Founding Documents of the United States of America

The documents in this collection are typically on view in the Chapin Gallery, room 406 of Sawyer Library at Williams College, during the regular hours of the Special Collections Department of the Williams Libraries. The gallery is open to the public, free of charge, and staff welcome visits by groups from schools and other organizations by advance arrangement.


Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were the first formal constitution of the United States. Approved by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, they were immediately printed by Francis Bailey in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Bailey’s official printing was issued in a small number of copies intended primarily for transmission to the governors of the states, who in turn were to submit them to their legislatures and local press in anticipation of the state-by-state ratification process, which had to be unanimous. On March 1, 1781, Maryland became the thirteenth state to ratify, having held out until the larger states with western boundaries that extended as far as the Mississippi had ceded their lands northwest of the Ohio River to the common government. Under the Articles, the new nation was organized as a federal union of independent states with authority vested in a single body, the Congress of Confederation. There was no Executive Branch and no provision for a federal Judiciary except for certain cases of court-martial. Congress had only those powers, and they were few, specifically granted to them by the states as common concerns. These chiefly related to military and foreign diplomatic initiatives required in the face of war with Great Britain. The weakness of this confederation became increasingly apparent when the War for Independence was over and the staggering debt repayment, which Congress under the Articles could proportionally assess but not directly collect, became a point of conflict between the states and a source of intense domestic strife within several of the states. The Articles of Confederation is the most sumptuously printed major American document of the 18th century, and of the nine extant copies none is more perfectly preserved than that at Williams.
British Reply to the Declaration of Independence
This first official British reply to the Declaration of Independence exists in four known printings, totaling only six copies. The Hoffman copy in the Chapin Library appears to be the only surviving example of its printing. The Howe brothers were the King’s official representatives, and directed England’s military and diplomatic efforts in America. King George III’s response, written by Lord North, was finally delivered to Parliament on October 31, 1776; a copy of this rare item is also in the Chapin Library.
Mason Constitution
During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, two drafts of the federal Constitution were printed for discussion by the delegates, in editions of sixty copies each. The first draft was prepared by the Committee of Detail, and when that was revised, a second draft was prepared by the Committee of Style and Arrangement. The Chapin Library has a copy of the latter, one of only fourteen still extant, formerly owned and profusely annotated by George Mason of Virginia. His notes on the printed side of the four leaves record the changes made, and in some cases proposed by Mason, in the final days of debate. Mason, a longtime friend of George Washington, a noted statesman, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), and a principal speaker at the Constitutional Convention, was also one of three delegates who voted not to approve the final text of the Constitution. On the blank reverse side of two leaves of his draft copy, Mason wrote out his objections to the Constitution; these were later printed and circulated. (See here for a full transcription.) Mason returned to Virginia and worked against his state’s ratification of the Constitution, but did not succeed. His concerns, however, were valid, and for the most part have been addressed in amendments to the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights: Acts passed at a Congress of the United States of America
The Senate in its deliberations deleted some of the articles written by the House, and combined others. Their preferred text then went to a House-Senate committee, and finally twelve articles, shown in the Chapin Library in a copy of the first printed Acts of Congress, were sent to the states for ratification. The states failed to ratify the first and second articles, which, respectively, concerned the proportion of representation in Congress and the method by which congressional salaries could be changed. Articles three through twelve as approved by Congress became, therefore, in the final ratified Bill of Rights, articles one through ten. (The original second article, concerning congressional salaries, in fact was never officially taken off the table, and was eventually ratified as the 27th Amendment in May 1992.)
