'Madison's Hands:' How Revisions May Impact Our View of the Constitution

Apr 4, 2017

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is one of the most important events in the history of the United States. After four months of painstaking deliberation, the founding fathers emerged with a document that continues to inform how we interpret the laws of the land.

The Convention wasn’t open to the public - so much of our interpretation on what happened there is based on accounts from the founding fathers, most notably James Madison. The Notes are considered a “top treasure of the American People” in the Library of Congress, and are the most complete record of what happened at the Constitutional Convention. As a result, they’ve become the main source of information on what happened that hot summer in Philadelphia.

But Madison's Notes were revised many times over his lifetime, presenting a different picture of the Convention than he did in his original writings. These revisions and their implications are at the heart of Mary Sarah Bilder’s latest book, Madison’s Hands: Revising the Constitutional Convention

"People have largely sort of ignored the revisions. I tried to use those revisions to basically unwind the manuscript back to this moment in the summer of 1787," she explains. "And when you go back and try to sort out what parts of the manuscript date from that summer as he's writing, you begin to have a sense of a very different type of situation."

Before the Notes were published, Madison was very clear that they had been revised over time. It's likely they were originally written as both a personal journal of events and as notes for Thomas Jefferson, who was in France at the time of the Convention.

Bilder argues that while Madison's Notes are often treated as an objective retelling of what happened during the creation of the Constitution; a mask of neutrality was born out of the later revisions, which doesn't take into account Madison's participation in the Convention. While the original notes include commentary about the speakers and their opinions (sometimes disparaging), the revisions try to whitewash Madison's personal insights. 

"When you get back to what he wrote in the original version, you can sort of hear a little bit more of the frustration and disagreements and excitement of being there that summer."

"Sometimes I think the Convention feels almost a little bit boring to people because it does have this, through Madison's Notes, moderate, quiet tone," says Bilder. "But when you get back to what he wrote in the original version, you can sort of hear a little bit more of the frustration and disagreements and excitement of being there that summer." 

Bilder believes it's important to remember the situation in which the Constitution was written. "They really feared the country was going to fall apart. They were worried that the European powers would think the United States was weak and invade," she explains.

There were also fears that the country would split into three distinct nations, or be taken over by a kind of monarch or tyrant. Bilder says the crafters of the Constitution felt a heavy burden and a pressing need to create a system of government that would sustain the fledgling nation. 

"We read [the Constitution] sometimes as if every single comma was given great thought. They honestly didn't even have the luxury to do that."

"We read [the Constitution] sometimes as if every single comma was given great thought. They honestly didn't even have the luxury to do that. They were trying to save the nation, and I really think, regardless of ones political beliefs, it's so important to appreciate the stress under which they wrote that document," she says. 

Mary Sarah Bilder is the Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School, and was in Milwaukee to deliver the first annual Jere D. McGaffey Lecture for the Department of History at UWM.