September Highlight: The Declaration and the Constitution

Research Highlights LogoWhen the engrossed parchment copies of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were installed at the National Archives on December 15, 1952, President Harry S. Truman connected the two documents as follows:

“Everyone who holds office in the Federal Government or in the government of one of our States takes an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. I have taken such an oath many times, including two times when I took the special oath required of the President of the United States. This oath we take has a deep significance. Its simple words compress a lot of our history and a lot of our philosophy of government into one small space. In many countries men swear to be loyal to their king, or to their nation. Here we promise to uphold and defend a great document. This is because the document sets forth our idea of government. And beyond this, with the Declaration of Independence, it expresses our idea of man. We believe that man should be free. And these documents establish a system under which man can be free and set up a framework to protect and expand that freedom.”

For the majority of the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been invoked in this way. But what about the physical connections between the Declaration and the Constitution? September 17, 2017 marks the 230th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution, an event both similar to and quite different from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In this month’s research highlight, we examine the preparation and signing of these two foundational documents, and the individuals involved in both.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy
Howard Chandler Christy, "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution," 1940

Work on the Constitution’s predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, began in tandem with the Declaration of Independence.

The Journals of the Continental Congress record the following for June 7, 1776: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.” On June 11th, Congress appointed the Committee of Five — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston — to prepare the Declaration. The next day, June 12th, Congress appointed a committee “to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into between these colonies,” with representatives from each colony (except New Jersey): Josiah Bartlett (NH), Samuel Adams (MA), Stephen Hopkins (RI), Roger Sherman (CT), Robert R. Livingston (NY), John Dickinson (PA), Thomas McKean (DE), Thomas Stone (MD), Thomas Nelson (VA), Joseph Hewes (NC), Edward Rutledge (SC), and Button Gwinnett (GA). The Articles of Confederation were approved for ratification on November 15, 1777.

Both the Declaration and Constitution were fairly engrossed on parchment.

On July 19, 1776 and September 15, 1787, respectively, the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were both ordered to be fairly engrossed on parchment. Only one sheet of parchment measuring 29.75 x 24.5 inches was needed for the Declaration; four sheets of parchment, roughly the same size, make up the Constitution, and the signatures are on the fourth sheet. The Declaration was most likely engrossed by Timothy Matlack; the Constitution was engrossed by Jacob Shallus.

Engrossed and Signed Declaration of Independence

United States Constitution, Sheet 1United States Constitution, Sheet 2United States Constitution, Sheet 3United States Constitution, Sheet 4

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were members of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, but neither participated in the Constitutional Convention.

Visitors to the National Constitution Center are often surprised by the absence of likenesses of Jefferson and/or Adams in Signers’ Hall. In 1787, both Jefferson and Adams were diplomats serving abroad; Jefferson as Minister to France, and Adams as Minister to the Netherlands and Minister to the Court of St. James’s (Great Britain). However, both men corresponded with their friends and colleagues who were in Philadelphia, and stayed up to date on the Convention’s progress. Benjamin Franklin and Elbridge Gerry sent copies of the new Constitution to Jefferson and Adams respectively, and Jefferson and Adams wrote letters to each other, commenting on what they liked and disliked about the Constitution. Their opinions differed, and in December 1787, Adams wrote to Jefferson, “You are afraid of the one—I, of the few. … You are apprehensive of monarchy: I of Aristocracy.” Jefferson also sent his opinions on the Constitution, and specifically the lack of a Bill of Rights, to James Madison.

In a December 1787 letter to William Stephens Smith, John Adams remarked, “the deliberate union of so great and various a people in such a plan, is, without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen. That it may be improved is not to be doubted, and provision is made for the purpose in the Report itself. A people who could conceive, and can adopt it, we need not fear will be able to amend it, when, by experience, its inconveniences and imperfections shall be seen and felt.”

The Constitution was signed on a single day. The Declaration of Independence was signed by the majority on a single day, but others signed later.

September 17th, Constitution Day, marks the day when the Constitution was signed. John Dickinson was ill and unable to attend the Convention on the day of the signing, so his colleague George Read signed his name for him. This single day of signing further evidenced by the first newspaper printings of the Constitution on September 19th, which included a list of all the signers. By contrast, the Declaration of Independence was signed by the majority of the delegates on August 2nd, but signing continued through the fall of 1776 and perhaps as late as 1781, as delegates returned to or arrived at Congress. Both documents were signed in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall).

John Dickinson's Signatures on the Articles of ConfederationJohn Dickinson's Signature on the US Constitution
John Dickinson's name on the Articles of Confederation (L) and United States Constitution (R)

56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. 39 signed the United States Constitution. 6 signed both.

Roger Sherman, George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, James Wilson, and George Read signed both the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787. Pennsylvania had the largest representation in both documents: nine delegates signed the Declaration, 8 signed the Constitution, and 4 signed both. At 70 years old, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence; 11 years later, at 81, he was the oldest signer of the Constitution. George Wythe signed the Declaration of Independence and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but resigned in June 1787 because his wife was ill. Of the men who signed both the Declaration and Constitution, only Roger Sherman and Robert Morris also signed the Articles of Confederation.

Signers of the Declaration of Independence Who Also Signed Other Documents
For more on signers who signed other documents, click here!

The signatures on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are arranged in a similar manner, with the President (John Hancock/George Washington) at the top, and the rest of the signatures in state order from north to south, from right to left.

Several signers of the Declaration played major roles in the Constitutional Convention.

