the thirteen states had to adopt the new Federal Constitution. The collection titled The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, otherwise known as Elliot’s Debates, named for its initial editor, Jonathan Elliot, provide insight into the debates of the state conventions created to consider this question.  All five volumes of Elliot’s Debates can be found on the A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation website.

An Overview of the U.S. Constitution with Subsequent Amendments and U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

This post has covered resources that can help you research the framing of the U.S. Constitution. More information about the formation of the United States Constitution, as well as historical changes and subsequent amendments to the U.S. Constitution, can be found in Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretationcommonly known as the Constitution Annotated.  Authored by “[c]onstitutional law experts from the Congressional Research Service,” the Constitution Annotated “contains legal analysis and interpretation of the United States Constitution, based primarily on Supreme Court case law.”  This helpful resource, along with a Library of Congress study guide about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, can be found in the “Founding Documents” section on Congress.gov.

II. Print Sources

In addition to the documents linked above, several researchers have created resources regarding the formation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  Some selections from the Library of Congress collection include:

Sources available in print can be found in a library near you using Worldcat. Just type in the name of the text, choose a result, and type in your zip code to locate the item(s) in a library near you.

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