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The Wilson Papers: Historiography Revisited (Again)

by ejakeway on 22 January 2018

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In his article aptly titled “The Committee of Detail,” William Ewald gives an account of the history of scholarship conducted on the Committee of Detail and the documents produced by the committee as its members grappled with its task assigned to “arrange, and draw into method & form the several matters which had been agreed to by the Convention, as a Constitution for the United States.”<sup>1</sup> Given the immensity of this assignment and its implications for the creation of the US Constitution, Ewald is right to ask the question: “How could the full significance of the Committee of Detail have been overlooked [in contemporary scholarship]?”<sup>2</sup> He proffers a preliminary outline of the historiography of the committee, naming the historians J. Franklin Jameson, Max Farrand and John C. Hueston as some of the only scholarly voices attempting to uncover and understand the documents produced by this committee. He then explicates the history, actions, and documents of the committee, and revisits the committee’s historiography up until the present day. This work supplements an article co-authored by Ewald and Lorianne Updike Toler in 2011 entitled “Committee of Detail Documents,” which reproduces the documents of the committee in facsimile alongside corresponding transcriptions.

Ewald’s work has already done much to elucidate modern scholars’ understanding of the Committee of Detail and its documents. His lucid observations on the effects of editorial choices made by influential scholars like Farrand do much to help the modern reader understand how textual changes affect interpretation, such as the differences when faced with a neat, typed document vs. an interlineal, scrawling manuscript with many edits and the presence of different editorial hands. Nevertheless, with the rise of digitization efforts and technologies allowing more researchers and users access to primary sources, scholarship has changed once again. Since the publications of Ewald’s articles, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which owns the Wilson Papers containing 7 of the 9 committee of detail primary documents, has digitized and made freely available five items in its digital library. Therefore, when compiling links to these items for a resource collection linked to the Committee of Detail on the Quill platform, further research complications and issues of visualization arose, calling for a continuation of the historiography on the Wilson papers, whereby William Ewald’s research is placed into his own historiographical tradition of scholarship on the Committee of Detail and compared to the methods of digitization and representation adopted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in an effort to make Quill’s users aware of the different approaches to the textual presentation of these committee documents.

Farrand and Ewald: Chronological Sequence

In “The Committee of Detail,” William Ewald highlights the abilities of scholars J. Franklin Jameson and Max Farrand’s “to work out the chronological sequence [of the committee of detail documents] ... In the Records, Farrand arranged this material into a sequence of documents, which he numbered I through IX.”<sup>3</sup> The documents are numbered as follows, with the original numbers being selected by Farrand, but the titles as such articulated by Ewald in his 2011 article “Committee of Detail Documents”:

I. Twenty-Four Referred Resolutions from the Committee of the Whole

II. Resolutions Taken from the Proceedings of the Convention July 24-26 (Farrand’s document)

III. Wilson’s Copy of the Pinckney Plan (mid-May)

IV. Randolph’s Sketch of the Constitution (just before or just after the committee began to meet)

V. “Beginning of a Draft with an Outline of the Continuation”

VI. Wilson’s Rough Draft, Part I

VII. Excerpts from the New Jersey and Pinckney Plans (discovered by Jameson)

VIII. Wilson’s Rough Draft, Part II

IX. Wilson’s Final Draft

When, in 2012, Ewald published the article “The Committee of Detail,” the organization of the documents changed slightly. Instead of grouping all documents separately, Ewald groups them into various clusters; he begins with a sub-heading for Documents I, II, and III:

I. Twenty-Four Referred Resolutions from the Committee of the Whole

II. Resolutions Taken from the Proceedings of the Convention July 24-26 (Farrand’s document)

III. Wilson’s Copy of the Pinckney Plan (mid-May)

As before, Ewald explains that Document I is simply a list of the convention’s resolutions in Wilson’s hand, Document II is a list added by Farrand as explanatory material, and Document III was discovered by Andrew McLaughlin to be the longer of Wilson’s two sets of extracts from the Pinckney Plan and posits that this document was possibly created as early as mid-May, 1787.<sup>4</sup> Ewald continues his sequence with Farrand’s Document IV, which he renames “Draft IV”:

