Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention

By Pagan, John Ruston | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention


Pagan, John Ruston, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention * Mary Sarah Bilder * Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015 * x, 358 pp. * $35.00

Twelve states sent delegations to the federal Constitutional Convention, which met in the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Five of the seven delegates from Virginia customarily sat together in the southwest corner of the room. Convention president George Washington joined them when he relinquished the chair during meetings of the Committee of the Whole. The only Virginian who did not join them was James Madison, who sat in the front of the room, next to the Convention's secretary and near the presiding officer. Madison selected this "favorable position for hearing all that passed" to facilitate accurate note taking. His ultimate aim, he recalled a few years before his death in 1836, was "to preserve as far as I could an exact account of what might pass in the Convention" (Adrienne Koch, ed., Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison, 17).

Much of what we think we know about the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention comes from Madison's Notes. His reputation as the Father of the Constitution rests, to a significant degree, on the veracity of the version of the Notes that he bequeathed to us. But are the published Notes really an "exact account" of what occurred in Philadelphia? We know that Madison continued to revise the Notes until late in life. Could revisions made after decades of political conflict over constitutional issues have been accurate? Or did this career politician manipulate constitutional history for partisan advantage? Other historians have counseled us to read Madison's Notes with a critical eye, but Mary Sarah Bilder advises us to take them with a ton of salt.

In Madisons Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, Bilder undertakes an unsparing examination of the writing process that produced the final version of Madison's Notes. With meticulous attention to detail, she chronicles each alteration and page substitution. She traces the Notes' transformation from a parliamentary diary compiled primarily for Madison's and Thomas Jefferson's private use into what purports to be an objective record of debates. By comparing Madison's Notes with entries in the official journal and accounts by fellow delegates, Bilder exposes Madison's efforts to magnify his own contributions and diminish those of the others, particularly Charles Pinckney. She carefully relates the manuscript's evolution to the changing needs of Madison's political career. …

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