Who knew: the Constitution had a “cover letter”?

The Constitution had a “cover letter”?

Yes. Although it will come as a shock to most Americans, the Constitution was announced in a largely unknown “cover letter.” Sadly, the transmittal letter that introduced the Constitution to the world has largely been forgotten.

A stunning piece of American history, the cover letter was signed by George Washington as the President of the Constitutional Convention. The cover letter accompanied the Constitution as it travelled from Philadelphia (where the Constitutional Convention met during the summer of 1787) to New York (where the Confederation Congress resided at the time).

The delegates to the Convention unanimously approved the cover letter “by paragraph.” The letter was prepared for Washington’s signature by the same “Committee of Style” that prepared the penultimate draft of the Constitution.

Modern historians are only now beginning to appreciate the timeless value of the cover letter’s message. By way of example, the cover letter explained that the Constitution was the “result of a spirit of amity and mutual deference and concession” which some would argue has become a rare commodity today.

Shortly after the Constitution was signed on September 17, the cover letter and the Constitution were printed in approximately 100 newspapers around the country. According to Professor Robert Rutland, “[n]othing similar to this had ever occurred before and has never happened since—a whole nation invited, and even encouraged, to read the entire Constitution.”

In the weeks to come, additional scholarship on the cover letter will be explored. This post introduces a four part series (click here for a link to Part I) that is intended to begin a national conversation about the forgotten history of the cover letter, its authorship, and the significance of its message. By way of example, it is becoming clear that the cover letter and its themes were utilized by the Federalists during the debates in the state ratification conventions.

The cover letter ends with the “most ardent wish” that the proposed Constitution would “promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all and secure her freedom and happiness…” In a time when our nation (and the world) is being challenged by a force majeure event, it is heartening to be reminded of the resiliency of our nation and its founders.

A copy of the cover letter is contained in the printed Acts of the First Congress by Childs and Swaine, published in 1789

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