IV. Randolph’s Sketch of the Constitution

As Ewald describes, this document “has a good claim to be the first draft of the Constitution, stricto sensu. It is almost entirely in the hand of Edmund Randolph, with annotations by John Rutledge.”<sup>5</sup> Ewald convincingly dates this document to late July, 1787 due to its inclusion of the “Connecticut compromise” and emphasizes that this is the only document (besides Farrand’s additional list) not to be written in James Wilson’s hand. He goes on to give an extensive background of Randolph and his draft, which is in itself an interesting textual history, but falls outside the scope of this blog post. Ewald continues his list with the Wilson drafts titled only “Document V,” which is in fact made up of two different sheets of paper and will be returned to later.

V. Document V

Ewald groups documents VI, VII, and VIII together, claiming they “need to be treated as a unit.” <sup>6</sup>

VI. Wilson’s Rough Draft, Part I

VII. Excerpts from the New Jersey and Pinckney Plans (discovered by Jameson)

VIII. Wilson’s Rough Draft, Part II

In his assessment, documents VI and VIII are in fact “a proper draft of a Constitution—the second after Randolph’s, and the first clearly produced by the Committee.” Document VII was identified by J. Franklin Jameson as “a set of extracts from the New Jersey Plan, followed by a set of extracts from the Pinckney Plan.”<sup>7</sup> Ewald again explains the details of this draft in great length, before moving on to Draft IX, the “longest of the Wilson drafts.”

IX. Wilson’s Final Draft

Given the paucity of extant scholarship on the committee of detail and the documents it produced, Ewald’s detailed recreation, explanation, and expansion of Farrand’s chronology is an impressive feat. At the time he published his articles, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania had presumably not yet digitized their Wilson Paper holdings, meaning that researchers were forced to travel to the archives in person to consult the primary source materials (as Jameson, Meigs, and Ewald did). The publication of the papers in facsimile format in the Ewald/Updike article was therefore an importance advancement in the historiography of scholarship on the committee. When, however, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania made these documents freely accessible online by digitizing the documents and putting the images online in a digital format, they necessarily changed the ways in which researchers and general readers would encounter this material. Rather than retaining the strictly chronological divisions made by Farrand and Ewald to assist historians, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania collated several “documents” (identified as such by Farrand and Ewald) into single digital copies in their digital library. As such, it is necessary to revisit the organization of these materials in order to identify which primary materials belong to which “documents” in the chronologies established by Farrand and Ewald.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania Digital Library Sequence

The chart above contains the Wilson papers that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has made available through their digital library.

Record Number HSP Title Contents Ewald Label Farrand Label
101615 Reading Copy of the United States Constitution: second manuscript draft by James Wilson Wilson's Draft Draft IX Document IX
1663 United States Constitution, first manuscript draft by James Wilson, 1787 1v: Rough Draft, Part I; 1r-2r: Rough Draft, Part I; 3v: Rough Draft, Part II; 3r-4r: Rough Draft, Part II; 5-6: Excerpts from New Jersey and Pinckney Plans; 7v-8r: Twenty-Four Referred Resolutions from the Committee of the Whole p.302: Document VI; p.296-301: Document VI; p. 318: Document V/ Document VIII; p. 312-317: Document VIII; p. 305-309; Document VII; p.239-247 : Document I Same as Ewald
2766 United States Constitution, second manuscript draft by James Wilson, 1787 Not digitized
2767 Pinckney Resolutions James Wilson second draft of the United States Constitution ‘This document is “the plan of a constitution presented to the Federal Convention by Charles Pinckney May 29, 1787,” according to Andrew McLaughlin, who provided the identification; McLaughlin viewed it as an outline rather than as a copy of the entire plan.’ Document III: Wilson’s Copy of the Pinckney Plan; See: Andrew C. McLaughlin, “Sketch of Pinckney’s Plan for a Constitution, 1787,” American Historical Review 9 (1904): 735. Document III
3785 The Continuation of the Scheme -The Continuation of the Scheme; -Miscellaneous Resolutions; -To be Added p. 288: Document V/ Document VIII: -Beginning of a draft with an outline of continuation (included in HSP # 1663 on p. 3v) Document V: -The Continuation of the Scheme; -Miscellaneous Resolutions; -To be Added Document V

