Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Long before the bicentennial of the United States Constitution rendered them ubiquitous, the pen strokes We the People probably formed the most famous and sacred piece of handwriting in the Western world. The original lettering, seen by swarms of visitors to the document’s repository in the nation’s capital, is the very script of the Constitution signed by members of the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787.

The document is the focal point of the two hundredth anniversary commemorations and its distinctive script has been reproduced widely – on video screens, in grand traveling exhibits and on sweatshirts, souvenir tumblers and banks. But the Pennsylvanian who “engrossed” – transcribed in a bold hand – those venerated parchments remains as little celebrated as any humble clerk of the eighteenth century.

Because the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were secret and most of the official records destroyed, no document exists to this day to positively identify the scribe. To mark the sesquicentennial of the Constitution in 1937, historian John Clement Fitzpatrick of the Library of Congress was commissioned to use every technique at his disposal to determine the identity of the engrosser. The Constitution has been on public display at the Library of Congress since 1924, and one of the most common of visitors’ questions – “Who did the lettering?” – had been unanswered.

Fitzpatrick set to work, rummaging through handwriting specimens of every possible clerk or scribe in and around the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He discovered one valuable clue in a treasury memorandum from the Continental Congress regarding payment for certain expenses incurred during the meeting. Dated September 31, 1787, the memorandum officially allocated thirty dollars to “the clerks employed to transcribe and engross.”

Certain that most of the writing was in the hand of a single clerk, Fitzpatrick continued his search with the fervor of an impassioned detective. He was puzzled to find that correspondence signed by convention delegate Thomas Mifflin seemed similar in its pen strokes to the script emblazoned on the Constitution. Far from being a clerk, Mifflin was speaker of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, meeting in Philadelphia one floor above the Constitutional Convention in the State House (now Independence Hall). When known examples of Thomas Mifflin’s handwriting led Fitzpatrick to rule him out, the prime candidate became the Assembly’s assistant clerk, who prepared numerous documents for Mifflin’s signature. Fitzpatrick busily examined other documents in the handwriting of that clerk and announced that he had finally found the scribe of the most important document in the history of the United States!

On September 12, 1937, The New York Times heralded the clerk, one Jacob Shallus, with headlines. The newspaper story recapitulated Fitzpatrick’s sketchy biographical notes on Shallus, which had been drawn mainly from brief records in the Pennsylvania Archives and Colonial Records and Papers of the Continental Congress. In 1941, Fitzpatrick offered just four paragraphs of biography in a chapter entitled “The Man Who Engrossed the Constitution” as part of a sesquicentennial anthology.

John Clement Fitzpatrick discovered that Jacob Shallus (1750-1796) served as a volunteer quartermaster with the First Pennsylvania Battalion, sharing in the sufferings of Montgomery’s and Arnold’s attempts on Quebec. He later became a deputy commissary for Pennsylvania, and in 1779 joined a partnership in outfit­ting the privateer sloop Re­trieve to prey on British commerce. Using profits prob­ably resulting from that specu­lative venture, he acquired considerable parcels of real estate in and near Philadel­phia. After the American Rev­olution, he became assistant clerk for the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, a post which he held for many years. While in the employ of the Assembly, Jacob Shallus received the call from the Constitutional Con­vention downstairs for a capable – and trustworthy­ – engrosser. Three years later he became secretary of Pennsylva­nia’s constitutional conven­tion. He also served as a notary and tabellion-public (or official scribe). Shallus died, unrecognized for the role he had played in the creation of the United States Constitution, at the age of forty-six.

Fitzpatrick offered no more. During the decades since the one hundred and fiftieth com­memoration in 1937, Jacob Shallus’s only other exposure to the American public has been a caption affixed to the document’s display case at the National Archives, Washing­ton, D.C. Only four words­ – “engrossed by Jacob Shallus” – assign him any credit.

But who was Jacob Shallus? Was he merely a scribe as­signed the arduous task of engrossing a government document? Did his talents extend beyond his artful callig­raphy? Did he actively take a role in other governmental duties, or was he satisfied with engrossing official documents as a livelihood? And, most importantly, was there any way in which this name, Jacob Shallus, could be fleshed out?

