James Madison knew that he was living through an important epoch in human history. In November of 1782, he began keeping a congressional diary. He did not attempt to record everything that took place in Congress, but instead jotted down events that he suspected would be of interest to posterity and that he knew would be omitted from the official journal.
The following year, he began collecting first-hand accounts of America’s decision to declare independence. He discovered, to his dismay, that the documentary evidence was sparse. The year after, he began tracking down books that would shed light on ancient and modern confederacies. He believed that any history that would illuminate America’s own situation “must render all such lights of consequence.”
Unfortunately, he also found these sources deficient, especially the histories of ancient confederacies. In Federalist 18, Madison suggested that the Achaean League was probably the best confederacy of the ancient world, yet “such imperfect monuments remain of this curious political fabric” that its example was not as useful as it might otherwise be for advancing “the science of federal government.”
Madison’s ultimate goals for undertaking these researches were twofold: He wanted to be guided by the best lights available as he played a key role in shaping America’s political institutions, and he wanted to write a history chronicling America’s political development. Ultimately, he abandoned this second goal.
Madison’s later reflections on historiography explain his reasons for giving up the project: “It has been the misfortune of history, that a personal knowledge and an impartial judgment of things rarely meet in the historian.” The political actor knows the minutia behind contemporary historical events, but he lacks the critical distance to be impartial. The historian may attain greater impartiality, but too often he is stymied by insufficient knowledge of important events.
These reflections no doubt led to the change that took place in Madison’s notetaking by 1787. When he arrived at the Constitutional Convention, no longer did he write mere scraps of notes, jotting down only the details which he thought were important at the time. Instead, he determined “to preserve as far as I could an exact account of what might pass in the Convention.” This was done for “the gratification promised to future curiosity.” In particular, he explained his hope that “the best history of our Country” would one day be written from “contributions bequeathed by contemporary actors & witnesses, to successors who will make an unbiassed use of them.”
The first generations to receive Madison’s bequest viewed his offering to Clio, patroness of history, in the same light.
Early Appreciations of Madison’s Gift
Soon after Madison’s death, Congress purchased his papers from his widow, Dolley. Senators were particularly interested in procuring his records of the debates in the Constitutional Convention, because they trusted that they had been “taken down with the greatest possible accuracy and fullness.” Senator Daniel Webster was certain that any reports taken down by Madison would have “a superior claim to accuracy.” And his colleague, William Cabell Rives, was convinced that Congress would be “purchasing and publishing a full and authentic report” of the Convention’s debates.
The newspapers were no less fulsome in their assurances. Niles Weekly Register referred to the Notes as “the only authentic history of the constitution of the United States, from the lucid and faithful pen of James Madison.” The National Intelligencer also vouched for the accuracy of these records, and considered their publication to be “one of the most interesting events in the history of our national literature.”
Congress purchased a trove of Madison’s papers in 1836, and his Notes were published, along with many other public papers and private letters, in 1840.
19th Century Detractors
Although the early encomia to Madison’s Notes were widespread and voluble, they weren’t universal. Detractors soon arose from predictable quarters. The author of The Life of Alexander Hamilton, who happened to be Hamilton’s son, attempted to cast doubt on the faithfulness of Madison’s records. The younger Hamilton bluntly stated that he believed “no ‘authentic exhibition’ of these debates exists.” (This jibe was aimed at Madison’s Introduction to the Notes, where he had referred to them as “an authentic exhibition” of the arguments that had formed the new government.)
One appreciative reviewer of Hamilton’s biography was likewise convinced of Madison’s duplicity. He suspected that the records were “not, in a strict sense, an original document, but bear the color of subsequent thought.” In other words, he believed that Madison had revised his Notes years after the Convention, and the revisions were made to embarrass his nemesis.
The Hamilton partisans eventually passed away, and for about a century, Madison’s Notes were almost universally recognized as the gold standard for understanding the events that led up to the Constitution’s formation. That appreciation waned, however, starting in the 1950s.
20th Century Detractors
William Crosskey revived the old accusations in his ambitious, three-volume Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States. Crosskey set out to prove that the Constitution as originally formulated had granted Congress almost plenary powers and complete sovereignty over the states.
Madison’s Notes included arguments that undermined Crosskey’s originalist interpretation of the Constitution. Therefore, Crosskey concluded that the Notes must have been contaminated by Madison’s later opinions, sometime after “his great apostasy in 1791.”
Throughout his three volumes and in a separate article, Crosskey repeatedly charged that Madison had doctored his Notes sometime after 1787. In each volume he promised that the evidence for his charges would be forthcoming in a future volume.
Most of Crosskey’s reviewers—even those generally sympathetic to his constitutional interpretations—were skeptical of these unfounded accusations. One of Crosskey’s defenders acknowledged that, so far, these allegations against Madison were unproved; yet he cautioned: “Until Crosskey fails to deliver as promised, his accusers must be quiet.” Crosskey died before finishing his work or furnishing the promised evidence.
While most reviewers found Crosskey’s allegations “tortured and unconvincing,” and “one of the strangest combinations of fact and fancy,” the allegations were unquestionably influential. Sydney Ulmer and the Collier brothers (Christopher and James Lincoln) followed the path Crosskey had forged by claiming Madison had altered his Notes to improve his own image and damage the reputation of others. They likewise provided no real evidence for their allegations.
21st Century Detractors
To date, the most effective critic of Madison’s Notes has also been the most understated. In 2015, Mary Sarah Bilder published Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. It was the first monograph devoted exclusively to the subject of these records, and it won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2016.
The book is subtle, because it repeatedly suggests that Madison falsified his Notes without ever directly accusing him of duplicity.
