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Two Early Dutch Translations of the United States Constitution: Public Meaning in a Transnational Context

  • Michael Douma


In 1788, a Dutch-born minister in upstate New York named Lambertus De Ronde translated the U.S. Constitution into Dutch. Five years later, a legal scholar in the Netherlands, Gerhard Dumbar, produced another Dutch translation of the U.S. Constitution. De Ronde's translation was printed on at least two separate occasions in 1788, and scores of editorial changes between the two printings demonstrate that De Ronde was working to make the text appealing and understandable to his audience. Dumbar, however, disparaged De Ronde's translation for its amateurish character. Dumbar claimed, furthermore, that a legal education, and not experience in an American context, was essential for understanding the Constitution. In an analysis of the context and language of these two early Dutch translations of the Constitution, this article contributes new perspectives on the transnational character and influence of the U.S. Constitution. This article argues that for the Dutch in New York, debates about ratification and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, were as much concerned with local character and transnational currents as with national politics.


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1. Dumbar, translation of “De overzetting van de nieuwe Constitutie, welke wy ook in handen gehad hebben, kan niet in aanmerking komen. Dezelve is weinig verspreid geworden, en tevens gebrekkig uitgevoerd.” Dumbar, De Oude en Nieuw Constitute, vol. 1 (Amsterdam: J. A. Crajenschot, 1793), vii.

2. The public meaning originalists argue that we should read the Constitution “according to how the words of the document would have been understood by a competent and reasonable speaker of the language at the time of the document's enactment. McGinnis, John O. and Rappaport, Michael B., Originalism and the Good Constitution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 123. Larry Kramer, in his book The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review (2004), argues that throughout history, the people, not the courts, have had a say in what the Constitution means.

3. Cornell, Saul, “The People's Constitution vs. The Lawyer's Consitution: Popular Constitutionalism and the Original Debate over Originalism,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 23 (2013): 295337, quote at 297–98.

4. William Baude and Jud Campbell, “Early Americal Constitutional History: A Source Guide,” 2018. (accessed June 6, 2019).

5. Killenbeck, Mark, “The Original? Public? Meaning of ‘Commerce,’Journal of Constitutional Law 16 (2013): 289327.

6. Armitage, David, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Bernard Bailyn, “American Constitutionalism, Atlantic Dimensions” (Pamphlet, The Institute of United States Studies, University of London, 2002); Hulsebosch, Daniel J., “Constitutional-making in the Shadow of Empire,” American Journal of Legal History 56 (2016): 8491, specifically 89; and Hulsebosch, Daniel J., Constituting Empire: New York and the Transformation of Constitutionalism in the Atlantic World, 1664–1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

7. Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33–40.

8. White, G. Edward, “The Arrival of History in Constitutional Scholarship,” Virginia Law Review 88 (2002): 485633.

9. Mulligan, Christina, Douma, Michael, Lind, Hans, and Quinn, Brian Patrick, “Founding-Era Translations of the U.S. Constitution,” Constitutional Commentary 3 (2016): 154. Response pieces in the same issue came from Sanford Levinson and Jack Balkin.

10. Van Der Sijs, Nicoline, Cookies, Coleslaw, and Stoops: The Influence of Dutch on The North American Languages (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009). This error is picked up and carried forward in other scholarship; for example, Jan Noordegraaf, “Waar komt Leeg Duits vandaan?” Trefowood, Tijdschrijft voor Lexicografie, 2010, (July 21, 2016); Griffis, William Elliot, The Story of New Netherland, the Dutch in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909), 2; John Pershing Luidens, “The Americanization of the Dutch Reformed Church” (PhD diss., The University of Oklahoma, 1969), 302–4.

11. De Ronde, Lambertus, The True Spiritual Religion, or Delightful Service of the Lord (New York: John Holt, 1767).

12. Rutland, Robert Allen, “The First Great Newspaper Debate: The Constitutional Crisis of 1787–88,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 97 (1987): 4358, at 48.

13. A broadside of the Federalist Committee of Albany, dated May 26, 1788, proposes that support for the new Constitution would promote national union, common cause, and happiness, whereas opposition to it would suggest a divided and miserable country. This sort of simple appeal indicates that debates could be rather base. John Carter Brown Library, Broadside 04991, “Sir on ths Last Tuesday in April next, it becomes our dutyc to give our votes for members of the state convention…”

14. The first was printed for the Federal Committee by Johannis Babcock and Co., No. 47 State Street, Albany. According to a later bibliographer, John Babcock only printed in Albany between February 11 and April 21, 1788. Also, the “John Babcock & Co” imprint only appeared on his newspaper on April 14, 1788. Because the name ‘Babcock and Co” is featured on the translation print, one could reason that Babcock must have printed De Ronde's translation in the week of April 14–21, 1788. The broadside, the rarer of the two documents, was titled “Artykelen, die geaccordeerd zyn by de Foedderale Conventive der Vereenigde Staaten Van Noord Amerika; zyn Excellentie, George Washington, Esq. President. [Albany}: Gedrucht voor de Foederale Committie by Johannis Babcock en Co., No. 47, Staate-Straat, Albany”; Douglas C. McMurtrie, University of the State of New York Bulletin, New York State Library Bibliography Bulletin 80: A Check List of Eighteenth Century Albany Imprint, No. 1155, Albany, NY, January 2, 1939,  21.