Extensive research uncov­ered a reference to a diary, and later a copy of that diary, kept by Shallus during the 1776 campaign of the First Pennsyl­vania Battalion against the British in Canada. The copy, made in 1831 from no-longer­-extant manuscripts, surfaced in a set of Canadian papers in Harvard’s Houghton Library, and revealed Jacob Shall us as a man of intelligence, wit, kind­ness and resourcefulness. A 1777 letter to John Hancock, the earliest example of Shal­lus’s handwriting found to date, written while he served as a deputy commissary of Pennsylvania, appealed to the president of the Continental Congress for support in the collection of a debt. Shallus’s signature also appears among those of nearly two hundred patriots – including Thomas Paine – on a statement printed in the July 25, 1778, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, calling for uninhibited testimony against “sundry persons, notoriously disaffected to the American cause.”

Other sources confirm Jacob Shallus’ standing as a concerned and respected republican/federalist. He was one of eighty members of the Republican Society who signed a statement published in the Pennsylvania Gazette of March 24, 1779. These individ­uals fervently opposed the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 and later became hard­-driving federalists who relent­lessly supported the United States Constitution and its ratification. A delightful epi­sode, in the unofficial proceed­ings of the Pennsylvania Assembly for September 29, 1787, describes Jacob Shallus’s mad dash through Philadel­phia in pursuit of antifederal­ists. The federalists sought to establish a state convention to ratify the new federal Consti­tution and needed a quorum in order to proceed with their majority vote. As assistant clerk, Shallus was hastily dispatched to gather truant delegates.

The signature of Jacob Shal­lus, as assistant clerk to the convention, appears on the engrossed Pennsylvania Con­stitution of 1790. Savored by Pennsylvania’s federalists as a victory over the “radicals” of 1776, the document also cre­ated a Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which, inci­dentally, provided the scribe with his last major employ­ment.

Perhaps the most interest­ing aspect of Jacob Shallus is that he, although not extraor­dinary as a calligrapher, emerges as a storybook model of America’s Founding Scribe. Ideally, the individual whose handwriting is a sacred sym­bol of American democracy would have been one who represented, in the early re­public, the best in the Ameri­can character: hatred of tyranny and the courage to fight against it, love of freedom, respect for fellow man, devotion to family, and forti­tude and persistence In the face of adversity. In particular, this character might have been a Revolutionary War soldier, a member of Philadelphia’s high-spirited merchant class and an adventurous entrepreneur – as well as a struggling taxpayer, commu­nity activist, dedicated civil servant and proponent of a strong national government (or “federalist” in the terms of 1787). Jacob Shallus was all of these. Furthermore, he re­flected the humor and com­passion of the American character, in addition to its touch of opportunism and brinkmanship. His association with the Constitution can be regarded not only as a pleas­ing sidenote to today’s bicen­tennial celebrations, but as a source of pride for ordinary citizens of the United States, particularly of Pennsylvania.

Born in 1750, the year after his father Valentine arrived with seven thousand fellow Palatinate immigrants, Jacob Shallus was raised as an American, probably moving between the established Ger­man society of Germantown and the teeming life of Phila­delphia’s waterfront. Valentine Schallus may have been ad­vised on surviving the ardu­ous transition to life in America by a pamphlet writ­ten by Leonard Melchior, a leader of Philadelphia’s Ger­man community and the fu­ture father-in-law of the Constitution’s calligrapher.

Nothing is known of Jacob Shallus’ education nor about his mother’s identity. His fa­ther died in 1769, apparently leaving a small estate to Jacob and his siblings, Frederick and Catharina. Americanizing his name from Schallus to Shal­lus, Jacob married, according to the records of the German Reformed Church, the eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Melchior in 1771. A merchant with a business located on Second Street, Jacob Shallus appeared on Philadelphia’s tax rolls three years later, listed as “Jacob Shallus, gentleman.” The gentleman was also forty­-five pounds in debt. In 1774, son Francis was born, the first of eight children and one whose life would have a pre­mature ending.

