This talk will be based on ongoing work on Prof. Bilder's new book, Madison's Hand. Madison’s Hand begins with the question: Why did James Madison take notes at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787? Although Madison was not the only note-taker at the Convention, he was the only one to ensure that his detailed record of the Convention would appear in print—as well as when and in what manner. The book will explore the ways in which Madison’s notes and Madison himself mediate the Constitutional Convention and our historic understanding of the Constitution.
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.
Drew McCoy. The Last of the Fathers: James Madison & The Republican Legacy. (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
James H. Hutson. "The Creation of the Constitution: Scholarship at a Standstill." Reviews in American History. Vol. 12, No. 4. (Dec., 1984): 463-477.
Walter Ong. "Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought." The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Wolfson College Lectures 1985. Gerd Baumann, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1986).
Mary Bilder. "Why We have Judicial Review.” Boston College Law School Faculty Papers, Paper 200.