American Treasures: Documenting the Nation's Founding

Explore rare documents that trace the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Could 13 independent states form an enduring republic? Written in Philadelphia three centuries ago, the United States Constitution was a bold experiment. In this exhibit, rare documents chart the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1789—showing how the Framers created a stronger, more effective federal government with limited powers to protect individual rights.

Constitution of the United States (1787) by Constitutional Convention, penman Jacob ShallusOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives

Drafting the Constitution

Fifty-five men attended at least part of the Constitutional Convention, held from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia. Chosen by their state legislatures, they received instructions from the Continental Congress to revise the failing Articles of Confederation. On the fourth day of the convention, the delegates voted to form a national government with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. After a summer spent debating and drafting, they arrived at the final text. The following documents—some of which are the only ones in existence—show the steps the delegates took to reach their goal: a Constitution for “We the People."

Yard behind the Pennsylvania State House (1799-1800) by William Russell BirchOriginal Source: Library Company of Philadelphia

May 1787: Getting

The Constitutional Convention was set to begin on May 14—but only delegates from Virginia and Pennsylvania were present. As they waited for more arrivals, James Madison of Virginia, along with James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, drafted a plan of government. This proposal helped set the agenda for the debates that followed. Within 11 days, delegates from a majority of the states had arrived in Philadelphia. They elected George Washington as convention president and established their rules. The delegates also agreed to keep their deliberations confidential, so they could change their minds and build consensus without outside interference.

Virginia Plan (1787) by James Madison, in George Washington’s handOriginal Source: Library of Congress

George Washington made this copy of the Virginia Plan. Drafted with fellow delegates from Virginia and Pennsylvania, James Madison’s plan was presented first at the Constitutional Convention. It proposed a national government with three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) and a system of checks and balances. However, many of Madison’s ideas did not make it to the final draft, including an executive selected by Congress and an upper legislative house with representation based on population.

Map of the United States of America (1784) by Carington BowlesOriginal Source: Library of Congress

June and July 1787: Finding Compromise

From June to July, the delegates debated the Virginia Plan. Battle lines were drawn between large states and small states over the proposal to allot representation in both houses of Congress based on population. Fighting back, the small states presented the New Jersey Plan to ensure all states had an equal voice. It included only one legislative house with each state getting one vote, but the plan was ultimately defeated. The convention remained at an impasse before reaching a compromise: Congress would consist of two houses with representation based on population in the House of Representatives and equal state representation in the Senate.

James Wilson (ca. 1936) by Robert S. Susan, after Leopold G. Seyffert, after Max RosenthalOriginal Source: Supreme Court of the United States

Meet James Wilson

Born and educated in Scotland, James Wilson came to America in 1765, emerging as a leading lawyer, intellectual, and politician in Pennsylvania. He was one of the most influential and outspoken delegates at the Constitutional Convention and supported a stronger national government rooted in popular sovereignty. Respected for his knowledge of political theory, Wilson played a critical role on the Committee of Detail, writing almost all of the earliest drafts of the Constitution.

Report of the Convention’s Resolutions (July 24, 1787) by James WilsonOriginal Source: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

This is the first draft of what would become the U.S. Constitution. Recorded by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, it lists the resolutions that the delegates passed during the first two months of the convention. Wilson, serving on a committee with four other delegates, used this draft to create the next version of the text. It stands as one of the most significant constitutional documents in American history.

U.S. Capitol (1800) by William Russell BirchOriginal Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

August 1787: Working Out the Details

The delegates had been meeting at the State House almost daily for five to seven hours since the convention started. At the end of July, they took a 10-day break and selected a five-member Committee of Detail to craft a new plan from the agreed-upon resolutions. When the delegates reconvened, they received a 23-article report largely drafted by James Wilson. For the rest of August, they discussed, revised, and voted on each article, working out critical details from the powers of each branch to the qualifications and term lengths for various offices. They also fiercely debated the divisive issue of slavery.

Slave Shackles (1830s)Original Source: National Constitution Center

Heavy iron shackles like these were used to restrain an enslaved person during transit or as a punishment. According to the 1790 census, the United States consisted of nearly 3.9 million people—694,280 of whom were enslaved. Nearly half of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were slaveholders; they grappled with the issue, unable to transcend their views on property rights and the interests of their individual states. Rather than ending or limiting slavery, they protected the practice, allowing the importation of slaves to continue for at least 20 more years.