With the American Revolu­tion approaching, Shallus sold his Second Street business, and in January 1776 joined Col. Philip de Haas’s First Pennsylvania Battalion bound north for Canada. His wife­ – whose brother Isaac served as a colonel and barrack master general during the war – would play her own part during the difficult years, tending to the wounded who streamed into Philadelphia.

Jacob Shallus struggled as quartermaster in woefully ill­-supplied campaigns, the troops “wanting in socks, shoes, and mittens, with weapons in need of repair” even as they entered Canada. His war diary covers the per­iod from May 6 to July 1, 1776, as the battalion retreated from Quebec City, then traveled south to Montreal, harassing British troops where possible, reinforcing other meager units, skirmishing with Indi­ans and finally leaving Can­ada.

Young Shallus, when not negotiating dangerous rapids to deliver supplies by bat­teaux, encountered his share of the horrors and surprises of war-bitterly cold tempera­tures, death by disease, the scalping of a search party and the “resurrection” of a drowned soldier “by rubbing, holding him up by the heels and bleeding.” He sympa­thized with a decision not to attack Indians gathered for a treaty, as “humanity here cried out against an attempt to kill and destroy Women and In­fants.” He condemned local priests who “live like Princes, while their poor Canadians are starving.” But he could take advantage of looting, espe­cially when “J Shallus was Commissary” at captured St. Ann’s, where “whoever had any acquaintance with that Gentleman must be convinced that he took care to live well himself, and make up as much as possible for those days it was impossible to do himself justice.”

Although appointed an ensign in August 1776, Shallus resigned the following January. As the opposing British ap­proached Philadelphia, he started for Lancaster to serve as Deputy Commissary Gen­eral for Pennsylvania, a post that seemed to bring him little more than anxiety and even some personal expenses. It was in this office, however, that he manifested his talent at penmanship and a gracious command of business English. For example, a handsomely scripted missive to patriot John Hancock reads: “I am sorry that I am under the Necessity of troubling your Excellency with a matter too trifling for your notice at this present juncture – but my daily being harrasd for Money obliges me to have recourse to your Au­thority …. ”

Jacob Shallus returned to war-torn Philadelphia, identi­fied himself with anti-Tory patriots, sold merchandise at the waterfront wharves, ac­quired property and specu­lated in the risky privateering against British shipping. In September 1779, Shallus and an officer named William Well secured a five thousand dollar bond as well as funds to fi­nance a private ship of war, the Retrieve. The five ton ves­sel, with six carriage guns, sailed with a crew of eighteen under the command of Capt. William Paul. Paul lived on for several decades, but the fate­ – and fortunes – of the Retrieve remain unknown.

Shallus was taxed on a fair amount of real estate from 1779 through 1780, reflecting invest­ments in land that might have been motivated by soaring inflation, by the profits of privateering – or by both. His holdings during the period included property in Philadel­phia’s Mulberry Ward, fifty acres in Bedford County, one hundred and forty-seven acres in Bucks County and nearly two thousand acres in North­umberland County.

By 1783, Shallus would owe back taxes on a large parcel of land in Falls Township and struggle to retain a contested city tract. Needing cash, he may very well have welcomed the modest salary offered by the clerical position he secured in October with the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. As assistant clerk to Clerk Peter Zachary Lloyd, Shallus performed a wide variety of du­ties, ranging from taking minutes and transcribing se­lected extracts (several of which he signed, thus provid­ing good examples of his en­grossing style) to running errands and, perhaps, main­taining the Assembly’s small library. (For an illustrated his­tory of the book collection acquired and kept by the Pennsylvania Assembly, see “A Treasure Trove of Books” by Barbara E. Deibler, which appeared in the spring 1986 edition of this magazine.) Lloyd was trained as a lawyer, but Shallus’ papers indicate only that “in the course of a number of years [he] had ac­quired the knowledge of a Conveyancer,” or one who drafts deeds.

