Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - October - 2002 Issue

The Founding Documents at Williams College

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By AE Staff

Chapin Library, on the Williams College campus in Williamstown, Massachusetts, maintains a permanent display of the most significant printed documents relating to the founding of the American Republic. On exhibit in a beautifully-crafted, architectural “shrine,” which also incorporates state-of the-art conservation features, are original printed examples of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The library is the one place in the United States, other than the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where all four documents may be viewed together.

The centerpiece of "Founding Documents" is a copy of the broadside Declaration of Independence printed in Philadelphia by John Dunlap on the night of July 4, 1776. This copy, one of only 26 known to survive from an original government printing of perhaps one or two hundred, was purchased at Christie’s New York sale of Printed and Manuscript Americana in 1983 for $412,500. The Chapin broadside is regarded as one of the best preserved examples, yet with twelve subtle folds and the docket title, “Declaration of Independence," written in ink, it also bears significant evidence of its original use by Joseph Hewes of North Carolina. According to Bob Volz, Custodian of the Chapin Library, great care was taken to preserve the darkened outside edge when the document was sent for conservation.

Other documents highlight the processes through which the new national government took shape. The Articles of Confederation were printed by Francis Bailey following their approval by the Continental Congress, on November 15, 1777. This hastily printed, but extremely lavish, government document was distributed to the governors, who were then charged with providing the text to both their state legislatures and the local newspapers, in advance of the ratification process. Ten years later, when the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, delegates worked from printed drafts. The House of Representatives draft version in Chapin Library is unique in that its original owner, George Mason of Virginia, made elaborate handwritten notes and deletions on the printed sides of the four leaves. On the blank reverse side of two of the leaves, Mason listed his personal objections to the proposed Constitution. Two printed copies of the Bill of Rights address concerns like Mason’s for the preservation of individual liberties. The first, a version containing seventeen articles, was sent from the House of Representatives to the Senate for ratification. The second copy, the final twelve articles, appeared in Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America (New York: Childs and Swaine, 1789), the first printed Acts of Congress, and was sent to the states for ratification. Ten of these articles became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

George Washington’s personal copy of the Federalist Papers, bearing his bookplate and signature in each of the two volumes, completes the installation. Considered to be among the most influential political works ever written, it is also a reminder that ratification of the constitution took place amid contentious public discussion and debate, and that printings, both official and public, played a central role in that process.

Chapin Library of Williams College is open to the public, without charge, Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. throughout the year. Driving directions, an exhibition schedule, and further information about the library’s collections can be found on their website: www.williams.edu/resources/chapin.

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