Skip to main content

The United States Constitution

Resources for researching the history, drafting, interpretation, and other elements of the U.S. Constitution.

Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation were the temporary governing documents of the United States during and immediately after the Revolutionary War. They solidified the union between the states and provided some guidelines for the running of the new government. The Articles were in force from their ratification in 1781 to 1789, when they were rendered obsolete by the ratification of the Constitution.

Read the Articles of Confederation online here.

The Federalist Papers

According to the Library of Congress, the Federalist Papers are:

"a series of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison between October 1787 and May 1788. The essays were published anonymously, under the pen name "Publius," in various New York state newspapers of the time.

"The Federalist Papers were written and published to urge New Yorkers to ratify the proposed United States Constitution, which was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. In lobbying for adoption of the Constitution over the existing Articles of Confederation, the essays explain particular provisions of the Constitution in detail. For this reason, and because Hamilton and Madison were each members of the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers are often used today to help interpret the intentions of those drafting the Constitution." - from About the Federalist Papers

Read the Federalist Papers online here.

Constitutional Debates

About the Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention was held from May to September, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Convention's purpose was to redraft the Articles of Confederation in order to balance the powers of the states with those of the central federal government. For a detailed history of the Convention, see the U.S. State Department's page here.

Transcripts and Study Resources

  • According to the Library of Congress, Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 "remains the single best source for discussions of the Constitutional Convention. The notes taken at that time by James Madison, and later revised by him, form the largest single block of material other than the official proceedings. The three volumes also includes notes and letters by many other participants, as well as the various constitutional plans proposed during the convention." Read all three volumes online here.
  • Jonathan Elliott's The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution is "the best source for materials about the national government's transitional period between the closing of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 and the opening of the First Federal Congress in March 1789." This five-volume set contains transcripts and materials from each state's ratification debates. Read it online here.
  • The U.S. National Archives provides a handy list of all of the state delegates to the Constitutional Convention, with brief biographies for each, at this page.

Formation of the Constitution

The first volume of the Annals of Congress, by Joseph Gales, includes an overview of the formation of the Constitution and a copy of the Constitution itself. Read it online here.

The U.S. National Archives provides an in-depth article on the history and ratification of the Constitution here.

Contemporary Writings

Contemporary writings include documents that are not "officially" part of the records of the Constitutional Convention but are still very important, such as newspaper articles, personal letters, and state government documents.

  • The Founders' Constitution, an online book from the University of Chicago, is an invaluable source of information about the political philosophies of the drafters of the Constitution. It gives links to multiple historical documents relevant to the drafting and interpretation of each article, clause and amendment.