James Wilson was a member of the Committee of Detail, which drafted the Constitution. Two drafts in Wilson’s hand are at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Roger Sherman proposed the Connecticut Compromise, which defined representation in the legislature. Elbridge Gerry signed the Declaration, but he, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph refused to sign the Constitution due to the lack of a Bill of Rights (or, as Gerry told John Adams, “the objections you will easily conceive without their being enumerated”).

A note on John Dickinson: he represented Pennsylvania when he refused to vote for or sign the Declaration of Independence. He later represented Delaware when he signed both the Articles of Confederation (which he helped to draft) and the Constitution (which, as mentioned above, he didn’t actually sign).

The Declaration was invoked during the Constitutional Convention, in the Federalist Papers, and during several ratifying conventions.

Farrand’s Records of the Constitutional Convention note that on June 19, 1787, “Mr. [James] Wilson, could not admit the doctrine that when the Colonies became independent of G. Britain, they became independent also of each other. He read the declaration of Independence, observing thereon that the United Colonies were declared to be free & independent States; and inferring that they were independent, not Individually but Unitedly and that they were confederated as they were independent, States.” For more on Wilson's ties to both the Declaration and the Constitution, see our ongoing research on the Sussex Declaration.

In Federalist 40, James Madison wrote, “Let us view the ground on which the convention stood. It may be collected from the proceedings, that they were deeply and unanimously impressed with the crisis, which had led their country, almost with one voice, to make so singular and solemn an experiment, for correcting the errors of a system, by which the crisis had been produced; that they were no less deeply and unanimously convinced, that such a reform as they have proposed, was absolutely necessary to effect the purposes of their appointment. … They must have reflected, that in all great changes of established governments, forms ought to give way to substance; that a rigid adherence in such cases to the former, would render nominal and nugatory the transcendent and precious right of the people to "abolish or alter their governments as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness;"—since it is impossible for the people spontaneously and universally, to move in concert towards their object; and it is therefore essential, that such changes be instituted by some informal and unauthorized propositions, made by some patriotic and respectable citizen, or number of citizens. They must have recollected, that it was by this irregular and assumed privilege, of proposing to the people plans for their safety and happiness, that the states were first united against the danger with which they were threatened by their ancient government; that committees and congresses were formed for concentrating their efforts, and defending their rights; and that conventions were elected in the several states, for establishing the constitutions under which they are now governed.”

Portrait of James Wilson, NYPL Digital CollectionsOn December 4, 1787, during the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, James Wilson again read from the Declaration of Independence: “I view the states as made for the people, as well as by them, and not the people as made for the states; the people, therefore, have a right, whilst enjoying the undeniable powers of society, to form either a general government, or state governments, in what manner they please, or to accommodate them to one another, and by this means preserve them all. This, I say, is the inherent and unalienable right of the people; and as an illustration of it, I beg to read a few words from the Declaration of Independence, made by the representatives of the United States, and recognized by the whole Union. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.’ This is the broad basis on which our independence was placed: on the same certain and solid foundation this system is erected. State sovereignty, as it is called, is far from being able to support its weight. Nothing less than the authority of the people could either support it or give it efficacy.”

On January 18, 1788, during the ratifying convention in South Carolina, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney echoed Wilson: “The gentleman [Mr. Lowndes] had mentioned the treaty of peace in a manner as if our independence had been granted us by the king of Great Britain. But that was not the case; we were independent before the treaty, which does not in fact grant, but acknowledges, our independence. We ought to date that invaluable blessing from a much older charter than the treaty of peace from a charter which our babes should be taught to lisp in their cradles; which our youth should learn as a carmen necessarium, or indispensable lesson; which our young men should regard as their compact of freedom; and which our old should repeat with ejaculations of gratitude for the bounties it is about to bestow on their posterity: I mean the Declaration of Independence, made in Congress the 4th of July, 1776. This admirable manifesto, which, for importance of matter and elegance of composition, stands unrivalled, sufficiently confutes the honorable gentleman’s doctrine of the individual sovereignty and independence of the several states. In that Declaration the several states are not even enumerated; but after reciting, in nervous language, and with convincing arguments, our right to independence, and the tyranny which compelled us to assert it, the declaration is made in the following words: ‘We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.’ The separate independence and individual sovereignty of the several states were never thought of by the enlightened band of patriots who framed this Declaration; the several states are not even mentioned by name in any part of it, as if it was intended to impress this maxim on America, that our freedom and independence arose from our union, and that without it we could neither be free nor independent. Let us, then, consider all attempts to weaken this union, by maintaining that each state is separately and individually independent, as a species of political heresy, which can never benefit us, but may bring on us the most serious distresses.”

John Dunlap printed the first copies of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution

The Dunlap broadside was printed on the night of July 4, 1776. 11 years later, as soon as the Constitution had been signed, John Dunlap and his partner Daniel Claypoole produced the first official printing. Only 11 copies of Dunlap and Claypoole’s official printing of the Constitution are known to exist. Dunlap and Claypoole also printed the text of the Constitution and the list of signers in the September 19th issue of the Pennsylvania Packet. Unlike in 1776, when Benjamin Towne scooped John Dunlap and printed the first newspaper edition of the Declaration of Independence, in 1787, Dunlap and Claypoole’s paper was among the first to print the Constitution on September 19th. As with the Declaration of Independence, other newspapers around the country subsequently printed the Constitution in full. 

Dunlap and Claypoole also printed a draft of the U.S. Constitution in early August 1787. The Massachusetts Historical Society has a copy of this edition, with annotations by Elbridge Gerry.

Looking for more on the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Click here!

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution
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Resources on the U.S. Constitution:

By Emily Sneff

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