Two-Century Old Documents Offer Living Lessons

As daily headlines focus on Iraq’s vitriolic debate about a new national constitution, Americans can take comfort in knowing their own Constitution lies safely beneath bomb-proof glass in Washington, DC. Once upon a time, however, the fate of the United States’ Constitution was not much more secure than that of Iraq’s.

“John Jay & the Constitution,” an exhibition now on view at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library reminds us that the U.S. Constitution was not always the popular, polished document that is now sealed in the National Archives.  The small exhibition – featuring the early papers and manuscripts of Jay, the nation’s first Chief Justice and a critical player in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution – underscores the painstaking process that accompanies the creation of any national charter.

While generations of Americans have never questioned its authority, the Constitution’s survival was by no means certain in the months after the now 218-year-old document was signed.  The Columbia exhibit, virtually hidden on the sixth floor of the school’s vast Butler Library building, tells the little known story of how Jay persuaded reluctant New York delegates to join the patchwork of states under the new Constitution. In so doing, Jay helped avert what could have been the nation’s first constitutional crisis.

 “Jay was much more influential than most people realize,” notes co-curator, Elizabeth Nuxoll. The exhibit, she says, “brings right to people’s attention, visually, how important a player Jay was in getting this done.”

At the center of the show, is one of the library’s most prized possessions: John Jay’s original manuscript for Federalist #5. It’s one of only four remaining drafts of Federalist Papers, the influential series of essays by Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison that were intended to persuade state representatives to ratify the new Constitution.

Nuxoll, who is the editor of an upcoming print collection of Jay’s work, calls particular attention to the original letters that chronicle a conversation between Jay and George Washington, in which the first president praises Jay for his “Address to the People of the State of New York.” The oration is considered by some to have been more influential than the widely-celebrated Federalist Papers.

The address played a vital role in convincing New York State delegates to drop their opposition to the new Constitution, despite strong opposition from anti-federalist forces, who had balked at the new charter and threatened to secede from the fledgling union if it became law. George Washington, Nuxoll said, was so enamored with the document that he asked Jay to send additional copies.

In organizing the show, Nuxoll picked documents from Columbia’s large Jay collection that best demonstrated each stage of Jay’s involvement in the ratification process. As a result, “John Jay” tells an important story about the constitutional process and provides an inside look at the drafts that helped to determine history.

The line edits and ink splotches in the “John Jay” documents help to transport the viewer back two centuries and provide an unusual window into the negotiations and editing sessions that surrounded the Constitution’s ratification.

The documents also give a peek inside the mind of Jay, says Nuxoll, who occasionally slips into the present tense when describing the politician, diplomat, and chief justice. Through the documents, viewers “both see his process as a writer and see what he chose to suppress,” she said, referring to Jay’s deletions, which he often carefully constructed to ensure the original text would never be recovered.

Perhaps more importantly, the exhibit’s original drafts of letters, speeches and essays about the Constitution help us to understand that history is not as neatly constructed as we sometimes assume.

“We see them as these monuments set in stone. But they’re not,” the rare book library’s director, Jean Ashton, says of documents like the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The current exhibit “is a corrective for looking at history as ready made,” Ashton adds. “They are living documents, created by living people.”

The exhibit itself is an example of the constitutional process at work; it’s the result of a new federal law requiring schools to mark the Constitution’s birthday on Sept. 17.  The statute compels all educational institutions receiving federal funds to mark the day on an annual basis.

Columbia was well-positioned to satisfy the requirement, thanks to the Jay collection, and the rare book library volunteered to create an exhibit. In addition, the University now permanently hosts a virtual version of the Jay exhibit on the library website.

Federal statutes aside, the exhibit has an uncanny relevance to current events. Putting the show together, Nuxoll says, has reminded her of the difficulties inherent in creating a far-reaching, national constitution and provided additional perspective on the challenges in Iraq.

“In Iraq, they’re trying to push it through quickly,” she said of their constitution.  “The likelihood of that is not that great given our own history.  At least we shouldn’t be surprised if it is difficult.”

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