Constitution 225: It was secret, but we know about it
Today’s post was written by National Archives volunteer Paul Richter. It is part of a series tracing the development of the Constitution in honor of the 225th anniversary of this document on September 17, 2012.
In the earliest days of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates agreed their proceedings would be secret.
As the convention drew to a close, several delegates expressed concern that the opposing viewpoints—intentionally encouraged by the convention rules and captured in convention records—would encourage opposition to the Constitution if they became public knowledge. They briefly considered destroying the convention records before deciding it was important to preserve them as proof of what had transpired there.
Just before signing the Constitution on September 17, the delegates voted to give all convention papers to George Washington. He was directed to keep them until a Congress was formed under the Constitution and directed him what to do with the records.
Eventually, Washington gave the records to the State Department for safekeeping. The State Department transferred custody of the records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention to the National Archives after its creation in 1934.
Of course, the source of much of our information about the Constitutional Convention’s proceedings is James Madison’s journal, which, unlike the voting record shown here, was not part of the official record of the convention. The journal remained in Madison’s possession until his death in 1836.
In 1837, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the purchase of Madison’s personal papers, including his convention journal, which is now in the Library of Congress.