This mini-edition is taken from John P. Kaminski, ed., A Necessary Evil? Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution, published by Madison House Publishers, Inc. Many of the documents are taken from the files of or have been published as part of John P. Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, 1787-1791, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
The mandate of the Ratification of the Constitution project is to collect and publish the documentary record of the debate over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights between 1787 and 1791. The project staff has searched hundreds of libraries, historical societies, and other possible sources throughout the United States and Europe for documents written by members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Confederation Congress, the thirteen state legislatures that called ratifying conventions, members of those ratifying conventions, and by other contemporaries. All official executive, legislative, administrative, and state convention records were searched. In addition, all of the broadsides, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books published between 1787 and 1791 have been searched to see if they shed light on the Constitution. In all, more than 1,000 libraries and 150 eighteenth-century newspapers have been searched and copies of more than 12,000 manuscripts and 40,000 newspaper items have been accessioned.
After collecting these documents, they are then edited for publication. The term "edited" has a special meaning for historical editors. Obviously, no one would want James Madison's or Alexander Hamilton's manuscripts "edited," in the sense of a modern copy editor altering the work of the author. But this is not what historical editors do with documents. Historical editors transcribe documents--handwritten letters, sketchy notes, diary entries, or newspaper articles--for publication in book form, using rigorous methods to assure fidelity to the original. This means painstaking proofreading to assure that original punctuation and spelling are retained. It means selecting the most illuminating documents and arranging them in a meaningful manner for publication. It means doing research and writing appropriate annotations to explain obscure references or to put people and events in historical context. It means substantial indexing so that the information in a volume is easily accessible. If the historical editor does the job well, a letter written in a nearly illegible handwriting, with badly faded ink on poorly preserved paper, becomes a readable document. References to persons and events that were commonplace in the eighteenth century, but that are now obscure or totally unrecognizable, are annotated by an experienced editor. Only then does the full meaning of a document become apparent.
The Documentary History is a remarkably powerful research tool and the quality and variety of material published in these volumes justify the assertion that the debate over the Constitution forms the greatest body of political writing in American history. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Michael Kammen has written that the project's volumes "will be of enduring value centuries hence. . . . [It is] one of the most interesting documentary publications we have ever had. . . . [It] will stand high among the enduring monuments of our Constitution." Leonard Levy, America's foremost constitutional scholar, has written that the Documentary History "is easily the most important editorial project in the nation. . . . The Documentary History is always the first primary source I turn to. It is utterly essential to my work. No constitutional history can possibly do without it." For these reasons, the volumes have been purchased by virtually all major American universities, by universities in Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Korea, and by every major law school. Citations to the volumes appear in historical journals and monographs, law reviews, in legal briefs, and in judicial decisions (including those of the United States Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the United States). Insofar as insight is sought into the origins of the Constitution and the early days of the republic, these volumes are indispensable.
The Documentary History is published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. As of October 1998, fourteen volumes have been published: (I) Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787; (II) Ratification by Pennsylvania; (III) Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut; (IV-V) Massachusetts (a third volume yet to publish); (VIII-X) Virginia; (XIII-XVIII) Commentaries on the Constitution. The Ratification Project is supported by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the E. Gordon Fox Fund, the Hamilton-Roddis Foundation, and individual contributors.
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