Founding-era translations of the U.S. Constitution.

Author:Mulligan, Christina
Position:I. Introduction through IV. The Translations A. The Commerce Clause, p. 1-26

    After the United States Constitution was drafted in 1787, the document was translated into German and Dutch for the German--and Dutch-speaking populations of Pennsylvania and New York. (1) Although copies of both the German--and Dutch language Constitutions have been preserved (2) and are reprinted in a German collection of constitutions edited by Horst Dippel, (3) they have largely escaped analysis until now. (4) This Article examines the text of the translations and explains how they can clarify the meaning of the Constitution's original text.

    By presenting and analyzing translations of the Constitution, this Article makes several modest but significant contributions to the field of constitutional interpretation. Principally, the translations provide evidence of the Constitution's original public meaning--the meaning of the text as understood by its contemporary translators and as reflected in their interpretive choices. This evidence may be of particular value when studying clauses in the Constitution that have not typically been the subject of discussion and commentary. The translations also provide examples of situations where there were multiple "original public meanings"--where members of the public developed different interpretations of the same text. More generally, this Article proposes that translations constitute a uniquely advantageous source of constitutional commentary by virtue of their ability to comprehensively and contextually analyze the Constitution's text. Unlike other sources, such as published pamphlets, the ratifiers' speeches, or contemporary dictionaries, the translated constitutions exhaustively restate every term and phrase in the Constitution and represent those terms and phrases in context.

    Part II will introduce the translations by situating them in historical context. Part III will turn to the value of using translations to interpret the Constitution in the present day. The text of the translations will be analyzed in Part IV. Accompanying this paper is also an appendix, which includes a table of the English, Dutch, and German texts, together with extensive annotations and notes on the peculiarities of these translations. (5) Our aim is for these comments to be a helpful tool when using the translations to explore the meaning of the Constitution.


    On September 17, 1787, the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention adjourned after completing the drafting of the Federal Constitution. By the next morning, 500 copies had been printed in English, to be distributed to Congress, state governors, and state legislators. (6)

    Shortly after the convention adjourned, Pennsylvania's congressional delegation requested a meeting with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the state's legislative body. (7) Benjamin Franklin hoped that by quickly ratifying the Constitution, Pennsylvania could secure the location of the new nation's capital. (8) On Monday, September 24, 1787, and Tuesday, September 25, 1787, the Pennsylvania assembly ordered the printing of 3,000 copies of the Constitution in English and 1,500 copies of the Constitution in German "to be distributed throughout th[e] state for the inhabitants thereof." (9) At the time, around one-third of the population of Pennsylvania primarily spoke German," (10) and the relative number of constitutions printed in each language reflected this proportion. Assemblymen William Will of Philadelphia, Adam Hubley of Lancaster County, and Philip Kreemer of Berks County were appointed to a committee to "engage a proper person to translate the plan [Constitution] into the German language." (11) The assembly's German language printing was undertaken by Michael Billmeyer. (12) However, the translator's name does not appear on the Billmeyer copies (13) and does not appear to be known.

    The Dutch translation was produced separately at the bequest of a pro-Constitution faction. In the late 1700s, the Dutch language was still spoken widely in New York, specifically in the rural areas around New York City "west of the Hudson, in New Jersey, around Kingston, and along the upper reaches of the Hudson and the Mohawk." (14) The Dutch translation was printed in 1788 to gather support for New York's ratification, "by Order van de [of the] Federal Committee," (15) a group which explicitly advocated ratification of the Federal Constitution in New York. (16) The printer of the Dutch translation, Charles Webster, owner of the Albany Gazette and Albany Journal, is notable for having printed pamphlets by both the Anti-Federal and Federal Committees. (17)

    The Dutch translator was Lambertus De Ronde, (18) a Dutch-American minister of the Reformed Church in America (formally known as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church). (19) De Ronde was born in Holland in 1720, and lived in the village of Zuilichem in Gelderland for some period until 1746, before going to Suriname. (20) He visited New York in 1750. Upon De Ronde's arrival, he was approached by leaders of New York's Dutch Reformed Church "who anticipated their congregation soon would need another minister." (21) His preaching was praised as "so pleasing" (22) that he was hired by the Collegiate Church "with the understanding that he was to join the Coetus." (23)

    The Coetus was the larger of two warring factions within the Reformed Church; the other was known as the Conferentie. Adrian C. Lieby describes the Conferentie as a group that "often appeared to be moved by a violent hatred for all things American." (24) Although "[t]he [C]onferentie sometimes represented its battle as one to preserve the authority of Amsterdam and the ways of the fathers in the American Dutch church," Lieby claims that "its real objective was to oppose the great religious revival that had swept the colonies in the thirty years before the Revolution, ... that has come to be called the

    'Great Awakening.'"(25) In the 1750s and 1760s, the Coetus faction had adopted the liberal language of "rights" while emphasizing personal religious revival. To the Conferentie, such talk seemed to suggest that man could play a role in choosing his own salvation. But any suggestion that God's grace was resistible, or that man's free-will played a role in his own salvation, was heretical to the Orthodox Calvinists, whose position on this matter was defined at the Synod of Dordt from 1618-19. The Conferentie were traditionalists who held strongly to Dordt, and because Dordt determined the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, the Conferentie maintained ties with Amsterdam in order to counter what it envisioned were Arminian (free-will) tendencies in the American church. (26)

    Despite the expectations of De Ronde's appointment, he never attended another Coetus meeting and, in 1755, became a dedicated member of the rival Conferentie. (27) Although De Ronde had been a member of a committee that procured a preacher, Archibald Laidlie, to preach in English, De Ronde "afterward turned against him, and was the leading spirit of the 'Dutch party'" which opposed English preaching. (28)

    But church politics eventually spurred De Ronde to learn English. In 1765, De Ronde reflected, "I had to learn a language, against which I had an antipathy for twelve or thirteen years." (29) By the 1760s, he frequently preached in English, at one point having to defend his practice of English preaching to the Amsterdam Classis. (30)

    Although De Ronde learned to preach in English, he was criticized for being "not in the least qualified" to do so. (31) Historian Joyce D. Goodfriend observes, "[h]ow widely De Ronde read in English remains a matter of conjecture, but he clearly read well enough to be conscious of contemporary English literary conventions. Yet ... it is not surprising that he exhibited concern about his comprehension of English." (32) De Ronde described his English-language book A System: Containing the Principles of Christian Religion, Suitable to the Heidelberg Catechism as "a bold Undertaking, by a person so little versed in the English Language ... [I]t would be Presumption to pretend to write it [in English] with Ease and Elegance." (33) In another English-language book, The True Spiritual Religion, he wrote that "flowers of rethorick, fine style, fancy, wit, and such other ornaments" were "more than my skill in the English language, could produce." (34)

    The reception of De...

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