Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention.

Author:Rakove, Jack
Position:Book review

MADISON'S HAND: REVISING THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. By Mary Sarah Bilder. (1) Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 2015. Pp. viii + 358. Hardcover, $35.00.

No document is more important to American constitutional history, or even American history as a whole, than James Madison's notes of debates at the Federal Convention of 1787. Of course, one might respond that the Constitution itself, like the Declaration of Independence, is the highest object of intellectual concern. But those are only the formal texts we study, as authoritative statements in their own right or for their own sake. The questions of how those texts were written, and more to the point, what we know about their origins and composition: these are the true objects of historical study. Mary Bilder's Bancroft Prize-winning account of the composition, compilation, and revision of James Madison's notes of the debates at the Federal Convention of 1787 makes a landmark contribution to our understanding of the origins and interpretation of the Constitution. Hereafter, no scholar or interpreter of the original meaning of the text and the original intentions of its framers can afford to ignore the questions Bilder raises and the problems she identifies. What Bilder provides is a history of a primary source, the document that remains the preeminent source for every narrative and analytical history of the framing of the Constitution. Madison's Hand is, in a sense, a biography of a document. As such, viewed historically, it also has to be at least a partial biography of that document's author or (to use a favorite Madison term) its "compiler." Madison's evolving understanding of his own purposes and intentions in drafting and revising the notes thus forms the main trajectory for Bilder's analysis.

Madison's Hand is a remarkable example not only of the historian's art, but also of the historian's duty. Bilder reminds us of a nasty historical truth: the life of the working historian--and particularly the historian of the Founding era--has grown much easier with the massive publication of primary sources. It is nice and certainly convenient to assume that Max Farrand did the best job any scholar plausibly could when he compiled and then revised The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 a century ago, and that the value of his edition of the notes that Madison and other delegates kept can be taken as a given for our analysis. Life is much simpler if we can devote our intellectual attention to the substantive content of documents, rather than having to fuss over their provenance, paleographic properties, and all those other tedious details that we delegate to historical editors to resolve. But if the veracity of the science of history always depends on maintaining absolute respect for the primacy of primary sources, scholars cannot evade their professional, even moral, duty to think critically about the defining characteristics of the individual documents on which they rely.

In many cases, of course, this challenge is not so great. If we have only one copy of a text--say the recipient's copy of a personal letter, with no draft or letterbook copy of the original to compare it to--we need not agonize very much. But the compilation of Madison's notes of the debates at Philadelphia, from his original shorthand notation down through the process of drafting and subsequent revision, was manifestly not a simple process. As Bilder repeatedly reminds us, the interpretive and explanatory authority that scholars ascribe to these notes must be a function of understanding exactly how they took shape over the years. She is not, in fact, a great admirer of Max Farrand's editorial work. She relies far more on the earlier Documentary History of the Constitution, prepared under the imprimatur of the Department of State, which appeared a few years before Farrand's Records', this "remains the most accurate transcription" of Madison's notes (pp. 237-38). But in the end there can be no substitute for the literally painstaking project of examining the notes, page by page, slip by slip, correction by correction, interlineation by deletion, to derive the best portrait possible of how Madison's testament gained its final form. In effect, Bilder implicitly reminds constitutional historians--and also scholars and commentators drawn from other fields--that we all have to think like archeologists, recalling that no judgment about an artifact from the past can be reached without gaining some critical assessment of its provenance. (3)

Bilder explains her method in a twenty-page appendix, "The Evidence," which immediately follows her conclusion, and which describes her two major approaches to the notes. The first involves characterizing the different sets of manuscripts that constitute the relevant archive in the Library of Congress: Madison's memorandum on the Vices of the Political System of the United States; sub-sets of documents within the corpus of Madison's notes that appear to have been prepared at different times, including the "unconformity" of notes for the period August 22-September 17, 1787, which Bilder argues were most likely drafted in the fall of 1789; Madison's Journal Copy of the official records kept by William Jackson, the Convention's secretary, which was probably also compiled in the fall of 1789; and the copy of Madison's notes prepared for Thomas Jefferson by his future son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes. Her second approach involves using the variety of watermarks found on these documents to attempt to date, on a daily sheet-by-sheet basis, the notes of debates and a handful of Madison letters.

Given the highly technical nature of this analysis, it is unsurprising that "The Evidence" appears as an appendix. One suspects that Bilder's editors at Harvard University Press insisted on that approach, for all the obvious reasons. Even so, readers who want to grasp the nuances of Bilder's argument should read "The Evidence" first because that will simplify their understanding of her methodology ab initio. What is far less excusable, in a book of this nature, is to have to go back and forth from text to endnotes to see how particular claims are sustained. Again, we all know why editors prefer endnotes over footnotes; but sometimes that preference is completely ill-advised. This is manifestly one such occasion.

Scrupulous readers need to keep these strictures in mind to derive maximum advantage from this provocative book. The basic narrative structure of Madison's Hand follows a simple linear model. Bilder begins in the early 1780s, when Madison entered the Continental Congress, and then moves steadily forward in time, through his preparations for Philadelphia, successive stages of the Convention, the early post-1787 revisions, the later revisions of the 1790s, and then, following the hiatus of his sixteen years as Secretary of State and President, his two-decade retirement at Montpelier. But if her narrative thread remains chronological, the analytical structure is much more complicated. One constantly has to recall that the finished notes were the result of revisions done at different times. Moreover, it is equally important to perceive that, in Bilder's view, the compilation and revision of the notes were always--always--a work in progress. The determinants of that progress did not derive, she argues, from Madison's desire to produce the most objective account possible. They flowed instead from a complex and dynamic set of political considerations, some linked to his original goals at Philadelphia, some to the adjustments he had to make there, some to the new ideas that evolved over the course of debate, and others to the new priorities that emerged in the 1790s, especially through his close association with Thomas Jefferson, who was either the dark star redirecting Madison's political genius or the crucial ally with whom he pursued their joint goals. Many of Madison's observations and revisions would appeal to someone who already understood the nuances of political maneuvering within deliberative bodies--someone, that is, like Jefferson, whom Bilder repeatedly insists was Madison's original audience. (4)

The point of Bilder's analysis, then, is not to do yet again what every other author writing on this subject has done, to use Madison's notes to retell the story of the Convention, but rather to use its deliberations and decisions to tell the story of Madison's notes. Her goal is to identify when, where, how, and why the notes took their form. This involves thinking about both their original composition and their subsequent revision. It requires viewing the notes kept by other delegates, not as partial (or even partisan) versions of Madison's fuller, more conscientious account, but as checkpoints of his own documentary thoroughness, political preferences, and perhaps most important (and troubling, but this is what historians have to do) his honesty. The way in which Madison later integrated the convention journal's account of motions and votes into his notes is also vital, for it helps to explain how, over time, his initial preference for making the notes an account of the political maneuvers within the convention became more of an official record of its deliberations. That change in emphasis reflected, Bilder argues, a shift in Madison's understanding of his own role as a delegate, as he became increasingly engaged with the textual details of Continental Congress's decisions. Over the long run, as Madison understood that the publication of his notes after his death would be his true testamentary legacy, he must have intended his literary emphasis on the "moderation of emotion" in 1787 to remind a nation just riven by the Nullification controversy of 1832-33 of the tremendous seriousness of the Framers' accomplishments. Here we (or at least this reviewer, perhaps more than Bilder) would have us recall the powerful lesson of Federalist 49--a text...

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