Constitution: On Display

Among the many treasures of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are two handwritten drafts and four printed documents that trace the genesis of the new form of government proposed by the Constitutional Convention. These six treasured documents, taken together, show how the Constitution evolved and how the final proposal was presented to the convention delegates, to Congress and the state legislatures, and to the American people, setting the stage for a remarkable public debate that demonstrated that human beings using reason and choice could decide what kind of government they wanted.

Only four years after achieving independence, the American experiment in self-government was foundering. Repeated attempts to strengthen the powers of Congress and to revise the Articles of Confederation, the country’s constitution, failed. A deep postwar depression aggravated by a huge public debt and British trade restrictions led to political unrest, radical economic proposals in the states, and widespread violence that threatened the Union and the country’s republican form of government. To address these concerns, Congress called a convention specifically to revise the Articles. Amid great public attention, the delegates assembled in Philadelphia, where they met in secret, closed-door sessions in the State House from late May through mid-September 1787. Instead of amending the Articles, however, the delegates proposed an entirely new system of government, one never really tried before.