15. An Impartial Address to the Citizens of the City and County of Albany, or the 35 Anti-Federal Objections Refuted, by the Federal Committee of the City of Albany Printed by Charles R. Webster at his Free Press, No. 36 State Street, near the English Church, Albany (Readex: America's Historical Imprints, 1788).

16. The Albany Journal, Albany, New York, February 9, 1788, 3; ibid., March 8, 1788, 3.

17. Also The Federal Herald (Claxton and Babcock 47 State Street) began in 1788. March 2, 1788 is the publication date for Volume 1, Number 4.

18. Munsell, Joel, Annals of Albany, Vol. 1 (Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1850), 330–35.

19. The inventory of De Ronde's estate tells us that he owned 328 books at the time of his death, but this included essentially no works on politics, history, or law. Rensselaer County Historical Society, Rensselaer County Surrogate Court records, inventory of the estate of Lambert DeRonde, February 16, 1796.

20. Dumbar, Gerhard, De oude en nieuwe Constitutie der Vereengide Staten van Amerika, uit de beste schriften in haare gronden outvouwd, 3 vols (Amsterdam: J.A. Crajenschot, 1793–1796), 220. Dumbar also included a translation of an anthology of the Federalist Papers, one of his primary sources of constitutional interpretation. Dumbar's book became the authoritative Dutch explanation of the American Revolution. Dutch historian Joris Oddens also credits Dumbar with introducing Madison's theory of faction in the Netherlands. Oddens, Joris, “No Extended Sphere: The Batavian Understanding of the American Constitution and the Problem of Faction,” Early American Studies 10 (2012): 382414.

21. Constitutie voor de Vereenigde Staeten van Amerika, Den 17, September, Dordrecht, 1787, 8 vo. listed in Sabin, Joseph, Dictionary of Books Relating to America, from its Discovery to the Present Time, Vol. IV (New York: J. Sabin & Sons, 1871), 454. Johan Luzac published the United States Constitution (not in translation) in the Gazette de Leyde in November 1787.

22. G.J. Mecking, “Mr. Gerhard Dumbar, een verlicht historicus?” Overijsselse Historische Bijdragen. Verslagen en mededelingen van de vereeniging tot beofening van Overijsslesch regt en geschiedenis 100  (1985): 167–93. Other writings about Dumbar include: van Wijnen, Marie-Anne, ‘‘Eenheid naar buiten, federalisme naar binnen: Gerhard Dumbar (1743–1802), pleitbezorger van de Amerikaanse constitutie,’Overijsselse Historische Bijdragen 104 (1989): 89129, as well as van der Pot, C. W., ‘‘De Twee Dumbar's (1680–1744, 1743–1802),’’ in de Vries, T. J. et al. , Overijsselse Portretten: Jubileumbundel, Uitgegeventer Gelegenheid van de Viering van het Honderdjarig Bestaan van de Vereeniging tot Beoefening van Overijsselsch Regt en Geschiedenis (Zwolle: Erven Tijl, 1958), 129–42, only available in Dutch libraries (via worldcat).

23. Herman van Bracht's Verzamelingen van de Constitutiën der Vereenigde Onafhanglijke Staaten van Amerika benevens de Acte van Onafhanglijkheid, de Artijkelen van Confederatie, en de Tractaaten Tusschen Zijne Allerkristelijkste Majesteit en de Vereenigde Amerikaansche Staaten, Vol. 1 (Dordrecht: Frederik Wanner, 1781). A second volume appeared in 1782. Van Bracht's name does not appear on the book. Van Bracht (1729–1817) worked from a print copy of The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1781), borrowed from John Adams. John Adams to Jean Luzac, Amsterdam, December 13, 1781. See also: Herman van Bracht to John Adams, Dordrecht, January 26, 1782 and April 30, 1782, in Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed. C. James Taylor (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2016).

24. Translation of Dumbar, 223–24.

25. Dumbar, 236. Translation of “de instellers van deze Constitutie, schoon overtuigd dat de souvereine Vergadering de Dienaar van den Staat moest kunnen beletten kwaad te doen, egter tevens begrepen dat de eigenlyke lyfstrafylyke regtsoeffening in derzelver haden gevaarlyk zoude kunnen worden…”

26. Dumbar, 30–31.

27. Dumbar, fn 22–23.

28. Van Bracht, Verzamelingen van de Constitutiën, 198.

29. Wendeborn, Gerhard Friedrich August, Der Zustand des Staat, der Religion, der Gelehrsamkeit un der Kunst in Grosbritannien gegen das Ende des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts (Berlin: C. Spener, 1785), which also appeared in English as A View of England Towards the Close of the Eighteenth Century (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1791).

30. Dumbar, 28.

31. Van Bracht, Verzamelingen van de Constitutiën, 202.

32. McGinnis and Rappaport, Originalism and the Good Constitution, 130.

Two Early Dutch Translations of the United States Constitution: Public Meaning in a Transnational Context

  • Michael Douma


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