The Bill of Rights: House of Representatives first version
George Mason’s objections to the Constitution begin: “There is no Declaration of Rights, and the Laws of the general Government being paramount to the Laws & Constitutions of the several States, the Declarations of Rights in the separate States are no Security.” Thus it is appropriate that we display, beneath Mason’s words, two printed copies of the Bill of Rights, the first amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The first of these, one of only a handful of copies known to still exist, is the version approved by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate for consideration. In this version there are seventeen articles, parts of which are of particular interest in comparison to the final text: for example, the original third article provided not only that “Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but also that “the rights of Conscience [shall not] be infringed”; while the original fifth article, establishing “the right of the People to keep and bear arms” in relation to “a well regulated militia,” also provided that “no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
The Declaration of Independence
American independence from Great Britain was declared by means of a broadside printed by John Dunlap, an Irish immigrant, on the night of July 4, 1776, by vote of the Continental Congress immediately following its vote to approve the text of the Declaration. Copies were delivered to John Hancock, then President of the Congress, in the morning of July 5th, and sent by him to the state governors that day and on the 6th. Among these were the copies read by Colonel John Nixon from a platform in the yard behind the Pennsylvania statehouse on July 8th, and by George Washington to his troops in New York on July 9th. Viscount Admiral Richard Howe intercepted a copy and dispatched it to London on July 28th. A copy was also preserved by the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thompson, in his minutes book; and it was to this text that a scribe, commissioned by the Congress, turned when preparing the ceremonial manuscript copy of the Declaration on parchment, preserved at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which was signed by members of the Continental Congress on August 2, 1776. The printed Declaration of Independence thus predates the famous copy, signed by John Hancock et al., by nearly a month. The printed copy bears only the names, in type, of Hancock and Thompson on behalf of the Congress, and of the printer John Dunlap; it was the promulgation of an act of Congress and needed nothing more. The text of the ceremonial copy differs from that of the printed original only in its title: it became a “Unanimous Declaration” only later in July 1776, when New York State’s members of Congress changed their vote from abstention to the affirmative. It is interesting to note, when considering the Declaration of Independence, the often-cited “intent of the Founding Fathers”, and the high prices manuscripts by those who signed the ceremonial copy command in the marketplace, that some delegations to the Continental Congress changed between July 4 and August 2, 1776. Therefore some who voted to approve the Declaration of Independence had retired from Congress before the ceremonial copy was prepared, and so never signed, while some who signed on August 2nd had not been in Congress on July 4th and so never voted on that auspicious day. The Chapin Library’s copy of the Dunlap broadside is one of only twenty-six known to survive, including fragments, of perhaps one or two hundred printed (the precise number is not known). It is also one of the best preserved copies, and the only one to have a physical connection to someone who both voted for independence and signed the ceremonial Declaration: Joseph Hewes of North Carolina. Hewes somehow obtained a copy of the broadside from John Hancock – members of Congress do not seem to have received copies as a matter of course – and wrote on it a docket, “Declaration of Independence”. Hewes died three years later, but his papers survived. The Chapin Library was fortunate to be able to raise the necessary funds to buy the Hewes copy of the Declaration from Christie’s, New York, when it came on the market in April 1983.
The Federalist
On permanent display with the Founding Documents is the copy of The Federalist presented to George Washington by two of its authors, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Each of its two volumes bears Washington’s signature and bookplate. In addition, one volume contains annotations by Washington's nephew and heir of his library, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, attempting to assign authorship of the individual Federalist essays. The Federalist, written by Hamilton and Madison with John Jay, argued in favor of the adoption of the federal Constitution then under consideration by the States to supplant the Articles of Confederation. This book remains the most important comment on the U.S. Constitution contemporary with the writing of that document.
The Founding Documents Display Case
Constructed through the generosity of William R. Harris ’40, R. Rhett Austell, Jr. ’48, John C. Walsh ’54, and the General Electric Company Plastics Division in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the “Shrine of the Founding Documents” was designed by Burr and McCallum Architects of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and constructed by local craftspeople. It incorporates details drawn from the Chapin Library’s copy of the Articles of the Carpenters Company of Philadelphia (1786), as well as the latest in materials and technology to protect the Founding Documents from harmful light, vandalism, and theft.