First Publication Of U.S. Constitution Expected To Reel In $1 Million At Auction

The document that set the law of the land is currently up for auction. Sotheby’s is selling the first publication of the Constitution of the United States. It’s estimated to reel in between $700,000 to $1 million.

In the late summer of 1787, the United States was on the cusp of a new era. After months of heated debates and careful deliberations, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention had finally agreed upon the framework for a new system of government. On September 19, 1787, the nation’s fledgling Constitution made its public debut in the pages of a Philadelphia newspaper, marking a pivotal moment in American history.

First publication of the Constitution of the United States
First publication of the Constitution of the United States. (credit: Sotheby’s)

The newspaper in question was The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, a prominent publication printed by John Dunlap and his partner, David Claypoole. Dunlap was no stranger to momentous occasions — he had previously printed the first edition of the Declaration of Independence. As the official printers of the Constitutional Convention, Dunlap and Claypoole were entrusted with the task of disseminating the new Constitution to the American people.

“4-page folio newspaper issue (462 x 289 mm) on a bifolium, text printed in a single column, surmounted by a near-page-width ‘headline’ setting of the Preamble in six lines, the entire issue devoted exclusively to the Constitution (including the roster of its Signers, the two resolutions of the Convention adopted on 17 September recommending the procedures for ratification and for the establishment of government under the Constitution by the Confederation Congress, and George Washington’s influential cover letter of the same date to Arthur St. Clair, president of Congress) with no editorial or explanatory gloss; very lightly browned, neatly reinforced at central vertical fold, a very little marginal chipping. Blue calf folding-box by Weitz, front cover and spine gilt with federal shield and stars, spine gilt-lettered, marbled linings and edges, chemise; rubbed,” Sotheby’s writes in the description lot.

The Constitution’s appearance in The Packet was not a mere happenstance. In fact, the text was largely printed from standing type used to print the Official Edition of the Constitution, which was the first edition of the complete and final text. This Official Edition had been prepared for the delegates of the Constitutional Convention and for the use of the Confederation Congress. As such, the version that appeared in The Packet can be considered, essentially, as the second issue of that edition.

The Constitution was not just another document; it was a blueprint for a new nation. It outlined the powers and responsibilities of the federal government, established a system of checks and balances, and enshrined the rights and freedoms of American citizens. The Constitution’s publication in The Packet made these ideas accessible to the general public for the first time.

The Constitution’s journey from the halls of the Convention to the pages of The Packet was not an easy one. The delegates had grappled with a host of complex issues, from the nature of executive power to the representation of states in Congress. They had navigated regional tensions, philosophical differences, and personal rivalries. The final document was a product of compromise and consensus, a delicate balance between competing interests and ideals.

For many Americans, the Constitution’s publication was a cause for celebration. It represented the culmination of years of struggle and sacrifice, a triumph of reason over tyranny. As Richard B. Bernstein, a noted constitutional scholar, has observed, the Constitution was “the product of a revolution in political thought at least as important and far-reaching as the winning of American independence from Great Britain.”

First publication of the Constitution of the United States
First publication of the Constitution of the United States. (credit: Sotheby’s)

Yet not everyone was convinced that the Constitution was the best path forward for the young nation. Critics argued that it granted too much power to the federal government at the expense of states’ rights. Others feared that it did not go far enough in protecting individual liberties. These debates would continue to shape American politics for generations to come.

Despite these challenges, the Constitution endured. It has served as the foundation of American democracy for over two centuries, guiding the nation through war and peace, prosperity and hardship. As William Starr Myers, another prominent historian, has noted, “From a legal standpoint, [the Constitution] amounted to a revolution as great as the rebellion against Great Britain, or the Declaration of Independence.”

In November 2021, Sotheby’s sold one of two privately owned copies of the official first printing of the Constitution for a record $43.2 million.

The Sotheby’s auction ends Wednesday, June 26.

Click here for more information.

HobbyListings editor Matt Higgins contributed to this report.

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