Manuscript of the Committee of Detail Report (August 3, 1787) by James WilsonOriginal Source: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

James Wilson wrote this priceless draft of the Constitution during a 10-day break, while serving on the Committee of Detail. Consisting of five members who represented states from different geographic regions, this committee brought order to the convention’s proceedings. They drew upon the adopted resolutions and presented plans—making many edits and additions to create a preliminary draft of the Constitution.

Proof Copy of the Committee of Detail Report (August 4-5, 1787) by Committee of Detail, annotated by Edmund RandolphOriginal Source: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Committee of Detail gave James Wilson’s manuscript to Philadelphia printers John Dunlap and David Claypoole. This is the only known proof copy, which was submitted to the committee for their review. Virginian Edmund Randolph made 11 handwritten corrections to this report. By the time the delegates reconvened on August 6, revised copies had been printed for all of them.

Signing of the Constitution (1940) by Howard Chandler ChristyOriginal Source: U.S. Capitol

September 1787: The Final Push

After solving a few lingering issues—including the election of the president via the Electoral College—the delegates created another five-member team to polish and arrange the text: the Committee of Style. In about three days, they drafted a nearly finalized document, turning 23 articles into seven. The delegates spent the last four days of the convention reviewing the articles and making adjustments. On September 15, the states that were present voted to approve the Constitution, with three dissenters voicing their objections. An official, handwritten copy was signed by almost all of the 41 delegates who remained on September 17.

Gouverneur Morris (1810) by James Sharples, Jr.Original Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Meet Gouverneur Morris

Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris joined James Madison and James Wilson in arguing forcefully for a national government. Born into a wealthy New York family, Morris left as a young man to practice law in Philadelphia, where he lost his leg in a carriage accident. He spoke more than any other delegate at the convention, and he is credited as being the primary writer of the Constitution’s final text.

Committee of Style Report (September 12, 1787) by Committee of Style, annotated by Jacob BroomOriginal Source: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Committee of Style submitted printed copies of the almost final draft of the Constitution to the other delegates—like this one belonging to Delawarean Jacob Broom showing his notations. While members of the committee included James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris is credited with polishing and arranging much of the text seen here.

Official Printing of the U.S. Constitution (September 17, 1787) by Constitutional Convention of 1787Original Source: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The final version of the Constitution was printed for the delegates as well as to share with Congress and the states. On the day of the signing, a few last-minute alterations forced those initial copies to be thrown out. John Dunlap and David Claypoole quickly printed corrected editions—a rare copy of which is seen here. All future printings originated from this broadside.

The Federal Pillars (1788)Original Source: Library of Congress


To ratify the Constitution, the delegates decided that each state would hold special conventions to decide whether or not to accept the entire document. Nine of the states did so by June 1788, and the Constitution went into effect in those states. While North Carolina and Rhode Island initially held out, all 13 states approved the Constitution by May 1790.

Bill of Rights (1789) by United States Congress, penmen William Lambert and Benjamin BanksonOriginal Source: National Archives

Omitting a Bill of Rights

The Constitution’s first 10 amendments—known as the Bill of Rights—protect essential liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial. However, these rights were not included in the Constitution that the delegates wrote in 1787.

During the ratification battle, the Framers’ decision not to include a bill of rights became an issue. Supporters of the Constitution argued it was unnecessary, since states had their own, and potentially dangerous if any rights were left out. Their opponents wanted further written assurance that the new government’s powers would be limited and individual rights would be protected.

James Madison (ca. 1821) by Gilbert StuartOriginal Source: National Gallery of Art

Meet James Madison

A brilliant scholar and politician, James Madison was 36 years old when he arrived in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. He had spent the previous year studying ancient federations and republican governments, making him the most well-prepared delegate. Madison later served as a Virginia representative to the First Congress and initially believed that adding a bill of rights to the government framework he helped to craft was unnecessary. But answering calls from the states and his own constituents, he changed his mind and soon proposed a set of amendments.

Federal Hall (1797) by George HollandOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Drafting the Bill of Rights

Meeting at New York City's Federal Hall in 1789, Congress spent two months periodically debating and editing James Madison's proposals before the final text was sent to the states for ratification. The public learned about the various iterations (and other actions of Congress) by reading reports printed in newspapers like the ones shown in the upcoming slides. Follow along to see how the Bill of Rights changed from what Madison originally proposed to the text we know today.

