Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. By Mary Sarah Bilder. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 358 pp.
Humboldt and Jefferson: A Transatlantic Friendship of the Enlightenment. By Sandra Rebok. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. 220 pp.
These two curious books offer appraisals of America's third and fourth presidents. Neither of the authors is a historian--Mary Sarah Bilder is a legal scholar, while Sandra Rebok was trained as an anthropologist--and both studies are fundamentally flawed.
Mary Sarah Bilder's inelegantly titled Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention analyzes in unprecedented detail the provenance and development of Madison's "Notes on the Debates in the Constitutional Convention" and thereby gives a much-needed and long-desired account of the transcription of and revisions to the most important account of the drafting of the federal Constitution. Unfortunately, the work is marred by a number of shortcomings.
Bilder purports to answer three questions: "First, how did Madison originally write the 'Notes,' and what story did they tell? Second, how and why did he revise the 'Notes' in subsequent years? Third, how does recognition of the original 'Notes' and their revision alter our understanding of the Convention and the Constitution?" (4-5). The strength of the book lies in Bilder's answer to the second question--how and why Madison revised his "Notes." In particular, her account of the revisions in 1789 is a fascinating discussion of how Madison transmuted the often heated exchanges of the summer of 1787 into a story of measured and polite deliberations.
But Bilder's discussion of Madison's transcription of the "Notes" in 1787 paints an unconventional portrait, one that relentlessly assumes the most self-serving and venal motives. Madison, it seems, was vain, prickly, immature, a bit thick-headed, easily bored, cunning, and a blowhard. Bilder even berates the man for not taking detailed notes as Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan. Why Madison, who had designed the proposal Randolph was presenting, would have needed to take notes is not explained. Little escapes Bilder's censure; on page 93, we learn that Madison even "used somewhat fancy Roman numerals." In the end, Bilder's description of Madison as "catty, aggravated, frustrated, annoyed, and even furious" (p. 6) seems less trenchant analysis than authorial projection.
The answer to the final...