Whereas Madison consistently claimed that he had written his Notes as a record for posterity, and vouched for its accuracy and completeness, Bilder claims instead that it was a personal diary, meant only for private reference and to share with Thomas Jefferson. According to her, the Notes were never intended to be a complete or accurate account of the historical events. Yet, unlike Hamilton, she never suggests that the imprimatur Madison provided for his Notes was false. Instead, she omits any mention of Madison’s own account of his Notes.
Madison also claimed that his normal practice was to write out his rough notes in full every day. Without acknowledging Madison’s account and without providing any real evidence for her competing narrative, Bilder speculates instead that he only wrote out his rough notes twice per week. Then, treating her bi-weekly supposition as fact, she further speculates that the lapse in time enabled Madison to alter the content based on subsequent events.
In many respects, Bilder’s methodology follows Crosskey’s. He believed that the “multiplicity of instances of probable falsification,” when collected together, was “transformed into a single compound probability which amounts to a virtual certainty.” Likewise, Bilder repeatedly speculates that Madison might have altered some portion of his Notes. Later in the book, the earlier speculations are treated as facts and used as a basis for supporting the next unfounded conjecture.
However, Bilder is unlike any of Madison’s previous detractors in two important respects. In the first place, she delves deeply into the physical evidence of the Notes. In a lengthy appendix titled, “The Evidence,” she writes knowledgably about forensic clues like watermarks and abbreviations. In the second place, her tone is never condemnatory; she accuses Madison of falsifying the Notes almost as if it were a matter of course. In one inexplicable passage, she writes that the falsifications she claims to have discovered “do not detract from the manuscript’s significance; they enhance it.”
Although the accusations leveled against Madison have been similar over the years, the reasons for discrediting his Notes have evolved. Hamilton’s followers sought to champion his legacy by disparaging his rival’s. Crosskey was attempting to defend his originalist interpretation of the Constitution by discrediting the historical records that challenged it. And Bilder’s book apparently seeks to undermine the originalist project altogether. Interestingly, both non-originalists and public-meaning originalists have embraced the book’s conclusions, welcoming the opportunity to sow doubts about Madison’s Notes. Only “Framers’ intent” originalists would have a personal stake in defending the Notes, and they are few and far between.
Disputing the Detractors
If the first generation to encounter Madison’s Notes accepted their authenticity uncritically, then the most recent readers tend to discredit them with no less unthinking prejudice.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to prove a negative. There is no way to demonstrate conclusively that Madison never doctored his Notes to serve his own interests.
What we can say is that, out of hundreds of accusations that some particular portion of Madison’s Notes was falsified (and that figure is not an exaggeration), not one allegation rests on verifiable evidence.
We can also say that, out of the hundreds—nay, thousands—of visible revisions in the Notes, none of them show evidence of willful deceit. Indeed, it appears Madison made very few errors when revising his Notes, and none of the errors he did make are historically significant.
By contrast, Madison’s detractors have committed more significant and demonstrable errors trying to prove that he doctored his Notes than Madison ever made while revising his Notes.
For instance, ever since Sidney Ulmer first suggested that Madison was trying to diminish Charles Pinckney’s contributions within his records, several scholars—including the Colliers, Richard Beeman, and Mary Sarah Bilder—have claimed they found textual evidence for this deliberate suppression. In each case, however, the argument for Madison’s duplicity rested on factual errors or misrepresentations of his Notes. Ironically, each scholarly misstep was committed by historians attempting to prove Madison’s negligence, personal bias, or guilt.
Even within Madison’s Hand, the most impressive collection of evidence yet assembled about the physical condition of Madison’s Notes, we find significant factual errors. And the placement of these errors is telling. They all occur precisely where evidence is required to bolster Bilder’s most controversial claims. If we correct the errors, nothing else remains to support her speculations that entire sheets from June and July were later replaced, or that Madison wrote out his Notes twice per week.
A Final Appraisal?
None of the above is meant to suggest that Madison’s records are flawless or that they represent more than a fraction of the totality of the oral history that summer. Furthermore, Bilder’s book makes one important discovery. Compelling evidence shows that the sheets comprising the last fourth of the Convention—from August 22 through September 17—could not have been written contemporaneously with the Convention’s proceedings.
These sheets are therefore “replacement sheets.” But what did they replace? Bilder assumes that Madison never wrote out his rough notes during the last weeks; therefore, this section is largely a fabrication, written years later, to replace his rough notes. From my own review of the evidence, I believe the more likely explanation is that Madison was replacing a first draft of his Notes. But for the final draft he chose to integrate the material from the Journal records, rather than follow his usual practice of adding them in the margins and on scraps of paper, due to the preponderance of motions and reports in the Convention’s final weeks.
We may never know for certain how the last fourth of the Notes were constructed, but all available evidence suggests that they remain remarkably reliable and complete. Even Madison’s procedural details are indispensable for filling in gaps and correcting errors committed by the official secretary. Yet the lingering disagreements and uncertainties underscore the need for an investigation the likes of which Madison’s Notes have never yet received: A complete and impartial appraisal.
In the summer of 1787, while playing a leading role in framing the Constitution, James Madison also wrote about 500 pages of notes over three-and-a-half months—a herculean labor that he later admitted “almost killed him.” He made this sacrifice so that future historians could “make an unbiassed use of them” when writing “the best history of our Country.” The current state of scholarship on Madison’s Notes proves that he was too optimistic about the impartiality of future historians: being chronologically removed from events hardly guarantees an unbiased perspective. The uncanny eagerness with which recent historians have repudiated such a valuable offering to Clio will ultimately prove more of an indictment on their labors than on Madison’s.
Lynn Uzzell is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. She is currently working on two book manuscripts relating to the records of the Constitutional Convention. Specializing in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the political thought of James Madison, she served as scholar in residence at the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier for four years.