Shallus would serve as assistant clerk for ten years, valued for his skill even by opponents of his political party. He also enhanced his respectability through mem­bership in Philadelphia’s Ma­sonic Lodge.

The third session of the eleventh Pennsylvania General Assembly opened unevent­fully on September 4, 1787, in an upstairs chamber of the State House, with Peter Za­chary Lloyd as clerk and Jacob Shallus as assistant clerk. Downstairs in the East Cham­ber, where the Assembly nor­mally convened, the Constitutional Convention had been meeting in secret session since May. The last week of the convention commenced on a warm Monday, September 10; by Saturday, the weather had cooled and the delegates reached agreement. At about four o’clock that afternoon, September 15, the drafted document was approved by the delegates and ordered to be engrossed for signing on Monday.

Convention secretary Wil­liam Jackson would have to put into an engrosser’s capable hands a corrected report of the Committee of Style and the text of two resolutions in a separate document. He proba­bly did so on Saturday evening, after the Pennsylvania Assembly concluded its agenda, and asked a weary Jacob Shallus to complete the engrossed parchments by Monday morning. The callig­rapher probably welcomed the opportunity to earn the thirty dollars – a doorkeeper’s monthly wage – in less than two days, but what a task lay ahead! Of the approximately forty hours between the time he received the drafts on Sat­urday and submitted the com­pleted parchments, sleep and meals could have consumed some fifteen hours. In about twenty-five hours he penned twenty-five thousand charac­ters, a rate of more than six­teen a minute! These were bold and carefully executed characters on large sheets measuring twenty-eight and three-quarters by twenty-eight and one-quarter inches. The parchments were rough, and the dipped goose quill not the easiest of writing instruments. The commission also entailed a painstaking inspection of marked drafts, then an accu­rate transcription of the proper text in straight lines on four sheets – plus a half-sheet for the accompanying letter of transmittal which required engrossing by Monday.

Jacob Shallus used a fine vellum parchment, a skin that had been soaked in lime, de­haired, cleaned, stretched, scraped and dried under ten­sion. The surface was treated with a pumice to prevent the feathering of ink. Shallus’s typical working arrangement consisted of a writing table, a day pot of iron-gall ink, an oil lamp and a goose quill. York­shire quills were best, and a short slit in the tip produced fewer blots. Straight lines of text were achieved by strings or scored lines, but Shallus might have worked by eye, as his work is not perfect.

Shallus’s script was typical eighteenth century round hand, which American clerks usually learned from copy­books by George Fisher or George Bickham. His version for the Constitution is more open and less florid than some of his other handwriting, which probably resulted from the difficulty of writing on the rough surface of the parch­ment, the instructions he received from Jackson or, perhaps, his own preference. Whether he worked on the Constitution at home or at the State House remains un­known, as does the calligra­pher of the rather unexceptional ornamental headings in the gothic or block-letter style. But Shallus’ son Francis would – at the age of thirteen or fourteen – have been close to an apprentice­ship and he possibly executed the headings. It is known that eight years later he served as assistant to the first engraver for the new United States Mint and later established a modest reputation as an artistic en­graver. Francis Shallus also claimed some distinction as author of an historical alma­nac, in which he provides a one paragraph obituary of his father – but with no mention of his engrossing the Constitution. To this day, the possibility that both father and son worked feverishly that September weekend two centuries ago to engross the most famous doc­ument in the history of the United States is conjecture.

Perhaps partly as a result of Jacob Shallus’ haste and fa­tigue, the United States Con­stitution required an errata statement on the signature parchment, and even this statement contained two er­rors. It would have been penned by Shallus on Monday in the State House, while the Constitutional Convention delegates were assembled for the signing. Shallus would also have engrossed the nota­ble closing paragraph added by Benjamin Franklin to en­courage signing of the docu­ment.

