The Constitution

When New York’s ratifying convention for the Constitution came to Poughkeepsie in the summer of 1788, local lawyer James Kent attended every day and marveled at Alexander Hamilton’s speeches. Kent later bought a copy of The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, shown here, in which he made his own table of contents of “the great Speeches of General Hamilton.” Kent scribbled notes in the margins about the subject of each of Hamilton’s utterances, and he underlined Hamilton’s strongest arguments and most stirring phrases.

The ratification of the proposed Constitution did not come easily. Anti-Federalists feared the strengthening and centralization of the federal government. To combat that opposition, Hamilton collaborated with James Madison and John Jay to write the essays we know today as The Federalist Papers, some of the finest fruits of the American Enlightenment. The essays originally ran in New York newspapers in late 1787 and 1788, in an effort to convince New Yorkers to support the Constitution.

By the time Kent was hanging on Hamilton’s words in Poughkeepsie, he had already guessed that Hamilton was behind many of the Federalist essays, which were signed with the collective pseudonym “Publius.” “I think Publius is a most admirable writer & wields the sword of Party dispute with justness, energy, & inconceivable dexterity,” Kent wrote to a friend in December 1787. “The Author must be Hamilton who I think in Genius & political Research is not inferior to Gibbon, Hume or Montesquieu.”

After ratification, Kent quickly rose to the top of the legal profession in New York. He became one of the most famous lawyers and jurists of his generation and is now remembered primarily for his four-volume Commentaries on American Law (1826–1830), an influential American legal text during the decades before the Civil War.

As soon as the first volume of the English historian Edward Gibbon’s mammoth History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, Americans rushed to buy this meditation on the hubris of empires. One enthusiast was Connecticut lawyer Oliver Ellsworth, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and the third chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps reflecting a lawyer’s concern for the sanctity of property, Ellsworth signed his Gibbon twice: first on the upper right-hand corner of the title page, and then again on the first page with the rather more emphatically possessive “Oliver Ellsworth His Property.”

John Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, shown here, defended American bicameral legislatures against the attacks of the French economist and statesman Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. After the formation of new American state governments in the wake of independence, the state constitutions provoked a flurry of commentary around the Atlantic. Turgot criticized them strongly for imitating, “without any real necessity, the customs of England.” Turgot’s attack angered Adams, who had drafted the bulk of the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780. Adams responded to Turgot with his three-volume Defence, first published in London in 1787–1788, while he was serving as American minister plenipotentiary to Britain. Shown here is the first American edition, published in Philadelphia. The book’s inside cover bears an inscription in the bottom left corner indicating that it once belonged to the wily French minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who could have acquired it during his visit to the United States in the 1790s.