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
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