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Georgetown Law Library

Constitutional Law and History Research Guide

This guide covers sources that are useful for researching Constitutional law and Constitutional history.

Introduction

The events and discussions leading to the adoption of the Constitution and its amendments are recorded in a variety of reports, journals, and other documents. These materials continue to be important resources as courts attempt to apply the terms of an 18th century document to evolving modern circumstances. The following proceedings and documents can provide valuable historical background on the U.S. Constitution.

Proceedings of the Federal Convention of 1787

There is no official record of the proceedings regarding the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  James Madison kept the journal of the proceedings, but it included only procedural information. Several editions of this journal are available online and in print at the library: 

A more modern source to consult is Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Constitution of 1787. Farrand's Records remains the single best source for discussions of the Constitutional Convention as it gathers together the documentary records of the Constitutional Convention and the materials necessary to study the workings of the Constitutional Convention. Published in 1911, the documentary records of the Constitutional Convention were compiled into three volumes containing the notes by major participants and the texts of various alternative plans presented. The three volumes also includes notes and letters by many other participants, as well as the various constitutional plans proposed during the convention. 

Full text access to the 1911 edition is available online at the following sources:

Subsequent editions:

Arguments For Ratification of the Constitution

The Federalist Papers (also known as "The Federalist") were a series of eighty-five essays urging the citizens of New York to ratify the new United States Constitution written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.The Federalist Papers are considered one of the most important sources for interpreting and understanding the original intent of the Constitution.

These arguments made for ratification of the Constitution were published in collected form as The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution (1788), which is available from the following sources:

Arguments Against & Debates on Ratification of the Constitution

For more on the Anti-Federalists, who made the case against ratification, as well as debates on the ratification of the Constitution, see:

Bill of Rights and Amendment History

Since ratification in 1788, thousands of amendments have been proposed, though the Constitution has been amended only twenty-seven times. As outlined in Article V, amendments to the Constitution are proposed by Congress and presented to the states for ratification. These amendments are discussed in length in the following sources: