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Researching the constitution offers a number of challenges and opportunities beyond those encountered in researching statutes. Although Wisconsin is only the 30th oldest of the 50 states, its constitution is the fifth oldest still in use. While many older states have replaced their original constitutions and some have replaced their constitutions several times, Wisconsin still uses its original 1848 constitution.

The normal method of researching a constitutional provision that dates to the original (not an adopted amendment) is to seek any comments made by members of the constitutional convention. The history of Wisconsin’s constitution is complicated by the fact that the people of Wisconsin produced two constitutions on its path to statehood, with the first constitution rejected by the voters.

Both constitutional conventions left behind a record of proceedings that preserved the actions of the delegates. This information can be useful for historical research, but those studying intent may be interested in the remarks made by the delegates at the time, and the manner in which they were debated in the convention and by the voters who had the final say at the polls. For this material we are largely indebted to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and Milo Quaife, who compiled a multi-volume set of edited historical documents about seventy years later. Quaife’s set of books give scholars a sense of what the delegates and the public were thinking about the constitutions when they were being written. A more recent source, The Wisconsin State Constitution, details the evolution of the constitution since 1848 by amendment and court interpretation. A more detailed discussion of these sources follows.

Journal of the Convention of 1846
KFW 2801 .A25

The journal of the first convention was published following final adjournment. While the journal gives a detailed account of what the convention did each day, including the proposed text of individual portions of the constitution and roll call votes on each question considered by the convention, it does not record what anyone said verbatim. This volume, over 500 pages, contains a short index providing broad subject access to the proceedings, but does not include the full text of the first, rejected constitution.

Journal of the Convention to Form a Constitution for the State of Wisconsin With a Sketch of Debates Begun and Held at Madison, on the Fifteenth Day of December, 1847
KFW 2801 .A25

The journal of the second convention was published in 1848. Unlike the first convention, the second convention provided for a reporting of debates after the convention was already in progress. For this reason, the record of remarks from the early days of the convention is less exhaustive. This volume contains complete copies of both the first, rejected constitution and the second constitution that was later ratified. The volume also contains a biographical table of the members, and an index that provides subject access to the convention’s activities.

Quaife books

The four volume set compiled by Milo Quaife about a century ago is the most complete source of information about the origins of the Wisconsin Constitution. This source was compiled about 70 years after the constitutional conventions.

The Movement for Statehood
KFW 2801.5 .Q34 v. 1

The bulk of this volume is a compilation of newspaper editorials and correspondence on the subject of statehood prior to the constitutional convention that began in October 1846. These materials do on occasion deal with some of the concepts dealt with by the conventions and an index is provided.

The Convention of 1846
KFW 2801.5 .Q34 v. 2

This second volume of the Quaife series is probably the most useful source for researching the history of state constitutional provisions originating in the first, rejected constitution. Quaife used the Journal of the Convention of 1846 as a guide to the contemporary press, which often printed transcriptions of delegate speeches on its own. The resulting work is the closest thing there is to an official record of what delegates said at the convention. These speeches can be useful for persons trying to advocate a certain interpretation of a constitutional provision originating in the first, rejected constitution.

In addition, this work includes a record of roll call votes from the convention (Appendix I); the text of the rejected constitution - this useful document can be very difficult to find - (Appendix II); and biographical sketches of the members of the convention (Appendix III). Of most use to researchers is the index, which gives topical access to the debates, which are arranged within the volume chronologically.

The Struggle Over Ratification
KFW 2801.5 .Q34 v. 3

This volume contains a 700-page reconstruction of the spirited newspaper debates that occurred during and in the months following the first constitutional convention. This source may not be of much interest to students of legislative history, as it deals strictly with materials appearing in newspapers, and does not usually give a strong view of what the intent of the delegates was in choosing certain language or including certain concepts over others.

This book is arranged by newspaper, and within the compilation for each paper, in chronological order; with the entire work divided into three separate parts: the first dealing with newspaper coverage of the convention while it was in progress; the second dealing with coverage of debates in the territorial legislature on the subject of the proposed constitution; and a third part, constituting about half the volume, on public opinion leading up to the referendum. The work also has an index giving subject access to the chronologically arranged material.

The Attainment of Statehood
KFW 2801.5 .Q34 v.4

This final volume of Quaife’s series deals primarily with the actions that facilitated the quick admission of Wisconsin to the Union after the rejection of the first constitution. Its first portion contains public speeches and newspaper articles on statehood from the period of April 1847 (the rejection of the first constitution) to the second, successful referendum in April 1848. Select debates on Wisconsin statehood in Congress are also included. Unlike the first convention, the second convention provided for at least a partial transcription of debates. The second part of this volume, well over half the total space in the book, consists of a combination of the convention journal and transcribed debates, augmented by newspaper coverage of debates as Quaife saw fit. This is the main source of information on the history of constitutional provisions that have their origin in the second constitutional convention. A subject index provides access to the material which is arranged on a roughly chronological basis.

Wisconsin State Constitution
KFW 2801 1848 .A6 S728 2019

The Wisconsin State Constitution, a volume of the Oxford Commentaries on State Constitutions of the United States, is an important source for persons interested in how interpretation of the Wisconsin Constitution has evolved since statehood. This work, arranged by article and section of the constitution, treats the entire document and discusses at length the evolution through amendment and, in particular, court interpretation of each section of the constitution. Discussion of the case law in each section is exhaustive. The volume also contains a lengthy bibliographical essay, table of cases cited, and a subject index.

State Constitutions

Explore the current text of all 50 state constitutions or search the full text of all documents. Wisconsin is a pilot state for the constitutional change project, and shows additional information about how the constitution has changed over time.


U.S. Constitution

U.S. Constitution: Amendments

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8th 9th 10th 11th 12th 13th 14th
15th 16th 17th 18th 19th 20th 21st
22nd 23rd 24th 25th 26th 27th  

U.S. Constitution-related Documents

U.S. Constitutional Law & History

  • The American Constitution: A Documentary Record (Avalon Project/Yale Law School)
    Provides chronological links to major documents leading up to the Constitution. Covers 1215 (Magna Carta)-1799. Sections include: Roots of the Constitution, Revolution & Independence, Credentials of the Members of the Federal Convention, The Constitutional Convention, and Ratification & Formation of the Government.
  • Charters of Freedom (National Archives)
    Text, history & images of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution & Bill of Rights.
  • Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789 (American Memory/Library of Congress)
    Digital collection of 274 documents chronicling the founding of our nation, the Revolutionary War & the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. Documents include the Articles of Confederation, treaties, proclamations, debates, convention records, and early versions of the United States Constitution & Declaration of Independence. Search the collection by keyword or browse through the subject index. Text & document images may be viewed. 

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