J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Constitution Day in the North End, 17 Sept.

Sunday, 17 September, is Constitution Day because that’s the anniversary of when the remaining members of the Constitutional Convention signed their proposal for a new national governmental structure.

Of course, that document had no legal standing at that time. It didn’t become the blueprint for the U.S. of A.’s government until it was ratified in the summer of 1788. But the ratification date is harder to pin down—was the crucial moment New Hampshire’s conditional approval as the ninth state on 21 June, or Virginia’s on 25 June, or New York’s on 26 July?

In any event, the Edes & Gill Print Shop and its host, Old North Church, are celebrating Constitution Day on Sunday with a free, family-friendly event from 2:00 to 4:00. There will be “hands-on activities, including postcard stamping, quill-writing and typesetting demonstrations.”

At 2:30 P.M., printer Gary Gregory will speak about the first printing of the proposed Constitution in Boston by Benjamin Edes. In addition to that text, Edes’s pamphlet included the convention’s resolution urging the American people to ratify the document and elect a President, and a letter from George Washington to the Continental Congress describing these steps as a way to consolidate the union.

The pamphlet went on sale at Edes’s shop on Marlborough Street (later renamed Washington Street) and Edward E. Powars’s printshop opposite the courthouse. Powars was then the publisher of the American Herald while Edes was still putting out the Boston Gazette.

Gregory and his staff are reprinting that pamphlet, setting the type and working the press by hand. Copies of that form of the Constitution will eventually be available for sale, though not at this event (as initially hoped).

2 comments:

Bill Caughlan said...

I've often thought that Constitution Day should celebrate ratification rather than signing. How about we celebrate on June twenty-something?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, ratification is the most important milestone, when the document gained legal power from the people. I actually saw a historical organization’s Twitter account identify this date as when the Constitution was ratified rather than signed.

New Hampshire ratified the document on 21 June 1788. That of course falls between Flag Day, which is also the date when the U.S. Army was founded, and Independence Day. Celebrating the Constitution in September gave it more of a chance to shine. And of course focusing on that date focuses on one state while twelve states had representatives at the signing.

There’s also the factor that even though legally New Hampshire’s vote meant the document had the nine out of fourteen approvals it needed to become official, two big states had yet to sign on. Virginia was the largest and oldest state in the nation. New York was also large, and New York City was the country’s second largest port and city. Both states cut off three other states from the rest. So if those two states hadn’t ratified, the Constitution would have been legal on paper but the union’s politicians would probably have had to go back to the drawing board anyway.