Constitutional Convention, Records of

Author:James Hutson

Page 516

The records of the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787 are not so full as scholars and jurists would like them to be. A verbatim account of the proceedings does not exist and, absent modern technology, could not have been produced. Stenographers in Philadelphia covered the state ratifying convention, which met in the fall of 1787; but the Federal Convention met in secrecy and, even if the local stenographers had been admitted, the rudimentary state of their craft and assorted personal shortcomings would have made a satisfactory result unlikely.

We must rely for information about the Convention on a journal kept by its secretary, William Jackson, and on notes kept by various delegates. Some of the notes, especially those made by JAMES MADISON, are extensive; others are fragmentary. Taken together, the existing records give us a satisfactory narrative of events at the Convention?although details of the drafting of many key provisions are sparse, leaving the ORIGINAL INTENT of the Framers enigmatic. It is also true that the documentation becomes poorer toward the end of the Convention. The delegates, tired and eager to go home, recorded less than they did earlier, and what they recorded was sketchier. This is unfortunate, because the last weeks of the Convention saw many important compromises and changes about which, in the absence of adequate records, we know far too little.

The story of how Madison created his notes is familiar: "I chose a seat in front of the presiding member, with the other members, on my right and left hand. In this favorable position for hearing all that passed I noted in terms legible and in abbreviations and marks intelligible to myself what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members; and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the Convention I was enabled to write out my daily notes during the session or within a few finishing days after its close." Conscientiously completed at considerable physical cost?Madison later confessed that the task "almost killed" him?these notes are the principal source of information about the convention. That Madison kept his notes in his possession until his death caused one suspicious scholar, WILLIAM W. CROSSKEY, to charge that during his life he had tampered with them?"forged" them, in fact?to make them consistent with political actions he had taken after 1787, an accusation since proven to be without foundation...

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