At the corner of 13th and Locust Streets, five sets of locks and keys safeguard two pieces of rag paper. The draconian security — including a 19th-century bank vault door — is justified: Here rest the only handwritten drafts of the U.S. Constitution.
Beginning on May 4, this Pentagon-level protection is on pause. Along with several items from the private collection of David Rubenstein, the documents have been relocated to the National Constitution Center for American Treasures, a new exhibit featuring — for the first time ever — each draft of the Constitution.
The National Constitution Center’s President & CEO, Jeffrey Rosen, giving a tour of the American Treasures exhibit. Image credit: Mike DeNardo.
The two handwritten drafts owned by the Historical Society spark several questions. The first is perhaps the most obvious: What are these things, and where do they come from?
First, some background.
Our country got off to a rough start; it was far from all fireworks and hip-hip-huzzahs.
As the fear of being put to the sword by the British ebbed, so did the political cohesion that dread encouraged. The 13 states soon resumed their squabbling and other colonial habits in earnest.
Illustration by Benjamin Franklin published in the Pennsylvania Gazette ca. 1754. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania cartoons and caricatures collection 
By early 1787, the Articles of Confederation — the nation’s first governing document — proved itself a failure.
“We have errors to correct,” as George Washington plainly put it.
Cries rang out for a “Grand Convention” in Philadelphia to salvage the Articles. Fiery debates kicked off in late May. To prevent passersby from eavesdropping, delegates shuttered Independence Hall’s windows and doors. It was a heated atmosphere in every sense.
After hashing out the dual system of congressional representation — the so-called Connecticut Compromise — all but five delegates escaped the heat for a 10-day recess.
Given little more than a week and a list of resolutions already adopted, this “Committee of Detail” quintet set out to turn two months of debate-floor tumult into a cogent body of text.
“A View of the State House in Philadelphia,” ca. 1770. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania medium graphics collection [V64]
Looking at the handwritten documents in person, you won’t be surprised to find the hallmarks of any rough draft. Both documents are filled with strike-throughs and marginalia. A thick X cuts through a handful of entire sections.
This “roughness,” however, is their value. Changes and other emendations document the Constitution’s development, offering an insight into the shifting sentiments of the Founding Fathers.
Many revisions are terminological. We very nearly became citizens of the United People and States of America, electing representatives to a House of Burgesses.
Others changes, however, are far from cosmetic. The handwritten drafts begin, “We the people of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts,” and so on, listing each of the 13 states in order from north to south.
Detail from the first draft of the U.S. Constitution in the handwriting of James Wilson. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Treasures Collection [HSP Treasures]
“It is not insignificant that they went from making a list of the 13 states of the union to saying ‘We the people of the United States,’ because that means they had a change of heart. They recognized the need to cease to be seen as independent states and to be seen as a union,” remarked Lee Arnold, the Historical Society’s collections chief.
“Of the distinguishing features central to the American system of constitutional governance,” observed University of Pennsylvania Law School professor William Ewald, “many of the most fundamental make their first appearance in the drafts.” These include such bedrocks as the Necessary and Proper Clause and the limits of congressional power.
Aside from a new preamble prepared by the another committee, the Constitution we know today reads much as it did in the second draft. So who penned these things? Who — in effect — wrote the Constitution?
The drafts are in the handwriting of James Wilson, a Scotland-born Pennsylvanian.
Undated portrait of James Wilson. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania portrait collection [V88]
But like any good story, we don’t know everything.
The Committee of Detail worked in private. To ensure “that nothing in the house be printed, or otherwise published or communicated without leave,” every delegate had sworn what was in effect an oath of secrecy.
“We do not know how often the committee met, or where; we do not know for certain whether Wilson wrote his drafts in response to dictation, or with other members present, or alone in his study after hours; we do not know how the committee took its votes, or how it dealt with dissents,” Ewald continued.
Indeed, the drafts themselves almost disappeared. They came to the Historical Society via a large donation of Wilson’s papers by his granddaughter. It doesn’t seem even she knew the early Constitutions were tucked away. They languished in obscurity for more than two decades before being rediscovered.
Why do these rough drafts matter?
“By comparing the texts of early drafts of the Constitution, in the American Treasures gallery … visitors can educate themselves about the evolution of American liberty and the emergence of popular sovereignty,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.
“Recent scholarship on Wilson’s handwritten drafts of the Constitution have led to new interpretations of the origins of the final document,” said Charles Cullen, interim president and CEO of the Historical Society. “These seminal documents have never been displayed together outside the Historical Society.”
Visit constitutioncenter.org for more information about American Treasures.
This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer as part of HSP’s weekly series, Memory Stream.