Of the five digitized “collections”<sup>8</sup> contained in the chart above, the digitized copy that proves the most confusingly complex is item 1663, “United States Constitution, first manuscript draft by James Wilson, 1787.” This in due in part to the fact that digitizing the manuscript sources themselves results in a very different arrangement of the documents than the sequence employed by Farrand and Ewald. It deviates significantly from the chronological method of organization employed first by Max Farrand in his Records of the Constitutional Convention (1910) and adopted by William Ewald in his efforts to reconstruct a timeline of the committee of detail and its documents.

The primary materials digitized under the heading of “United States Constitution, first manuscript draft by James Wilson, 1787” merge together (in the order of the digitized pages) documents VI, V/VIII, VIII, VII, and I. As Ewald determined, the document which falls on folio 3v of the online edition contains parts belonging both to document V and document VIII identified by Farrand; the top of the page belongs to document VIII as it contains “a terse outline of the Constitution’s substantive remainder, which is broken into three short sections subtitled ‘The Continuation of the Scheme,’ ‘Miscellaneaous Resolutions,’ and ‘to be added.’”<sup>9</sup> The bottom of the page is grouped under document V and incudes a rough draft of the preamble and two provisions on representation.<sup>10</sup> Unlike Ewald and Toler who, in their article “Committee of Detail Documents,” chose to reproduce this single page twice (once as part of document V and once as part of document VII), the Historical Pennsylvania of Society chose only to digitize this page in the “first manuscript draft by James Wilson, 1787” hoping perhaps to attract attention to its significance as part of the drafting of the preamble. They chose to digitize the second part of document V, the outline of the remainder of the Constitution, as a separate item.

Furthermore, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania split the two documents grouped together by Farrand as “Document V” in their digitization efforts therefore retaining consistency with their filing procedure; as Ewald observes, the two parts of Document V: "appear on two separate sheets of paper of different size, [and] the two sheets are found in different parts of the Wilson archive….Farrand was undoubtedly correct not to be governed by the ordering of the bound volumes; correct also that the ‘Continuation’ fragment belongs to the work of the Committee of Detail; and correct that it fits more naturally with the first part of Document V than with any other surviving text among Wilson’s papers."<sup>11</sup>

As such, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s choice to digitize the two parts of document V separately inevitably reflects their archival strategy and methodology, but is inconsistent with an historian’s opinion on presenting historical documents in the most sensible, content-specific way possible.

Further inconsistencies revolve around the ordering item 1663; whereas Farrand and Ewald rearrange the pages chronologically, this order is not preserved whatsoever in item 1663, whose pages are assembled in the order of documents VI-VI-V/VIII-VIII-VII-I. In addition to the rough drafts of the constitution identified as such by Farrand and Ewald, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania also included “excerpts from the New Jersey and Pinckney Plans” and “twenty-four referred resolutions from the committee of the whole” in their digital edition of the first manuscript draft by James Wilson. Their choice to include these various documents under one heading of a “draft” gives the collated edition a sense of coherence and uniformity not conveyed by Farrand and Ewald’s numerical sequence. However, it also does not faithfully portray the scattered state of the archival documents as they would have been encountered by researchers struggling to make sense of the materials in the archive. It must be pointed out, however, that the state of these documents were just as scattered and incoherent when Farrand first encountered them and chose to publish them in his printed volume of the Records ; therefore, both efforts at “publication” of these documents necessarily involve editorial choices made about their arrangement. Whereas the historians seemed to be very fixated on the content of these documents on their chronology in a greater historical timeline, a lot of the choices made by the HSP digital library seems to reflect a greater interest in the materials themselves and how they group together to make textual collections.

