Encouraging Students to Consider How News of the Constitution First Spread

This post is by Lee Ann Potter, the director of Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives.

In the September 2021 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article considers how news of the Constitution first spread. It includes a reminder that the delegates to the federal convention in Philadelphia worked throughout the summer of 1787 in secret. But almost immediately after they finished their work and signed the Constitution on September 17, the delegates and the press ensured that its complete text was widely shared.

Page one of the Suppliment to the Independent Journal from 9/22/1787 documenting the deliberations on the Constitution

Supplement to the Independent journal, Saturday, September 22, 1787 : copy of the result of the deliberations of the Federal Convention. J. M’Lean and Co., 1787

The article lists many of the newspapers that first carried the document’s text and features the four page Supplement to the Independent Journal, published in New York on Saturday, September 22, 1787, that included the Constitution and its supporting documents—the resolution of the Convention, as well as the letter of transmittal from George Washington (who had served as the convention’s president) to Congress that accompanied the document.

The article also describes how, on September 18, George Washington sent two copies of the Constitution to France—to Thomas Jefferson (who was serving as the U.S. Minister to France) and to the Marquis de Lafayette (the French aristocrat and military leader who fought in the American Revolution and became a close friend of Washington).

To Lafayette, he described the Constitution in this way,

It is the production of four months deliberation. It is now a Child of fortune, to be fostered by some and buffited [sic] by others. what will be the General opinion on, or the reception of it, is not for me to, decide, nor shall I say any thing for or against it—if it be good I suppose it will work its way good—if bad it will recoil on the Framers.”

James Madison also shared the Constitution as an enclosure with a letter to Edmund Pendleton, a friend and colleague who had served in the First Continental Congress, on September 20. He wrote,

I have waited for this opportunity of inclosing you a copy of the proposed Constitution for the U. States. I forbear to make any observations on it; either on the side of its merits or its faults. The best Judges of both will be those who can combine with a knowledge of the collective & permanent interest of America, a freedom from the bias resulting from a participation in the work.”

Our teaching suggestions included sharing with students copies of (or links to) the four-page Supplement to the Independent Journal and leading a class discussion contrasting how news is heard and shared today with the way it was in 1787. Students might find it interesting that the newspaper simply reprinted the complete text of the Constitution and the accompanying documents without additional editorial information or reaction. We also suggested sharing the letters from Washington and Madison and encouraging a discussion about reflection time and its value in allowing discourse and the forming of opinions.

Finally, we suggested encouraging students to conduct original research to find out more about how news of the Constitution spread, including when and how newspapers began publishing reactions to the document.

If you engaged your students with these, or related activities, we invite you to share how it went.