Historical Records and Historical Narratives about the Constitutional Convention

Lynn Uzzell

It is both prudent and just to question the reliability of the records we use when forming our historical narratives.  But it is no less prudent to question the wisdom of forming constitutional narratives that seek to replace the historical records with the historian’s speculations.  

 

James Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention are a much maligned set of records.  From the time they were published posthumously in 1840, critics have suggested that Madison doctored his Notes to serve his own political purposes, or simply his vanity.  His first critic was Alexander Hamilton’s son, and his first attack was published the year the Notes went public.

In one sense, the antagonism to Madison’s Notes is surprising.  Madison’s tireless efforts to compile and perfect his Notes “almost killed him,” he said, but he believed it was important to bequeath to future Americans better records of their founding than prior confederacies had left.  It is ironic that one of Madison’s most generous gifts is also the most frequent target of abuse by his detractors.

In another sense, the attempts to undermine Madison’s Notes are not surprising at all.  Collectively, these Notes are the only stable foundation for any narrative of our Constitution’s creation, and our Constitution is in large measure an embodiment of national character.  He who controls the narrative of the Constitution controls the narrative of the American people.

Critics have attacked Madison’s Notes from almost every conceivable angle, advancing various and contradictory theories about what portions they believe Madison had falsified and his motives for doing so.  However, there is a common theme that has united his critics for the last 175 years: they all accuse Madison of shaping the constitutional narrative to suit his own purposes, and they all attempt to replace Madison’s narrative with a competing one.

It was perhaps inevitable that the age-old controversy over the credibility of Madison’s Notes would eventually collide with the even older controversy over slavery and the Constitution. 

Attempts to control the constitutional narrative began long before Madison’s Notes were published, and they are most obvious with respect to controversies over slavery.  Since the Constitution’s debut in 1787, competing factions have attempted to portray it as either pro-slavery or anti-slavery.  Months after the Convention ended, James Wilson told his fellow Pennsylvanians that the Twenty-year Compromise would lay “the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.”  The following year, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney assured his fellow South Carolinians that that same clause did not even guarantee the end of the slave trade: it might continue.

While the first generation of Framers could rely on their own memories to spin the meaning of the Constitution toward their favored interpretations, later constitutional interpretations relied on Madison’s Notes.  Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass drew on these records to argue that the Constitution was anti-slavery.  On the other side, Wendell Phillips, a follower of William Lloyd Garrison, edited a special abridged edition of Madison’s Notes in order to prove (as its title confidently pronounced) that “The Constitution [was] a Pro-slavery Compact.” 

The old debate continues to the present day.  Each side appeals to and emphasizes different portions of Madison’s Notes to make their case.  It was perhaps inevitable that the age-old controversy over the credibility of Madison’s Notes would eventually collide with the even older controversy over slavery and the Constitution.

In her recent book, Madison’s Hand, Mary Sarah Bilder has argued that Madison’s three anti-slavery speeches in the Convention were never really spoken (supposedly, they were later fabrications added to the Notes), that Madison “ended the debate” over the three-fifths compromise before it was adopted in June (but he suppressed that fact in his Notes), and that he formed a “coalition to protect slavery” in July.  None of these narratives can be verified by consulting the records at the Convention.  But if the propositions were true, they would decidedly shift the narrative into the neo-Garrisonian position that the Constitution was pro-slavery.

On June 6 in the Convention, Madison denounced the unjust slavery laws in the states: “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man. What has been the source of those unjust laws complained of among ourselves? Has it not been the real or supposed interest of the major number?”

Professor Bilder has argued that this speech was never spoken by Madison at the Convention, that instead it was added to a speech that was fabricated years later and inserted into the rest of his Notes.  This argument is premised on the assumption that the sheet on which it was written was later replaced.  However, and as I argue in an article in the current issue of American Political Thought, this premise of a replaced sheet in the June 6 debates is based on several errors and omissions of fact.  In truth, there is no reason to believe that the page was inserted later or that the speech was not original to the debates of 1787.

On a typical day in the Convention, Madison’s Notes were more than twice as long as the next most diligent scribe. 

