When the Thirteen Original Colonies felt forced into declaring their independence from the mother country of Great Britain, the Continental Congress must have felt overwhelmed. They had to establish a government and a set of rules for the government. This was no small task, but add to it the fact that the nation was at war with one of the most powerful nations in the world. The delegates to the congress feared creating a government that would simply be trading one tyrannical government for another that could be equally as bad. This fear drove them to proceed with caution as they drafted the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, the government was too weak lacking the power to tax and having no chief executive to carry out the laws. By 1787, it was clear that something must be done.
Delegates from across the nation, except for Rhode Island, began arriving in Philadelphia in May. Their intention was to “fix” the Articles of Confederation. However, the delegates soon came to several realizations. First, under the Articles, no provision had been made authorizing or explaining the process by which the document could be changed. Second, they realized that “fixing” the weak Articles was no easy task. Finally, they decided the best course of action was to draft an entirely new frame of government. After a hot summer of debates in closed session, the United States Constitution was complete.
In order to be approved by the Constitutional Convention on Monday, September 17, 1787, the draft had to be copied onto parchment over the weekend. The honor fell to Jacob Shallus, clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Shallus was a Pennsylvanian of Dutch ancestry. He was born a year after his father Valentine immigrated to Pennsylvania and was a volunteer in the Revolutionary War. During the war Shallus fought in Canada and became a quartermaster of Pennsylvania’s 1st Battalion. Shallus also assisted in the outfitting a a privateering vessel, the Retrieve. At the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Shallus served as Assistant Clerk to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which met at the Pennsylvania State House (today known as Independence Hall). The convention’s desire for speedy drafting and Shallus’ convenience to the convention’s meeting may have influenced his choice as engrosser.
Shallus wrote in a very legible script with titles that were made larger and darker, a penman’s technique called engrossing. The tools he used were quill pens, probably goose quills, which were cut from large feathers. The ink he used was made from Oak galls, iron, and gum arabic. Ink was initially pale, however, logwood was added to it as a colorant to make it bolder.
Shallus followed the English practice of writing important legal documents on parchment, animal skin that had been specially treated with lime and stretched. Parchment was expensive. It was usually imported from Great Britain. But it had a longer life expectancy than paper. Shallus began his task by drawing guidelines on the parchment. For this task, he used a very pale brown crayon. Corrections were difficult and had to be scraped away with a penknife. Sometimes things had to be inserted in the lines of text. This required them to be listed in an errata paragraph to attest that the approved document was unaltered. The document was penned on four pages of vellum parchemnt which measured 28 inches by 23 inches.
Nowhere on the document does the name of Shallus appear. In fact, not much attention was paid to Shallus’s role in the Constitution until 1937. As part of the research for the celebration for the 150th anniversary of the Constitution, the name of the penman was uncovered. Shallus was paid $30 for his work.
All of the document is in Shallus’s handwriting except for the list of states found at the end of the Constitution. Those were penned by Alexander Hamilton.
Without the swift work of Jacob Shallus, the Constitution might not have been ready for approval by the Constitutional Convention.
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