How Bad Were the Official Records of the Federal Convention?

64 Pages Posted: 18 Oct 2012 Last revised: 8 Sep 2014

Date Written: October 17, 2012


The official records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 have been neglected and dismissed by scholars for the last century, largely to due to Max Farrand’s criticisms of both the records and the man responsible for keeping them - Secretary of the Convention William Jackson. This Article disagrees with Farrand’s conclusion that the Convention records were bad, and aims to resurrect the records and Jackson’s reputation. The Article suggests that the endurance of Farrand’s critique arises in part from misinterpretations of certain procedural components of the Convention and failure to appreciate the significance of others, understandable considering the inaccessibility of the official records. The Article also describes the story of the records after the Convention but before they were published, including the physical limbo of the records in the aftermath of the Convention and the eventual deposit of the records in March 1796 amidst the rapid development of disagreements over constitutional interpretation. Finally, the Article offers a few cautionary reflections about the lessons to be drawn from the official records. Particularly, it recommends using caution with Max Farrand’s records, paying increased attention to the procedural context of the Convention, and recognizing that Constitutional interpretation postdated the Constitution.

Keywords: Constitution, Legal History, Constitutional Convention, Max Farrand, William Jackson

Suggested Citation

Bilder, Mary Sarah, How Bad Were the Official Records of the Federal Convention? (October 17, 2012). George Washington Law Review, Vol. 80, No. 6, 2012; Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 277. Available at SSRN:

Mary Sarah Bilder (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States
617-552-0648 (Phone)
617-552-2615 (Fax)

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