The U.S. Constitution, a.k.a "A Mess of Pottage"

It can be tempting to think of the U.S. Constitution as simply inevitable, to take it for granted as among the most revered and foundational documents in the world. However, after the Constitution as we know it was drafted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a fierce struggle for state-by-state ratification of the document began. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison joined forces with John Jay to produce the most important and influential commentary on and explication of the Constitution: The Federalist, also known as The Federalist Papers, which made the case for a stronger union of the states in our now-familiar tripartite system of federal government.

The Federalist is the main literary monument commemorating the polemical battle over ratification of the Constitution in 1787 and 1788. It is such a canonical text that it is easy to forget that it only exists because Anti-Federalists, too, were arguing passionately in newspapers and pamphlets, at town meetings and in city squares, against ratification of (or, at least, for major changes to) the Constitution. Befitting their opposition to concentrated power in the federal government, the Anti-Federalists had no centralized or focused group working to debate the Federalist troika of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. Still, many American politicians (such as Patrick Henry) and other citizens took up their pens to debate them on the merits of the Constitution.

A newly acquired manuscript added to our Rudy L. Ruggles Collection (which boasts one of the finest collections anywhere on The Federalist) preserves the voice of one such Anti-Federalist. The unidentified author dates his manuscript October 20, 1787, as Massachusetts was beginning to debate ratification—and exactly one week prior to the publication of Federalist no. 1.

In one compelling section of the manuscript (which may have been prepared for a speech to the Massachusetts Senate), the writer argues that the more limited confederation of independent states will better represent the peoples’ will, and that for the Constitution to be seen as valid, it must be ratified by all of the states. In doing so, he reveals that he is a Revolutionary War veteran:

“…my heart is filled at the thought of the Distresses of my Brother Soldier when I Recollect our fatigues and long travels, and more Especially to Recollect when, standing Shoulder to Shoulder, our blood running, others wallowing in their blood, breathing out their Dying groans, all to defend you all and to Secure your interest with our own if any we had. Now my Brethren, will ye law of nature or Reason or of justice let you accept any plan that will make any Distinction between us and you when we have spent our all to make you free? Consider well whether what you are going to take is preferable to what you now have. Pray Determine for your selves—view your liberties. Doth not government spring from the people? Consider then with your selves which is best: whether to hold that right which god and nature has given you, or to sell ye same for a mess of pottage..."

This is the voice of a citizen in the United States of 1787. Documents like this broaden and enrich our sense of the world in which “founding fathers” like Hamilton lived and worked, and help to move us beyond an understanding of history as having been created only by the names in the headlines.

By Will Hansen, Curator of Americana and Director of Reader Services