by Chloe Lin
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
For the first time in 231 years, these words are once again being printed in the state of Massachusetts using the same historic methods that were used in 1787, with woven cotton paper and a wooden, hand-operated printing press, at the Printing Office of Edes & Gill at the Old North Church & Historic Site. But how did the US Constitution come about? And what goes into re-creating a historical document?
Print master, Gary Gregory, prepares to print the Federal Convention in the Printing Office of Edes & Gill.
The story of how the United States Constitution came to be is a long one, and far from straightforward. The Constitution is the basis of Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court, but it came about almost a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War. The nation’s first government was created by the Congress of the Confederation, but it was weak and decentralized, and the United States Constitution was written in secrecy to replace it. When the Constitution was published in 1787, printers all over the United States created copies of their own to distribute to Americans, in the hopes of gaining popular approval and a quick ratification process.
Here in Boston, the Constitution was printed by a man named Benjamin Edes, and then lost to history. The story of how the Boston edition of the Constitution came to be rediscovered and recreated today in the 21st century is a story that mirrors that of the US Constitution itself, full of setbacks and breakthroughs.
The founder of the modern day iteration of the Printing Office of Edes & Gill is Gary Gregory, a passionate devotee of American history and champion of the importance of the printing press. When Gregory first had the idea of creating a living history exhibit that would impress upon visitors the importance of printing offices in the Revolutionary War era, he knew he wanted to recreate local editions of documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Gregory printing the Federal Convention on his reproduction 18th century printing press.
That’s no small task, and harder still when you consider that many of the original copies set, printed, and distributed by Edes and Gill have been lost to history. Gregory cut his teeth with the Declaration of Independence, hunting down surviving copies printed in Boston by John Gill, having 9,000 pieces of type made to match those used to print the original, purchasing and learning to use a model of an 18th century wooden printing press, and, of course, educating the public by putting it all together and doing live demonstrations, day after day.
But while Gregory worked on re-creating the Declaration, he hadn’t forgotten that other key document he wanted to find – the US Constitution. In 2011, after countless visits to local archives and hours spent fruitlessly looking through card catalogs, Gregory came across a listing for a “Federal Convention” printed by Benjamin Edes in 1787, deep in the records of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The document’s unusual name caught his eye, and acting on a hunch, he asked to see the original. Lo and behold, as soon as the document was placed in front of him and he read the opening lines, “We the people,” he knew it to be a Boston edition of the Constitution, hidden under an obscure name. As a government document, the body of the text was identical to others printed elsewhere in the States, but there was one feature of this particular printing that was unique: a letter from George Washington, the hero of the Revolution, urging readers to ratify the Constitution.
Finding an existing copy of the Constitution, however exciting, was only half the battle. Armed with a high resolution 1:1 digital scan of the document, Gregory began the process of measuring the typefaces and spacing. Because the original pieces of type used by Edes have been lost to time, Gregory had to do careful research to ascertain the typeface and sizes used by Edes. The spaces in-between letters and lines matter too – because in 18th century printing, those spaces were created by physical blocks of blank type, and using spacers too large or too small would have created a document that was physically larger or smaller than the original.
Gregory printing the Boston edition of the U.S. Constituiton.
The most difficult part of recreating the Constitution was, without a doubt, recreating the type. There are roughly 24,400 pieces of type used for the “Federal Convention,” and every one of them had to be handmade by Gregory and his friend, printer Jim Walczak. Although the bulk of this text was a 6 point typeface set in an 8 point piece of type, there were an additional eight font sizes used for the title and section subheaders, all of which needed to be especially cast for this project. And then there were the obsolete characters, such as the long s (ſ). It was near-impossible to find the original 18th-century matrices used to cast those old-fashioned characters, but they were finally tracked down within the collections of the Type Archive in London and replicas purchased. Once all 24,400 pieces of type, made up of various sizes that included italics and obsolete characters, were created, they then had to be painstakingly set, letter by letter, line by line.
Then there are, of course, the typos. They were inevitable when dealing with size 6 characters: lowercase d’s and b’s flipped backwards, and p’s and q’s unminded and placed upside-down. After a few initial galley proofs, the typos have been fixed – except for, of course, the typos found in the original 1787 Benjamin Edes document. For the sake of historical accuracy, those have been left in for discerning readers to find.
Gregory’s six year journey with the Federal Convention is coming to an end – the type has been cast and lines of text set, the document has been proofread, the type locked into its frame, and sheets upon sheets of woven cotton paper are awaiting their turn in the printing press. Now all that remains is for the public to visit the Printing Office of Edes and Gill and see this historical document re-created for the first time in 231 years! Gregory has plenty on his hands with perfecting the printing process for the Constitution, but he’s already thinking about the next document he wants to discover and print: the United States Bill of Rights.
Gregory proudly displays the Boston edition of the Federal Convention.
Gregory inspects the finished product.
Interested in owning a piece of history? The Printing Office of Edes and Gill is open weekends from 10 am until 4 pm during February and March, and daily starting April 1. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to see the United States Constitution printed in front of your very eyes! Not in Boston? No fear, copies of the Constitution and Gary’s previous project, the Declaration of Indepdendence, can be found on our online store and at the Old North Church & Historic Site Gift Shop.
Watch print master Gary Gregory explain his journey re-creating the U.S. Constitution in his own words while printing one of the first copies below!