The Publication of the US Constitution and Its Reception

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

One day after the Constitutional Convention adjourned, David Claypoole and John Dunlap, printers and publishers of the newspapers, The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, printed 500 copies of the new Constitution from the Committee on Style’s text and Jacob Shallus’s four-sheet engrossed-and-signed copy. How did people react to this publication of the Constitution?

George Washington presiding at the Convention of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was supposed to rewrite the Articles of Confederation, and not create an entirely new instrument of government. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Dunlap and Claypoole

Dunlap was Irish-born, emigrated to America in 1755 with his uncle, and learned the printer’s trade from one of Benjamin Franklin’s one-time rivals, William Bradford. He began publishing his Pennsylvania Packet newspaper in 1771.

Dunlap’s rise to prominence earned him a commission in Philadelphia’s the First City Troop of Cavalry, and brought him the contract for printing the Continental Congress’s print jobs, including the Declaration of Independence. David Claypoole, Dunlap’s junior partner, had just turned 30 the summer of the convention. From their print shop at 48 High Street or Market Street, as it’s known today, Claypoole and Dunlap also printed the text of the Constitution in total in the Packet on September 19, 1787, as did four other Philadelphia newspapers.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Distribution of the Copies of Constitution

William Jackson, in his capacity as the convention’s secretary, took a bundle of the six-page printed copies to New York City to place them into the hands of the Confederation Congress on September 20. Three days later, The Columbian Magazine, or Monthly Miscellany, also published in Philadelphia and one of the five monthly magazines being printed in America, gave the Constitution its first magazine printing, spread over five pages and rubbing shoulders with articles on St. George of Cappadocia and “Love and Constancy, an Anecdote”.

The publication of the Constitution must have come as a surprise to anyone outside the circle of the convention’s delegates. The ban on leaking news or information about the convention’s deliberations had been scrupulously enforced. The convention had been given the mandate of rewriting the Articles of Confederation, not the creation of an entirely new instrument of government. There was no telling, once this was now printed, what kind of response there was likely to be, starting with the Confederation Congress itself.

George Washington’s Cover Letter

So, the first emotion felt at the end of the convention was not relief, but anxiety. What are people going to make of this? A cover letter, signed by George Washington, but probably composed by the Committee on Style and added as an addendum to the Dunlap and Claypoole printing of the Constitution, tried to smooth the shock of an entirely new Constitution, by announcing that:

The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace, and treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union.

The Confederation Congress could be rest assured that “the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession”. Preemptively, the letter conceded that the convention did not expect that the new Constitution “will meet the full and entire approbation of every state”. But “it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected” and will “promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness.” This was, of course, whistling in the dark.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts about the American experiment.

Was Was the Constitution the Only Alternative?

Rufus King thought that “we may expect the approbation of Congress,” for what they have done, but he was less certain about the reaction in the states. Maryland’s James McHenry was “opposed to many parts of the system,” but signed the Constitution anyway because the only alternative was political chaos.

Signatories to the United States Constitution.
The delegates who signed the US Constitution were grouped as states. (Image: Constitutional Convention of 1787/Public domain)

The delegates had signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, as individuals, one by one. The refusal of Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason to sign, demonstrated the lack of common purpose at the very end of the process. So, the names of the delegates appeared on the document grouped by states, to give the impression that delegations—as delegations—had done the approving.

Even then, of course, the “unanimous Concurrence of the States” meant only the states that had delegations present at the convention had concurred. The disgruntled New Yorkers, Robert Yates, and John Lansing, had never returned after leaving the convention in July so that Alexander Hamilton had to sign by himself for New York, as though he represented the entire state.

Learn more about the start of the Constitutional Convention.

The Final Decision of the Confederation Congress

What was it about the new Constitution that generated so much uneasiness in the minds of the people who had written it? They had not been commissioned to write a new Constitution; consequently, the Confederation Congress, sitting in New York, had every right to reject it out of hand and call a new convention. Nor would the Confederation Congress show any greater appreciation when it discovered that the ratification process proposed by the Constitutional Convention—using popularly called state conventions—proposed bypassing the Confederation Congress completely.

Yet, 18 of the 33 members of the Confederation Congress had been in the Philadelphia convention and they were not likely to vote against their own handiwork. After only two days of debate, the Confederation Congress obligingly referred the new Constitution “to the several legislatures in Order to be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each state by the people thereof in conformity to the resolves of the Convention”.

It was difficult to assess how the states would react to the new Constitution as their rights were curtailed by the Constitutional Convention.

Common Questions about the Publication of the US Constitution and Its Reception

Q: Why did the members of the Constitutional Convention have anxiety about the Constitution?

The Constitutional Convention had been given the mandate of rewriting the Articles of Confederation, not the creation of an entirely new instrument of government, and there was no telling, once this was printed, what kind of response there was likely to be.

Q: Were the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention kept a secret?

Yes, the ban on leaking news or information about the Constitutional Convention’s deliberations had been scrupulously enforced.

Q: When did Dunlap and Claypoole print the text of the US Constitution in the Packet?

Dunlap and Claypoole printed the text of the US Constitution in the Packet on September 19, 1787.

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