Proposals for a Bill of Rights (June 8, 1789) by James MadisonOriginal Source: David Rubenstein

Step 1: Propose 19 Amendments in House

June 8, 1789: This newspaper printed James Madison’s speech proposing roughly 19 amendments, which he wanted to be inserted in eight places within the Constitution’s articles. About half the states submitted ideas for amendments when they ratified the Constitution; Madison drew upon these, along with documents like Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. He was determined to ease the fears of the Constitution’s opponents while not weakening the new government.

Report on Madison’s Proposals (page 1) (July 21 - 28, 1789) by U.S. House Select CommitteeOriginal Source: David Rubenstein

Step 2: Review by House Committee

July 21 - 28, 1789: James Madison’s proposed amendments were referred to committee. In late July, Madison and 10 other House members considered the amendments. Their report to the full House, printed here, largely kept them intact. However, they altered some language—for example, they began to combine three of Madison’s proposals into what would become the First Amendment. They also eliminated a proposal to amend the Preamble with words that echoed the Declaration of Independence.

Report on Madison’s Proposals (page 2) (July 21 - 28, 1789) by U.S. House Select CommitteeOriginal Source: David Rubenstein

The House committee's report (continued on the second page of this newspaper) did keep Madison's locations for inserting the changes within the Constitution's existing text.

17 Amendments Passed by House (August 13 - 24, 1789) by U.S. House of RepresentativesOriginal Source: David Rubenstein

Step 3: Pass 17 Amendments in House

August 13 - 24, 1789: This newspaper printed 17 proposed amendments two days after they were approved by the House of Representatives. The House ultimately decided not to insert the changes within the Constitution’s seven articles, despite James Madison’s objections that this would make them too unclear. Instead, they placed the amendments at the end and sent them to the Senate for consideration.

12 Amendments Passed by Senate (August 25 - September 9, 1789) by U.S. SenateOriginal Source: David Rubenstein

Step 4: Pass 12 Amendments in Senate

August 25 - September 9, 1789: The Senate debated the House’s 17 amendments in early September. Eliminating two proposals while condensing and editing others, the Senate passed the 12 amendments printed here. The freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition were combined into one, and the same was done with elements of the Fifth and Seventh Amendments.

The Bill of Rights (September 21 - 25, 1789) by U.S. CongressOriginal Source: David Rubenstein

Step 5: Approve 12 Amendments in House and Senate

September 21 - 25, 1789: This newspaper is one of the earliest printings of the Bill of Rights. Six congressmen, including James Madison, met to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. By September 25, more than two-thirds of each house of Congress—the supermajorities needed to pass amendments—approved the final changes. They were then sent to the states for ratification.

Tracking the Ratification of the Bill of Rights (1789 - 1791) by Thomas JeffersonOriginal Source: Library of Congress

On this piece of paper, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson tracked the progress of the states approving the 12 proposed amendments.

The first two amendments were not ratified at this time. One proposal that aimed to adjust the proportion of representation in the House has not been ratified. The other, which prevented Congress from voting itself a pay raise, became the 27th Amendment in 1992.

The remaining 10 amendments, which became our Bill of Rights, are not listed by order of importance. They roughly appear in the same order that James Madison first proposed them, believing they should be inserted within the Constitution's seven articles.

Constitution of the United States (1787) by Constitutional Convention, penman Jacob ShallusOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives

Perfecting the Union

Many considered the amendments proposed by Congress to be good but imperfect. Some criticized the amendments for not doing enough to protect states’ rights; others worried that they would prevent only the federal government, not the states, from infringing on individual liberties. By December 1791, eleven out of the 14 states (Vermont had joined the union) ratified 10 of the amendments. Having reached the three-quarters of the states necessary for approval, a bill of rights was now part of the U.S. Constitution.

Credits: Story

This exhibit at the National Constitution Center was created in partnership with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and showcases their priceless drafts of the U.S. Constitution. To learn more, including how to visit the exhibit, click here.

Founded in Philadelphia in 1824, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is one of the oldest historical societies in the United States. It is home to some 600,000 printed items and more than 21 million manuscript and graphic items—an unparalleled collection encompassing more than 350 years of America’s history. Visit their website to view online collections and learn more.

Want to learn more about how the U.S. Constitution was drafted? Check out the Interactive Constitution's Drafting Table.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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