What constitutes a draft of the U.S. Constitution?
Posted on behalf of Lee Arnold, HSP Library Director
What constitutes a draft of the U.S. Constitution? This sounds like a rather simple question, but it is actually very complex. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) is home to millions of documents. Of these, we have considered six of them Constitutions. HSP has what we call the First and Second Drafts (both in James Wilson’s hand), Edmund Randolph’s copy of the First Printed Draft, Jacob Broom’s copy of the Second Printed Draft, one of the “official” copies printed for the Constitutional Convention, and the Pennsylvania Packet printing of the Constitution (the first public printing of this document).
The first page of the first draft of the United States Constitution.
The first page of the second draft of the United States Constitution.
Recently a researcher, examining the second volume of the James Wilson Papers, came across a document (we’ll call it Mystery Page 63) which she believes is not only part of a Constitutional draft, but is actually a page two of a third draft of the Constitution. Here is where it gets tricky. On the backside of the second sheet of Wilson’s First Draft, there are three upside down paragraphs with the opening wording “We the People…” Scholars have always been aware of this “upside down” text. They have also known about page 63. The text has been published and used by scholars for a century, since Max Farrand published a transcript of this document, and even linked it with the “upside down” text in 1911. Generally, scholars have described this document as more notes from the Committee of Detail than as an actual draft.
The "upside down" paragraphs on the back of the second sheet of Wilson's first draft.
The researcher who called our attention to Page 63 of the Wilson Papers believes that the “upside down” text is really the first page of another Constitutional Draft (and Page 63 being the second). What do you think?
Front view of page 63
Back view of page 63
We have provided links to several of these documents as well as soliciting Constitutional scholars for their thoughts. Whether folks believe this is a new found draft or simply notes from the Constitutional Convention, there is one point both sides can agree on. HSP’s collection of Constitutional documents allow researchers to study the entire process of the making of this great document: from Wilson’s first pass at pen to paper all the way to the first public printing in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper. The role of the staff at the Historical Society is to keep these documents in a safe, archivally secure environment and to facilitate research. We have been doing so since 1824. Your support of HSP allows us to continue to do so for another 186 years.
We welcome your thoughts.
Transcription of page 63: