James Madison, Law Student and Demi-Lawyer
Law and History Review, Vol. 28, pp. 389-449, May 2010
Posted: 30 Aug 2011
Date Written: May 1, 2010
We think of James Madison as a political theorist, legislative drafter, and constitutional interpreter. Recent scholarship has fought fiercely over the nature of his political thought. Unlike other important early national leaders - John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Edmund Randolph, James Wilson - law has been seen as largely irrelevant to Madison’s intellectual biography. Madison, however, studied law and, at least in one extant manuscript, took careful notes. These notes have been missing for over a century, and their loss contributed to the sense that Madison must not have been that interested in law. Now located, these notes reveal Madison’s significant grasp of law and his striking curiosity about the problem of language. Madison’s interest in interpretation is certainly not news to scholars. These notes, however, help to establish that this interest predated the Constitution and that his interest in constitutional interpretation was an application of a larger interest in language. Moreover, Madison thought about the problem of legal interpretation as a student of law, never from the secure status of lawyer. Over his lifetime, he advocated a variety of institutional approaches to constitutional interpretation, and this comfort with nonjudicial interpreters, along with a peculiar ambivalence about the proper location of constitutional interpretation, may owe a great deal to his self-perception as a law student but never a lawyer.
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