A Biography of Madison's Notes of Debates
Constitutional Commentary, Forthcoming
45 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2016
Date Written: February 4, 2016
In this truly provocative book, Mary Bilder writes what is in effect a biography of the composition, compilation, and revision of James Madison’s notes of debates from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Working her way week by week through the course of the Convention, and doing her best to ascertain the character and source of Madison’s many later revisions, Bilder offers a number of striking hypotheses about the origins and evolution of the notes. Her two principal hypotheses pivot on the idea that the notes were originally conceived, not as a documentary legacy to History, but as a “legislative diary,” and that Madison’s principal intended reader was his absent friend and correspondent, Thomas Jefferson. Many of the key revisions in Madison’s notes were driven by their shared political agenda in the 1790s, as the two Virginians moved into active opposition to Hamiltonian policies.
This extended review offers a critical appraisal of Bilder’s main claims. Scholarship on the origins of the Constitution may never be the same once readers come to grips with her arguments. Yet at the same time, there is much to argue with in this fascinating book.
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