In a recent Starting Points interview, Professor Bilder suggested that it is “troubling” that “other delegates did not record [Madison] condemning slavery. No other notetaker on June 6—and we have four or five others—wrote down Madison’s dramatic sentence about slavery.” However, an examination of the full range of facts would not suggest that the omission from the other notes is especially troubling, or even noteworthy.

On a typical day in the Convention, Madison’s Notes were more than twice as long as the next most diligent scribe.  More than half of what we know about the Convention comes from this one source alone.  For example, if we combined all the notes recorded by the five non-Madison note-takers on June 6, the resulting document would contain less than 75 percent of the content of Madison’s Notes for that day.  After Madison, Rufus King wrote the lengthiest notes for June 6; they were a little more than a third of Madison’s content.  Clearly, failing to corroborate a statement in the other records is not “troubling”; it is commonplace.

Yet that first speculation that Madison fabricated the June 6 anti-slavery speech is used as a basis for casting doubt on Madison’s later anti-slavery speeches.  On August 25, Madison delivered two speeches condemning the slave trade.  Bilder suggests that these speeches are odd or “idiosyncratic,” because Madison had not previously spoken out against slavery. Thus an unsubstantiated theory that Madison replaced the sheets for June 6 leads to the unsubstantiated theory that Madison never delivered the antislavery speech on June 6.  And the assumption that he never spoke out against slavery on June 6 is used to argue that he would not have argued against it on August 25.

But Bilder goes further than attempting to discredit Madison’s antislavery speeches; efforts are also made to inflate his role in the passage of detested slavery provisions.  She places blame for the three-fifths clause squarely on Madison’s shoulders.  She writes:

“In early July, Madison … [attempted to] create a voting alignment in which the 3 large states (Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania) would be joined by 3 slave states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) to end any chance that the states would be equally represented in the senate.  He was unsuccessful but the three-fifths compromise came to embody the same political dynamic.

Somewhat controversially, I argue that Madison ‘successfully persuaded delegates of a sectional divide and encouraged the southern states to prioritize protection of slavery. But Madison never gained a solid majority against equal state suffrage. Instead, the three-fifths clause was approved, southern delegates coalesced around slavery, and important northern delegates declared willingness to compromise over slavery.'”

The problem with this narrative is that the records plainly show that this voting block—the coalition of the three largest states (Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania) with the three southernmost states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia)—had already been formed in early June and despite Madison’s objections.

In truth, Madison never once argued in favor of the three-fifths clause in the summer of 1787.

On June 11, James Wilson and Charles Pinckney proposed incorporating the three-fifths clause into the Constitution.  In response, Madison tried to defend the proposal he had seconded on May 30, which would have established the rule of proportional representation without taking slavery into account.  Robert Yates recorded that “Mr. Madison was of opinion at present, to fix the standard of representation, and let the detail be the business of a subcommittee.”  (Madison’s Notes omit his own speech, but the substance is confirmed in William Paterson’s notes.)

In the vote that immediately followed, proportional representation, including the three-fifths clause, was voted overwhelmingly into the Lower House and by a bare majority in the Upper House.  The six states that voted for proportional representation and the three-fifths clause in both houses were the three largest states and the three southernmost states.  Therefore, Madison’s July 9 speech could not have been intended to build such a coalition, because that coalition had existed since early June.  For five weeks, members from those six states consistently argued for both proportional representation and for the inclusion of slavery into the rule of representation.

In truth, Madison never once argued in favor of the three-fifths clause in the summer of 1787.  Why would it seem advantageous to inflate Madison’s role in the adoption of the Constitution’s slavery clauses and to discredit his anti-slavery speeches?  By doing so, the story of the Constitution shifts dramatically to the neo-Garrisonian position.

It is both prudent and just to question the reliability of the records we use when forming our historical narratives.  But it is no less prudent to question the wisdom of forming constitutional narratives that seek to replace the historical records with the historian’s speculations.

 

Lynn Uzzell teaches American politics and political theory at the University of Virginia and the University of Richmond.



Historical Records a…

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