United States Constitution: Second Manuscript Draft by James Wilson, August 1787
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 did not convene with the idea of drafting a new document that would lay the groundwork for a nation. The convention's delegates were tasked merely with revising the Articles of Confederation, the existing set of laws that had been hastily adopted during the Revolutionary War. Instead, they created the United States Constitution, a document that combined, from the framers' perspective, the crucial parts of the Articles of Confederation, English law, and Enlightenment principles.
On May 29, 1787, the delegates began debating the Virginia Plan, proposed by Edmund Randolph but primarily written by James Madison. The plan featured extreme revisions to the Articles of Confederation, completely changing the structure of federal government by dividing it into three branches of a much more powerful centralized bureaucracy. The most controversial aspect of the Virginia Plan was that a state's representation in Congress would be proportionate to its population. On June 15, William Patterson presented the New Jersey plan, which proposed that congressional representation be limited to one vote per state. The Virginia plan would be more beneficial to large states, and the New Jersey plan to small states. What came to be called the Connecticut Compromise established a bicameral legislature in which members of the House of Representatives would be chosen based on population, while the Senate would have two representatives from each state. This framework eventually made its way into the Constitution.
By July 26, after debating for nearly two months, the exhausted delegates decided to take a 10-day break. During the suspension, five delegates were assigned to the Committee of Detail, which would draft the resolutions on which the convention had agreed. John Rutledge was the chairman of the committee, and James Wilson composed the drafts. The document above is Wilson's second draft, which closely resembles the final version of the Constitution. Wilson wrote mostly on the right side of the page, leaving room to the left for Rutledge's notes and corrections. Although this draft is the most complete of those produced by the committee, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has several earlier drafts in its collection that provide insight into how the language and content evolved with each edition. These documents also reveal the enormous impact the members of the Committee of Detail had on the final version of the Constitution.
The Constitution changed relatively little between Wilson's final draft and the version we know today. Except for a few additions and rearrangements, the only major change was the addition of the Bill of Rights. When the ratification of the Constitution was threatened by Anti-Federalists, who worried that the document did not sufficiently protect individual liberties, the convention proposed that 12 amendments, 10 of which were adopted, be added during the first session of Congress.
On August 6, the Constitutional Convention reconvened, and delegates were given a copy of Wilson's draft. By September 17, 1787, the final version was approved and the Constitutional Convention adjourned. After a national debate, the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, and the new government began operating on March 4, 1789.
Much has been written about the US Constitution—far more than can be covered here. Although it is a legal document designed to orchestrate the mechanisms of a federal government, it was imbued with the exhilarating ideology of a newly independent people. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Constitution is just how vague its language can be. Its ambiguous diction has ingeniously allowed each generation of lawmakers and judges to interpret passages to fit the issues of their era. The amendment process has further ensured that it will never become obsolete.
The Constitution is a living narrative of the United States—a narrative defined by conflict. It reveals the clashing ideologies the nation endured in the 18th century while remaining flexible enough to accommodate modern convictions. It guarantees personal and political freedoms while at the same time propagating slavery. It is strained by the tension between powers that are specifically entrusted to the federal government and those that are reserved for the states. By virtue of these contradictions, the Constitution is a document representative of the complex history of American freedom. Wilson's final draft, written with the Committee of Detail, is a fascinating glimpse into the development of America's founding document.
In order to encode this document, the staff of the Preserving American Freedom Digital History Project relied on the expert transcriptions of William Ewald and Lorianne Updike Toler published in a special issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Their transcription and annotation of James Wilson's second draft, as well as numerous other documents from the Committee of Detail, can be found in Early Drafts of the US Constitution, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 135 (2011). "Document IX: Wilson's Final Draft" can be found on pages 321-366.
Richard Beeman, The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution: A Fully Annotated Declaration of Independence, US Constitution and Amendments, and Selections from The Federalist Papers (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 135, no. 3, Early Drafts of the US Constitution (2011).
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).