Oxford Will House Digital Study Center for the American Founding

Oxford Will House Digital Study Center for the American Founding
Vinde Wells/Sauk Valley Media via AP

The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource), a free digital library featuring historical documents related to the creation, ratification, and amending of the United States Constitution, is merging with the Quill Project, a research center housed at Oxford University.

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The merged entity will be led by Nicholas Cole, director of the Quill Project and a senior fellow at Pembroke College on Oxford’s campus, where he studies the political thought of the American founding era.

Cole states that he “could not be more delighted to be taking over the stewardship” of ConSource’s vast archive of resources and incorporating them into Quill’s existing database. Julie Silverbrook, who served as executive director of ConSource from 2012 to March 2020, calls the merger “a natural evolution of the existing partnership” between the organizations, noting that there is “no better academic institution in the world than Oxford.”

ConSource was founded in 2005 by then-law student Lorianne Updike Toler for a dual purpose: to provide free research tools for scholars and lawyers and to give all students the opportunity to explore what Silverbrook calls the “public constitutional history” of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Its library of resources include the Constitutional Index (offering relevant documents for each clause of the Constitution), an assortment of lesson plans categorized by grade level, a teacher professional-development program, and videos of events and speeches featuring Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor and eminent historian David McCullough.

Cole says that due to the “sheer scale of this collection,” he and his team will be working on creative approaches to presenting ConSource’s material in ways “that will be useful to the widest possible range of audiences.” Fortunately, the Quill Project has built a one-of-a-kind digital platform that is up to handling that difficult task.

Quill’s current tools can show each change made to the wording “proposed, debated, amended, and agreed upon” during the Constitutional Convention. Visitors can also discover “exactly what had (and had not) been agreed to at any particular moment” at the Convention and “track the history of particular phrases across three months of debate.” Further, the Secretary’s Desk tool provides all the papers on the committee secretary’s desk at the conclusion of each session, and the Calendar View tool shows events in chronological order, complete with data indicating which documents were circulating in each committee, by date.

Once the collections are fully merged, the entire archive of documents will be perhaps be the most complete digital set of materials from the Constitutional Convention in existence.

According to Cole, the Quill Project grew out of his desire to give researchers and students a better idea of how the delegates to the Convention worked on a daily basis. “The idea of a written constitution – and one constructed not by a single wise individual but through a process of debate and discussion – contrasts so directly with the history of British constitutional law, and has been so globally influential, that the process of its creation has always seemed to me to be remarkable and worthy of study,” he notes.

Cole’s fascination with the Constitutional Convention and what it created began while he was an undergraduate student at Oxford. As he read Alexander Hamilton’s stirring call to arms in Federalist 1, he pondered the idea that the United States’ “success or failure would prove to the world whether a government founded on republican principles was really possible.”

Cole’s interest inspired him to create the Quill Project in 2014, and he has led it ever since.

As Quill and ConSource join forces, Cole says, future plans include modernizing how texts are displayed, expanding existing projects on early state constitutions, and continuing to host conversations with top constitutional scholars. Cole and his team will also work with teachers, civic educators, and partner universities such as the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University to build useful tools for classrooms, the legal community, and historians.

Today, on both sides of the Atlantic, students are “uncertain about the merits of basic democratic principles,” Cole notes. Surveys indicate that only a minority of Americans possess even the most rudimentary civic knowledge about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Changing this situation is a monumental task, but Cole is up for the challenge.

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