What about Quill?

I came across the digital items in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s Digital Library while researching primary source material to link to the Quill Platform, an online visualization tool for negotiated texts. When examining each of the five items, I was faced with a bizarre configuration of material that did not correspond with the sequence I had become familiar with through Max Farrand’s Records and William Ewald’s research articles on the Committee of Detail and its documents.

Quill differs both from the HSP digital library format and the format of a research article in that it is an online platform that allows editors not only to insert links to online collections of primary source material, but also to create additional explanatory material detailing research choices and to present the resource boxes in a way that can visually represent the information to the user alongside explanatory research material detailing the editorial choices made along the way.

The main questions that arose when creating a resource collection with links to materials detailing the documents of the Committee of Detail were:

  1. How do I want to represent the “United States Constitution, first manuscript draft by James Wilson, 1787” as a digital resource? Would it be best to represent it as one resource, thereby faithfully representing the HSP digital library? Or is it better to split it into the constituent parts identified by Farrand and Ewald?

  2. Is using the name “United States Constitution first manuscript draft” misleading, considering this digital collection also includes various pages not directly related to the drafts of the constitution produced within the committee of detail?

  3. Is it better to remain faithful to the librarians’ or the historians’ editorial choices?

  4. Which presentation of this information will be the least confusing to users of Quill?

In the end, I chose to present this information in two separate configurations:

  1. The constituent parts of item 1663 (first manuscript draft by James Wilson) are entered as separate resources in the “The Meeting of the Committee of Detail” resource collection, allowing users to view each document as relevant to specific contents and areas of negotiation. This resource collection features links to the same item, with specific page numbers for the “document” in question in the text of the resource.

  2. I created an additional resource collection specifically for item 1663, “United States Constitution first manuscript draft by James Wilson” that includes a page-by-page breakdown of the digital item made available by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This resource collection also features a table I made explaining the disjointed order of the document and which pages correspond to which documents as originally classified by Farrand and retained by Ewald.

In addition, it is my hope that this blog post will elucidate some of the more confusing aspects of the resource collections relating to the Committee of Detail on the Quill Project platform. Quill is unique in its ability to link explanatory text alongside digital primary materials, links to transcriptions of these materials and other online resources; the intermediality of this platform allows users to work across mediums, allowing the user him/herself to become an editor: the primary sources are no longer confined to the archives and users have access to current research so as to educate themselves about the various decisions necessary to determine the bounds of a text and its publication. As a platform which brings together historiography, data visualization, and intermedial resource collections, Quill changes the way research is done, and who gets to decide how to do it.

Eileen Jakeway

Intern 2017-2018

Quill Project, Pembroke College, University of Oxford


Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911).

William Ewald et. al., "Committee of Detail Documents," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 135, No. 3 (July 2011), pp. 239-365.

William Ewald, "The Committee of Detail," 28 CONST. COMMENT 197 (2012), pp. 197-285.

  1. Washington diary entry, July 27, 1787. 

  2. Ewald, "Committee," 201. 

  3. Ewald, "Committee," 219. 

  4. Ewald, "Committee," 220. 

  5. Ewald, "Committee," 221. 

  6. Ewald, "Committee," 248. 

  7. Ewald, "Committee," 248. 

  8. To call them documents at this stage would prove confusing to readers for, as will become apparent, some of these collections consist of collated "documents" identified as such by Farrand and Ewald. 

  9. Ewald et al.,"Committee Documents," 287. 

  10. Ewald notes that this is also the first time the words "We the People" appear in a draft of the Constitution. See Ewald, "Committee Documents," 287. 

  11. Ewald et. al., "Committee Documents," 287.