The Journal of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction

I wanted to post about the bizarre tale of the Journal of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment.

Unlike the Constitutional Convention, where James Madison kept an extensive record of the proceedings (supplemented by an official journal and some notes from other delegates), the only record of what occurred in the Joint Committee was created by George Mark, a clerk from Maine who probably received that assignment by Senator William Pitt Fessenden, a senior member of the Committee from Maine. Not much is known about Mark other than the fact that he later worked at the Library of Congress.

After the Joint Committee disbanded, Mark’s journal was retained by Senator Fessenden, then by his son, and then by his grandson. Around 1908, the journal was sold by the Fessenden family to a private collector. Not long after that, a doctoral student at Columbia–Benjamin Kendrick–traced the journal and was able to get Columbia to buy the original manuscript, which he then reproduced in his 1915 dissertation. Kendrick verified the Journal’s authenticity by contacting Mark’s son to confirm his father’s handwriting.  (There were also handwritten sheets from some of the members of the Joint Committee in Mark’s collection.)

This account, though, leaves many questions unanswered.  When did Mark write the journal?  At the time the Committee was meeting, or years later? Was he a reliable eyewitness? Since there are no other records of the Joint Committee’s proceedings, how do we know that Mark’s notes on the motions are correct? And did anything go missing in the decades prior to publication?  Strange that these questions have not been pursued by researchers.

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2 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    Maybe this is a Mary Sarah Bilder project?

  2. Joe says:

    Looking at the .pdf file, on page six there is a reference to it being printed in 1884.

    Anyway, you’d think there would be private records (at least piecemeal) of some sort of what happened. The professor has before suggested a major project to collect all the materials regarding the ratification of the 14A into one easy to access collection.

    I have also noted that when the Supreme Court focuses on original meaning and such that there is a lot more on the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I recall a lot less focus on the original sources to find a meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment (ditto other amendments). In fact, you’d think at times “the Constitution” in this context stopped at Bill of Rights. And, even there only certain ones really received much attention — e.g., was there really much investigation to get a sense of the “original meaning” of the 10A? Justice Souter et. al. after Oregon v. Smith noted little was done regarding Free Exercise. etc.