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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Madison's Hand: Remembering the Constitutional Convention (Thoughts on the History of the Book and the Catholic Intellectual Traditions)

James Madison is known as the “father of the American Constitution” for his crucial role in drafting that document and its Bill of Rights. It is no surprise then that historians have traditionally considered his personal notes from the constitutional convention to be the most reliable source of information we have about the convention’s debates. But as Mary Sarah Bilder argued in a lively presentation on October 29, the notes produced by “Madison’s Hand” (the title of her forthcoming book on the subject) are much less spontaneous—and perhaps more interesting—than previously thought.

Professor Bilder, a legal historian at the Boston College Law School, said that she was inspired to write a book about Madison’s notes when she realized the discrepancy between the prevailing view of Madison’s notes—as minutes of the convention—and the reality that these notes were neither complete nor contemporaneous. To begin with, Bilder noted, the writing technology available to Madison prevented him from providing a transcript of the debates. Quill pens required constant re-inking, and modern shorthand script had not yet been developed; he simply could not have kept pace with the flow of conversation (let alone transcribe his own comments while speaking them).

Furthermore, Madison edited—and in some cases entirely rewrote—the notes he did take multiple times throughout his lifetime. He destroyed his “original,” contemporaneous, notes from the convention when re-writing them after the convention, and in subsequent iterations he added some material from the quasi-official record and removed other material that he thought might be offensive to those at the convention. Though Madison always insisted that his notes were his personal reflections, not an official transcript, historians would mistakenly come to treat them as such.