Today’s post accompanies “Creating the First Ten Amendments,” episode 260 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of Doing History 4: Understanding the Fourth Amendment.
Last week as I was listening to Ben Franklin’s World, I was struck by the way in which Liz Covart and her guest, Jessie Kratz, talked about the Bill of Rights. Standing in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, Liz and Jesse stood looking over the case at the parchment engrossed with twelve amendments to the Constitution signed in 1789 by the Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg, the President of the Senate, John Adams, and the clerks of each House of Congress. Millions of Americans have viewed the document since it went on display in the 1950s.
But like the copies of the Declaration and the Constitution that sit alongside it in the Rotunda, the parchment text of Bill of Rights is not meant to be readable. If you’ve read it—and it’s likely you have—you probably encountered the text in the back of a U.S. history textbook in high school or college, or (more recently) on the website of the National Archives or another website that has published it. The same was true for Americans in 1789 and beyond. Nobody read the parchment; instead, people encountered the proposed amendments in newspapers and broadsides, and then eventually in other publications once the amendments were ratified and became part of the Constitution.
So why do we have a single copy that we call “The Bill of Rights” that lives as an object in Washington, DC?
The short answer is that Congress both during the Confederation and early Federal periods did that for a number of important documents to commemorate their approval. And we have scholarship on the most famous of these documents, the parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence. In most cases, as scholar Thomas Starr explains in a study of the parchment Declaration, the Congress would produce a working draft of a document, come to agreement on the language which they would memorialize on parchment with signatures, and then afterwards produce a printed version that could circulate widely.
But the Declaration, Starr points out, was different. Congress authorized Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to print the document on July 4, 1776, bearing the signatures of John Hancock as President, Charles Thomson as Secretary, and Dunlap himself. Only after that date did Congress authorize Timothy Matlack to produce a parchment version of the Declaration in calligraphy, which delegates signed in early August. That document, Thomas Starr argues, was held as a private document. When Congress wanted to publicize the signatures of delegates in January 1777, they commissioned a new printing by Baltimore printer Mary Katherine Goddard. For Starr, then, the parchment “could serve to contractualize and legitimize but not to declare” (186).
After signing, the parchment was then rolled up (my apologies to any archivists reading who flinched at that) and carried around with Congress as it tried to keep distance between itself and the British Army during the Revolution. Pauline Maier in her wonderful book American Scripture takes the story from there, noting that the parchment was displayed in various places, including the State Department, before it came to the National Archives and its staff of preservationists. By then the document had faded beyond legibility. Maier argues that the document was not even meant to be read, but rather to serve as “American scripture.” The Constitutional Convention of 1787 also engaged in that process, signing an engrossed parchment version on September 17, 1787 for commemoration and then circulating the text in print throughout the United States.
The story, however, gets even more complicated for Constitutional amendments. Congress adopted the Joint Resolution to send twelve possible amendments to the states on September 25, 1789. Text of possible amendments, however, had already been circulating for almost two years. Many of the state ratifying conventions, as Maier documents in her final book, Ratification, proposed amendments as part of the ratification process, numbering well over 100 by the time members of the first federal Congress arrived in New York in the spring of 1789. Madison drafted nineteen amendments for debate in the House, which then trimmed the list to the twelve of the Joint Resolution.
The text began appearing in American newspapers even before the Joint Resolution was official. As early as September 29 (too fast for the final resolution to arrive), the Herald of Freedom in Boston had published the text of the twelve articles based on the journals of the Senate. On October 3, 1789, the Gazette of the United States—which saw itself as a “court paper” for the government—published the text of the Resolution, and as the fall progressed, many other newspapers reprinted them from a variety of sources.
The parchment copy of the Resolution therefore memorialized these first amendments to the Constitution, including the two that were not ratified at the time. (The second article eventually became the Twenty-Seventh Amendment in 1992, which has its own fascinating backstory.) And though the ten amendments resembled the bills or declarations of rights in many of the state constitutions, they were not, as Jonathan Gienapp notes, known as “The Bill of Rights” in the eighteenth century.
All of this means that the copy of the Bill of Rights in Washington is meant for veneration and viewing, not for reading and certainly not for use. When you read the amendments in your U.S. history or politics textbook, by contrast, the context suggested to you that you should understand the text as part of the foundation of the nation, interpret the language, and connect it to the broader history of American constitutionalism and the government. (Hopefully, anyway.)
Jonathan Gienapp, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018).
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
Thomas Starr, “Separated at Birth: Text and Context of the Declaration of Independence,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 110, no. 1 (2000): 153–99.
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