Although Monday, Septem­ber 17, 1787, might have been memorable for an exhausted Jacob Shallus, the engross­ment was apparently just another clerical task, and one for which no boast has ever been uncovered during the last two hundred years. For years he had transcribed Pennsylva­nia’s historic documents by the score, and the federal parch­ments were nothing more than a draft proposal to be distrib­uted to the states. At any rate, he soon had other matters to occupy him. On Saturday, September 29, he was hastily dispatched from the Pennsyl­vania Assembly to comb Phila­delphia for antifederalists boycotting the convention, as the federalist majority in the Assembly needed a quorum for calling a convention to ratify the new Constitution. Although the antifederalists eluded Shallus, a mob saw to the quorum.

Just five months after his brush with history, and with the Pennsylvania Assembly in recess, Shallus faced arrest for a debt of twelve pounds. On February 15, 1788, he wrote Edmund Physick, who had served as Receiver-General of Pennsylvania and later agent for the Penn family estates, pleading for an extension of credit “for my relief as well as that of a wife and eight chil­dren.” In jumbled, ungram­matical script reflecting his anxiety, he wrote, “Good Sir I can restore it you as soon as the Assembly meet.”

Shallus seemed able to persevere until autumn, when he continued serving the As­sembly and had himself ap­pointed a notary and tabellion for Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin approved the ap­pointment and also signed a small payment for a freelance assignment Shallus completed for the American Philosophical Society. He had few remaining years in his Life, but they were notable: the ratified Constitu­tion was celebrated in July 1788; George Washington paraded through Philadelphia in 1789 as the new president under the Constitution and returned when the city became the capital the following year; Pennsylvania held its constitu­tional convention, with Shal­lus as assistant secretary; and by late 1791, three-fourths of the states had ratified the federal constitutional amend­ments now known as the Bill of Rights.

In 1793, the epidemic of yellow fever plagued Philadel­phia, claiming some five thou­sand lives. Jacob Shallus, perhaps weakened by it, died April 18, 1796. His two para­graph obituary in the April 25 edition of Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser noted: “His illness, which was a consumptive complaint, he bore with uncommon patience and resignation – and Wednesday afternoon his remains were attended to the grave by a large and numerous concourse of respectable citizens.”

Shallus’ wife Elizabeth died August 1, 1818, at the age of sixty-five. Son Francis, suffer­ing a painful illness, died impoverished at the age of forty-eight in November 1821.

No matter who had engrossed the United States Constitution, the document would remain as drafted by the founding fathers and exert the same impact on the world. The historical significance of Jacob Shallus as calligrapher cannot be exaggerated, for his story is significant in the his­tory of human endeavor. In knowing him, Americans can better understand the human context in which the Franklins, Madisons and Hamiltons made history. Beyond that, Jacob Shallus’ story reflects a universal ambition: that small yearning to leave one’s mark upon the world. Jacob Shallus left a mark of his special craft and undeniable talent upon America’s most important document, and recognizing his labor yields a sense of resolu­tion, as if his yearning has­ – albeit centuries later – been duly satisfied.


For Further Reading

Brunhouse, Robert L. The Counter-Revolution in Penn­sylvania, 1776-1790. Harris­burg: Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1942.

Fitzpatrick, John Clement. “The Man Who Engrossed the Consti­tution.” History of the Forma­tion of the Union under the Constitution. Washing­ton, D.C.: U.S. Constitution Sesqui­centennial Commission, 1935-1941.

Holt, Mary E. “A Checklist of the Work of Francis Shallus, Philadel­phia Engraver.” Winterthur 4 (1968): 143-158.

Plotnik, Arthur. The Man Be­hind tire Quill: Jacob Shallus, Calligrapher of the United States Constitution. Washing­ton, D. C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1987.


Arthur Plotnik of Chicago is editor of American Libraries, a magazine published by the Ameri­can Library Association, and author of numerous articles and three books, including The Ele­ments of Editing, published by Macmillan. His biography of the subject discussed in his contribu­tion to this magazine, The Man Behind the Quill: Jacob Shal­lus, Calligrapher of the United States Constitution, was pub­lished by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., this year. He teaches journalism part-time at Columbia College, Chicago. This is the third in a special series of five major articles to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States Constitution.