Report on Publishing the Constitution and Laws of the United States (1799)
[Nicholas, John (1764-1819)] Report of the committee to whom was referred, on the 19th of December last, a resolution for causing a publication of the Constitution of the United States, together with the amendments thereto : with instructions to enquire how far the act for providing for the more general promulgation of the laws has been carried into execution ; and whether any and what further provisions are necessary on that subject. 21st February, 1799, committed to a committee of the whole House, to-morrow. (Published by order of the House of Representatives.). [Philadelphia] : [Printed by William Ross?], . 6 pages, lacking the terminal blank leaf; 21 cm (8vo). Evans 36578. Nibbling to top right corner, not affecting text.
“At present,” noted Representative John Nicholas of Virginia on 19 December 1798, “no one could point to any volume containing our Constitution complete.” By complete, he meant including the amendments, the most recent of which (the 11th) had been promulgated in 1795. Two amendments that had been proposed in 1789 were defeated after much debate. This, Nicholas feared, led to popular confusion. “Having been ratified by degrees, the people do not know which are a part of the Constitution, and which are not.”
Nicholas offered his observations in the context of a congressional debate. William C. C. Claiborne (1775 – 1817), a Democratic Republican who represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives, had introduced a resolution that copies of the U.S. Constitution be printed and distributed gratis to every freeman in the country. “When the people are in full possession of these [first principles],” he said, “it could not be doubted that their vigilance would preserve the Constitution inviolate to the latest posterity.” George Thatcher (1754 – 1824), a Federalist representing that part of Massachusetts now called Maine, responded with the opprobrious remark that the people in the Western country, being not uniformed as to the Constitution, lacked not political information but rather “moral information, fixed principles, and correct habits.” What followed this calumny was a debate that on its surface concerned questions over the costs and principles of distribution. Underlying these practical considerations, however, were differing opinions regarding popular sovereignty, and unease with the Alien and Sedition Acts, which the Federalists had rammed through over objections from the Republicans. “Had it not been for two acts of last session,” noted John Williams (1752 – 1806), a Federalist from New York, “[I do] not suppose the House would have heard of this motion, or the arguments used in support of it.” There was the further question of how best to promulgate the laws passed by Congress. At the end of the day, the House voted to send the matter to committee.
This is the report of that committee. Greely attributes it to John Nicholas, whose name appears at the end of the text. The Committee agreed resolved to published the Constitution and Amendments, but in an edition of only 2,000 copies rather than the 40,000 earlier proposed. It also resolved that the text of the Constitution and Amendments be included as appendices to the published laws of the United States printed at the end of each session of Congress, that Congress cause the laws to be published in newspapers in each state, and that 5,000 additional copies of these laws be printed for distribution to judges, district attorneys, and other legal officials. Josiah Parker (1751 – 1810), another Virginian, presented the report to the House on 28 February 1799. Two days later, the proposals of the report were enacted.
The act inspired by this report had broad repercussions for the promulgation of the nation's laws and for the emergence of sunshine acts formalizing the processes of making the government's processes transparent. As Joseph Murphy notes, "the public's right to be dvised of the law and the concommitant duty of the government to make the law known are essential to democratic society." This report furthered these fundamental objectives.
Printed in very limited numbers, copies of the report are very rare today. The vast majority of copies indexed on OCLC are microfiche or online reproductions; we have identified only three printed originals, located at the Library of Congress, the American Antiquarian Society, and the University of Connecticut.
- Annals of Congress, 5th Cong., 3rd sess., 2458-2465 (1798)
- U.S. House Journal, 5th Cong., 3rd sess, 28 February 1799.
- Act of March 2, 1799, ch. 30, 1 Stat 724-72
- Greely, A. W. Papers relating to early Congressional documents (Washington, DC: GPO, 1900), p. 253.
- Murphy, Joseph E. "The Duty of the Government to Make the Law Known," 51 Fordham L. R. 255 (1982)
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