“We the People”: Printings of the US Constitution from the Gilder Lehrman Collection

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In 1787, fifty-five men met in secret to write a constitution for "a more perfect Union." This exhibition of five early printings of the US Constitution opens a window into the process by which the draft evolved into the Constitution we live by today. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is the only institution to hold all of the first five printings of the US Constitution.

On May 25, 1787, the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention opened their first session in Philadelphia’s State House. They posted sentries at the doors to keep their secrets from flying out. Barring the press and the public, the delegates took a vow not to reveal to anyone the words spoken there.

US Constitution, First Draft
This draft of the Constitution was printed secretly for the delegates on August 6, 1787, by Dunlap and Claypoole, the official printer to the Constitutional Convention. In order to make it easier for the delegates to take notes, it was printed with wide margins.

“We the People of the States”

In the August 6 preamble, delegates describe themselves as representatives of “the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island,” etc. They viewed the United States as a confederation of separate states that worked together in limited situations. This view would soon change.

Pierce Butler, Delegate

Pierce Butler, a delegate from South Carolina, ignored the directive to destroy all his notes from the Convention. His notes, shown on the next slide, trace the debates and compromises that led to the final Constitution.

Congress and the Slave Trade

As a slaveholder, Pierce Butler was particularly invested in parts of the Constitution that addressed slavery. In the margin of his personal copy, he noted down a clause that would prevent Congress from ending the slave trade until at least 1808.

US Constitution, Second Draft
This is the second draft of the US Constitution, printed for further discussion on September 12, 1787. The handwritten notes by Pierce Butler on this version show that many changes were still being considered less than a week before the official printing.  

George Washington, President of the Convention

George Washington reluctantly accepted the position of president of the Constitutional Convention. He rarely spoke or took part in the deliberations, but his presence gave legitimacy to the proceedings.

On September 17, as the delegates were preparing to sign the document, a delegate suggested changing the number of Representatives in the House from at least one per 40,000 to one per 30,000. Washington believed the change would increase the chances for ratification, so the Convention voted unanimously to adopt the one per 30,000 rule.

US Constitution, Member’s Copy
Late in the day on September 17, 1787, Dunlap and Claypoole received the final revisions to the US Constitution from the Convention. They worked through the night to print this copy in time to distribute it to the delegates on the morning of September 18.

Benjamin Franklin, Oldest Delegate

At 81 years of age, Franklin was the oldest delegate to the Convention. Benjamin Franklin owned the member’s copy of the Constitution included in this exhibition. He presented it to his nephew Jonathan Williams. The document was discovered in an old trunk by a descendant of the Williams family in 1972.

In his copy of the final Constitution, Franklin underlined “uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies.” Franklin believed that uniform laws throughout the country would lead to equality under the law for all citizens.

Delegates the Sign US Constitution

Although fifty-five delegates attended the Convention over the course of four months, only thirty-nine signed the final document.

US Constitution, First Public Printing
This broadside is the rarest printing of the US Constitution, with only two copies in existence. It is the first edition printed specifically for mass public circulation.

“We, the People of the United States”

The preamble in this printing reads “We, the People of the United States.” The preamble to the first printed draft of August 6, 1787, reads “We the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island,” etc., listing each of the thirteen states. Between the writing of the draft and the final version, the idea of a single, unified nation had been born.

US Constitution, First Newspaper Printing
On September 19, the full text of the US Constitution was published in the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, a newspaper owned by Dunlap and Claypoole. This printing has a unique a place in American history, as it made the Constitution available to a wide readership through the popular press.

Before radio, television, and the Internet, it was through newspapers that Americans read and debated the provisions of the Constitution. In newspapers such as the Freeman’s Journal, Federalists and anti-Federalists picked apart each article and section. Their fierce debates culminated in the ratification of a strong but flexible Constitution that has served as the cornerstone of our republic for 228 years.

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