As Constitution turns 225, rare drafts go on display

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PHILADELPHIA -- The treasured documents are rarely seen.

They're tucked in acid-free Mylar, inside a dark safe, behind the thick door of a walk-in, climate-controlled vault at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Their soaring words -- on handwritten and printed paper -- are usually viewed by only a few staff members who have security clearance to exit an elevator to the second floor where the vault is located within a locked room.

They represent the thought processes of the nation's founders as they grappled with the language of the Constitution of the United States.

Other than the Library of Congress, no other institution has more Constitution-related documents than the historical society in Center City Philadelphia.

Today, the society will mark the Constitution's 225th anniversary by exhibiting six original drafts and copies of the document from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.

"Although the signed, final version of the Constitution is in our nation's capital, the drafts of this document remain in Philadelphia, and rightly so," said Kim Sajet, president and CEO of the historical society.

"It was here 225 years ago where our Founding Fathers gathered at Independence Hall and were charged with the momentous task of redefining our government," she said.

The exhibit is one of a host of anniversary displays and programs marking the adoption of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, in Philadelphia.

The National Constitution Center on Independence Mall offered free admission on Monday, Constitution Day. Guests were able to visit the center's old-fashioned print shop, with a replica printing press, to print a copy of the Constitution's Preamble, the same way it was originally done. They also were able to sign a commemorative 225th anniversary Constitution in Signers' Hall.

But for many historians and history lovers, the venerable documents at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are the real focus of the anniversary -- objects of national and international reverence.

"We are fortunate that some of the drafts survived, so we can trace the evolution of the Constitution and see how each section was carefully scrutinized by the delegates and revised over and over again," Ms. Sajet said.

The need for a revised form of self-government became clear four years after independence was won in 1783. The Articles of Confederation were flawed and needed amending, so Congress called a convention in the summer of 1787 to make changes.

Instead, the delegates came up with an entirely new form of government -- and James Wilson of York, Pa., played a key role. Wilson was a delegate to the convention as well as a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the first U.S. Supreme Court. His handwritten first and second drafts of the Constitution -- displayed with other drafts and copies -- show the evolution of the document.

"They tell us what went on in the discourse," said Lee Arnold, the society's senior director of the library and collections. "You get an insider's view."

Wilson was one of five members of the Committee of Detail, which helped frame the drafts. The others were Edmund Randolph of Virginia, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, John Rutledge of South Carolina and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut.

Wilson's first draft -- running four pages -- was written in July 1787 and is the earliest surviving version of the Constitution. It includes resolutions that were accepted by convention delegates meeting at Independence Hall. It also lists all of the states in the first line and states that "The Stile of this Government shall be the 'United People and States of America.' "

The second draft in Wilson's hand was written in August and is six pages. This version again lists each state in the first line.

But the Committee of Detail, during a convention recess, added new provisions, deleted others and revised language. This version states: "The Stile of this Government shall be 'The United States of America.' "

The third document in the society's exhibit is the first printed draft, a proof copy of the Constitution that belonged to Randolph, a lawyer who was the governor of Virginia.

The Committee of Detail had submitted its manuscript of the draft Constitution to printers John Dunlap and David C. Claypoole of the Pennsylvania Packet, a daily Philadelphia newspaper. The printers then sent the Committee of Detail the proof copy and Randolph made 11 handwritten corrections on it. This annotated proof is the only one known to survive. The printer made the corrections and provided copies to the convention's delegates.

Like the two Wilson manuscript drafts, this version lists all the states on the first line but that changed in a new version, represented by the exhibit's fourth document.

This second printed draft runs four pages and belonged to Delaware delegate Jacob Broom. It's one of only 14 that exist.

A five-member Committee of Style incorporated revisions into the document. It was led by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, who did much of the work -- revising the Constitution's Preamble and rewriting 23 articles and 40 sections into seven articles and 21 sections.

The Preamble was changed from "We the People of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts ..." to "We the People of the United States." The committee's printed report was submitted to the convention on Sept. 12, 1787.

The fifth document, with last-minute changes made by the convention, is the official edition of the Constitution printed by Dunlap and Claypoole. The six-page copy, on three leaves, is one of only 11 of the original printings remaining.

The final item in the historical society exhibit is the first public printing of the Constitution. The Sept. 19, 1787, issue of the Pennsylvania Packet carried the new law of the land. Only 25 copies are known to exist.

"It's unusual to have all six of these documents on display side by side," Mr. Arnold said. "We are unable to display them frequently because of the documents' age and sensitivity to light and temperature.

"We are an archive," he said. "They only come out for special occasions."


First Published September 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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