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No. 1003:
Engrossed in the Constitution

Today, we become engrossed in our Constitution. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Daniel Boorstin reminds us that the U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in use. But right away, that raises a most unexpected question: "What is the actual written document? What does it look like?"

Every schoolchild has seen photos of the supposed original. It is an elegant handwritten document. "We the People of the United States," it begins. The printed version in my encyclopaedia continues for about four pages.

Now consider how it was written: fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia to design the document. Ask yourself, "How did 55 people work together to produce a handwritten document?" The answer is they couldn't. They didn't even try.

The Constitutional Convention hired two printers named Dunlap and Claypoole. They, and the delegates, all swore secrecy while the work was in progress. They printed successive drafts for study and correction, and secrecy was never breached. Finally, on September 15, 1787, the Convention finished its work. Ben Franklin looked at that long labor and said,

I consent ... to this constitution, because I expect no better ... I am not sure it is not the best.

George Washington ordered 500 copies printed and distributed. Then he ordered that the Constitution should be engrossed.

What do you suppose that meant? Our word engross comes from the Latin word ingrossare. It means to write in large letters. The French have a similar-sounding phrase, en gros, or on the whole. En gros has gone through several meanings -- to buy up, to monopolize, to make full use of. When you're engrossed, you're making full use of your mind. You are fully focused.

From around 1300, when the English language was taking its modern form, up to the 1790s, engrossing was a special large handwriting used for formal legal documents. The other meaning, full use of the mind, had come in a little after 1700.

In any case, our Constitution was widely printed and read. It was fully known to our four million citizens. Only then was it rendered into handwriting as a final legal formality. The precious document we keep in a Washington vault is only a dramatization. It is theater. Our Constitution began its life as a living printed document before that handwritten copy was made.

Legal engrossing is a quaint forgotten custom that died soon after the Constitutional Convention. It makes an eerie parable of technical change. By engrossing the Constitution we reversed, for a moment, all that printing had done. I suppose it focused us to bring our new Constitution down -- to that single document.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Boorstin, D.J., Cleopatra's Nose. New York: Random House, 1994, Chapter 6, Printing and the Constitution.

See also the lengthy entries for engrossengrossed, and engrossing in the Oxford English Dictionary.