The Committee of Detail

By Ewald, William | Constitutional Commentary, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Committee of Detail


Ewald, William, Constitutional Commentary


I. INTRODUCTION

A. THE PROBLEM OF MADISON'S NOTES

The principal source for our knowledge of the drafting of the Constitution is James Madison's Notes of the debates in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. (1) Other delegates--Robert Yates, Rufus King, James McHenry, Alexander Hamilton--from time to time kept a sketchy diary: and there is also the official, but remarkably uninformative, Journal, which is little more than a calendar of resolutions and votes. Madison stands apart. He left behind a careful record, rich in anecdotal detail, of each day's proceedings, from the first straggling arrival of the delegates in Philadelphia until the concluding ceremonies four months later.

It is primarily to the Notes that we owe our knowledge of the dramatic events, both human and intellectual, of that summer: the silent but powerful presence of Washington in the president's chair: Edmund Randolph's presentation on May 29 of the Virginia Plan; the initial testing of the waters as late-comers continued to arrive: the first skirmishes in early June between the delegates from the small states and those from the large; Franklin's efforts to cool tempers; then, on June 15, the submission, on behalf of the small states, of the New Jersey plan. This submission was followed by more than a month of increasingly acrimonious debate that brought proceedings to a standstill and threatened to derail the Convention altogether. The arguments of the "great debate" were punctuated by the inebriated discourse of Luther Martin and the day-long speech of Hamilton. Then, finally, on July 16, the controversy was resolved by the adoption of the "Connecticut Compromise." After July 16 the mood seems to have lightened, and the delegates turned their attention to less contentious matters. The Convention adjourned for ten days to let the Committee of Detail arrange the work that had so far been accomplished and resumed business on August 6. But this period of relative calm was to be interrupted once more in the middle of August as the delegates clashed again, this time primarily over the issue of the slave trade. A second, less honorable, compromise was reached. Then came the final negotiations, the polishing of the text by Gouverneur Morris, the signing ceremony on September 17, and the extraordinary concluding speech by Benjamin Franklin.

Without Madison we would know little of these episodes: and the Notes form the backbone of the standard scholarly reference, Max Farrand's Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. (2) Remarkably, Madison recorded his Notes while he was himself serving as one of the most active members of the Convention--regularly proposing motions, making arguments, answering objections. As Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1815, "Do you know that there exists in manuscript the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788 [sic]? The whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by Mr. Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension." (3)

Jefferson's admiration is fully justified. Nevertheless, as historians have long recognized, the Notes have serious limitations. In the first place, they are incomplete. They do not record the inner workings of the Convention's various subcommittees, even if Madison was a member. They scarcely mention the (no doubt incessant) discussions and bargaining that took place out of doors. Even as a record of what was said on the floor of the State House they are manifestly deficient. The Convention met for at least five hours a day, and frequently longer. (4) But a typical entry in the Notes can easily be read aloud in ten minutes. The Notes, in other words, are not a transcription of what the delegates said, but something quite different. They are, inevitably, a summary of what Madison understood the delegates to have said, and, beyond that, of what he judged sufficiently important to record. …

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