How Style Informed the US Constitution

A guest post from Karin Wulf describes how editing influenced a foundational document

Note: Today’s guest post by Karin Wulf explores how the Committee on Style affected the shaping and final text of the US Constitution as regards a current hot Constitutional topic, impeachment. By extension, Wulf also touches on the importance of final styling on papers more generally. This one’s for the editors . . .

The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution, fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris. . . . A better choice could not have been made.
James Madison to Jared Sparks, April 8, 1831

The US Constitution has always been in the news, but typically more implicitly. Thanks to the impeachment of Donald Trump, we are now getting daily doses of exegesis.

The text itself is brief in its description of impeachment, but how the text came to be the text is another story. By some telling, it turns not only on the persuasive rhetoric employed in the debates at the constitutional convention of 1787 by the delegates, but the power of a singular committee with an editorial pen. 

Here is the text itself, as adopted by the convention delegates on September 17, 1787, and as ratified by the states thereafter:

In Article 1, Section 2, the House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” 

In Article 1, Section 3, the Senate “shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” 

In Article 2, Section 2 the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

In Article 2, Section 4, “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Like all other issues and provisions in the Constitution, the text concerning impeachment was the product of extensive discussion over the nearly five months —late May to mid-September of 1787 — that the convention’s delegates met in Philadelphia. They were meeting in secret, after all, to devise a new plan of government. Many felt that the original constitution of the United States enacted during the Revolutionary war, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was not flexible or robust enough. But though there was general enough agreement for the states to vote for delegates to this 1787 convention.

To get from ideas to consensus to a document, the delegates used parliamentary procedures to structure their debates. They also formed committees; during the convention they voted to form 12 committees, counting the committee of the whole. Arguably some of these were processing committees — the Committee of the Whole, the Committee of Detail, and the Committee on Postponed Matters, for example. Others were dedicated to particular subjects, with the matter of representation in the legislative bodies, for example, having three separate, successive committees that met in June and July, while a Committee on Slave Trade and Navigation was appointed in late August and reported just two days later.  

As they neared the completion of the work, on September 8, 1787, the delegates devised a committee “to revise the style of and arrange the articles agreed to” and the “Committee was appointed by ballot.” The Committee of Style and Arrangement included just five of the delegates to the convention: Alexander Hamilton of New York, William Johnson of Connecticut, Rufus King of Massachusetts, James Madison of Virginia, and Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker representing Pennsylvania. This number wasn’t unusual; about half of the committees had a member from each state represented at the convention, and about half had just five drawn by ballot from the full convention. Of the 55 delegates to the convention, 38 served on one or more committees.      

The Committee of Style took the language of the preamble and provisions that had been approved and, cognizant of the issues around the debates and the votes, shaped them into the document we recognize today. 

There is very little contemporary evidence of the committee’s work. Most of what we know about what they did comes from comparing the record of convention’s debates and resolutions with the revised text they presented. They organized 27 articles approved by the delegates into the seven articles with subsections in the Constitution as ratified. Their work was approved with very little revision, and the document was sent off to be engrossed (copied in a fair hand on parchment), and then readied for signatures. 

Morris got a lot of the credit, but not always in a good way. That is, if you count Madison’s plaudits when queried by historian, editor, and biographer Jarden Sparks about Morris, his was “the pen” that provided the final “finish” to the text. But in 1798, Morris was accused of having tried to make a subversive and substantive change to the text, a change that would have freighted Congress with more explicit power. Probably most readers of this post have seen the jokes about the importance of comma placement — “Let’s eat Grandma!” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma!” is one of the tamer versions. Punctuation changes meaning. In the accusation by Congressman Albert Gallatin, Morris tried to slip a crucial semi-colon in place of a comma in Article 1, section 8. The text now reads: 

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

And so on. But Morris, so Gallatin implied, would have changed the comma following the first “excises” to a semi-colon. And thus, in a stroke, Congress would have not limited authority to tax for the purpose of debts, defense, and general welfare, but unlimited authority to act on behalf of debt management, defense, and general welfare. Gallatin’s story went further. Roger Sherman of Connecticut caught Morris’s punctuational misdeed and restored the comma. 

In an important recent analysis of Morris’s influence on the Constitution, William Treanor, Dean of the Georgetown University Law Center, called Sherman the Constitution’s “heroic proofreader.” Treanor’s study of Morris, which you can read in a digest version on Scotusblog or in the full essay on the Georgetown University Law school’s Scholarly Commons, emphasizes Morris’s nationalism as a key influence on the final text of the Constitution. His is the first analysis not only of Morris’s work on the Committee of Style, but of the scholarship and legal decisions that have turned on these details.

I think it’s inarguable that editing can change the meaning of text. But does that mean that the Committee of Style made changes that were independent of or in contradiction to the intentions of the full convention? This seems unlikely. The contours of disagreement within the convention over many issues meant that it took a great deal of debating and voting to achieve consensus. And there is no evidence that the committee made any changes to the agreements made through the debates around impeachment, for example. (I wrote earlier this month about how we can read the texts of the convention proceedings here.) But the process of arriving at the Constitution that governs the United States, and its final production via a Committee of Style, is worth our attention. Few meaningful texts come into the world without a process that includes editing.

Karin Wulf is the director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, which has been publishing the William and Mary Quarterly, the leading journal in early American scholarship, and books with the University of North Carolina Press, since 1943. She is also Professor of History at the College of William & Mary, and co-chair the College’s Neurodiversity Working Group.

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