The Constitution’s Forgotten Cover Letter: An Essay on the New Federalism and the Original Understanding

At the end of the summer of 1787, the Philadelphia Convention issued two documents. One was the Constitution itself. The other document, now almost forgotten even by constitutional historians, was an official letter to Congress, signed by George Washington on behalf of the Convention. Congress responded with a resolution that the Constitution and “letter accompanying the same” be sent to the state legislatures for submission to conventions in each state.

The Washington letter lacks the detail and depth of some other evidence of original intent. Being a cover letter, it was designed only to introduce the accompanying document rather than to plumb its meaning. But the letter’s official nature gives it a status not shared by Madison’s personal notes or newspaper editorials such as the Federalist Papers. As we will see, the Washington letter contains significant clues about the nature of the document that the Convention was placing before the country. Although it cannot supplant other, more traditional sources, it can help to illuminate the original understanding of the Framers.