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Rare First Day Printing of the U.S. Constitution

We, the People of the United States…

 

This rare complete printing of the Constitution appeared on the first day it was publicly available, Wednesday, September 19, 1787. The Independent Gazetteer is unique, in that it is the only one of the five first-day printings by an anti-Federalist paper, and the only one whose type was evidently not subsequently used to print a stand-alone edition. (The same day, the Constitution was published by four other Philadelphia papers, the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, Pennsylvania Journal, Pennsylvania Gazette, and Freeman’s Journal.)

[U.S. CONSTITUTION]. The Independent Gazetteer; or, the Chronicle of Freedom. Philadelphia: Eleazer Oswald, September 19, 1787, included in a run from October 10, 1786 to December 3, 1787. Volume VI, numbers 260-617, 358 daily issues, 4 pp. each. #21085.01  $325,000

Historical Background

This issue of The Independent Gazetteer; or, The Chronicle of Freedom, a daily Anti-Federalist newspaper, prints the “Plan of the New Federal Government” in full, followed by the Federal Convention’s resolution submitting the Constitution to Congress, and the accompanying transmittal letter. All three are signed in type by George Washington, as president of the Convention.

The Constitution was approved by the Convention on Monday, September 17.  The text of the official version was set that evening, and a very limited number were printed for the use of the delegates.  After being drafted in complete secrecy, the Constitution was first made public on the morning of Tuesday, September 18, when it was read before the Pennsylvania General Assembly.  The next morning, Wednesday, September 19, the five newspapers mentioned above all published the Constitution.  It is often assumed that the Pennsylvania Packet was the first public printing, as the publishers, Dunlap and Claypoole, were the official printers to the Constitutional Convention.  In fact, there is no evidence that the Packet actually was published first, or appeared on the streets of Philadelphia that day any earlier than its four rivals. All five are considered first editions, with surviving copies of the Packet the most common.  (Leonard Rapport at the National Archives speculated that the Evening Chronicle may have carried the text in their September 18  issue, but to date no copy has been found to check. (“Printing the Constitution,” pp. 69-90).

The Constitution issues is offered as part of a run of The Independent Gazetteer and Chronicle of Freedom, a daily newspaper, from October 10, 1786 to December 3, 1787.  Volume VI, numbers 260-617, 358 daily issues, 4 pp. each.  This run spans events including the debates concerning the old Articles of Confederation, the proposal of a Constitutional Convention (May 11, 1786), and the Constitution itself. 

The dissemination of the Constitution in newspapers is of considerable interest as it was through this medium that most Americans became familiar with the new form of government proposed by the Convention. 

 

“By October 6, only twenty days after the Federal Convention, at least fifty-five of the approximately eighty newspapers of the period had printed the...Constitution.” (Rapport, “Printing the Constitution,” p. 89) .  With the text of the Constitution before the people, thanks to a free press, the great debate on its ratification would begin, a debate which continued until ratification by the original thirteen states was completed in 1790, and culminated in 1791, by the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Despite the tremendous changes, since 1787, in the nation and the people governed by the Constitution, Bernstein meaningfully notes, “the evolution of American politics and society continues to be shaped by the Constitution and by the principles and doctrines built into it by the men who drafted it.  That the Constitution has worked as well as it has is a tribute to its flexibility and to the foresight of those who created it. That it may still be defective or capable of improvement is a challenge to us to equal the courage, imagination, and versatility of the Revolutionary generation of Americans” (Are We To Be A Nation?, p.272).  

As an Anti-Federalist paper, this run prints one of the most famous series of arguments against ratification – the “Centinel” essays, as well as spirited debate on the need for a bill of rights. In addition to opinion and updates related to the Constitution, these issues include local and domestic news, foreign affairs, national and state legislation, public notices and advertisements.

 

A sampling of content:

 October 25, 1786: essay on the “Plan for a New Federal Government”

 

November 6, 1786: announcement of Benjamin Franklin’s re-election as president of Pennsylvania

 

December 15, 1786:  a Virginia act appointing deputies to the convention “for the purpose of Revising the Federal Constitution”

 

March 2, 1787: Congressional resolve calling for a Federal Convention, to convene in May 1787

 

July 19, 1787: celebration of Independence Day at Yale University, including a toast to the “Federal Convention”;  a Congressional resolve regarding Army pensions

 

July 20, 1787: reports of Spaniards harboring runaway slaves on the Georgia frontier; a letter decrying the dearth of paper currency: “I have heard much censure passed on those who call themselves Brokers – But let it be remembered that every Merchant in this city is more or less a Broker”

 

July 23, 1787: full printing of “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio.” The Northwest Ordinance paved the way for the westward expansion of the United States.

 

July 28, 1787: Congressional resolutions regarding copper coinage and Indian affairs; an update on the Federal Convention; a letter regarding Shays’ Rebellion

 

July 30, 1787: reports of a potential war with the Creek Indians

 

September 18, 1787:  notice of the closing of the Federal Convention

 

September 20, 1787: proceedings of the Pennsylvania General Assembly; establishment of a society for the abolition of slavery;  a letter, reprinted from the Pennsylvania Gazette, envisioning a life of poverty and mob rule if the Constitution is rejected

 

September 24, 1787: extract from a letter by the Marquis de La Fayette, offering donations for the relief of Boston fire victims

 

September 26, 1787: calls for an early Pennsylvania state convention to ratify the Constitution; reactions of various states to the proposed new frame of government

 

October 1, 1787: the Congressional resolve transmitting the Federal Convention’s report to the states; additional resolutions regarding selection of state convention delegates; an act specifying a new oath of allegiance for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

 

October 2, 1787: a report on George Washington’s narrow escape from injury when a bridge in Wilmington collapses beneath him

References

  • Leonard Rapport.  “Printing the Constitution: The Convention and Newspaper Imprints, August – November 1787” in Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives.  Vol. 2 No. 2, Fall 1970.  

  • Richard B. Bernstein and Kym S. Rice, Are We to Be a Nation?: The Making of the Constitution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

  • David Brion Davis & Steven Mintz,  The Boisterous Sea of Liberty (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998). 

  • Catherine Drinker Bowen,  The Story of the Constitutional Convention:  May to September 1787 (Boston:  Little, Brown & Co., 1986). 

  • Richard Beeman, Stephen Botein & Edward C. Carter II, eds.,  Beyond Confederation:  Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1987). 

  • Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1966). 

  • Clinton Rossiter, 1787:  The Grand Convention (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).