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Bilder and Doubts Over Madison's Notes

A brief exploration of Mary Sarah Bilder's charges that Madison's Notes do not tell the whole truth of the Constitutional Convention.

Cite as: Kieran Hazzard, Bilder and Doubts Over Madison's Notes, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, accessed 2019)

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As the major source on what happened inside the Constitutional Convention, the veracity of Madison's Notes is an important question. Madison’s Notes offer the fullest record of the Convention in one source, and for the most part they appear to have been carefully compiled and written. In the process of modelling the Convention it became clear quite how often historians are reliant on only Madison for a record of speeches and proceedings.

It’s been known for some time that he edited his notes, with Max Farrand in 1911 writing, that Madison often altered his notes to reflect the printed Journal and added some details recorded by Yates. Where Farrand records changes to Madison’s manuscripts we have endeavoured to preserve these in the 2019 edition by including his original notation, by placing additions between angle brackets.

Writing in 1953, William Crosskey accused Madison of forging large parts, in order to obscure his changing political position after 1787 and to make himself seem central to events. One example given was supressing the role of Pinckney. Crosskey also accused Madison of inventing Dickinson's speech on Blackstone on 29 August. Crosskey’s ‘Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States’ caused considerable debate, however, over time his accusations have lost weight.

This may have a good deal to do with the work of James Hutson, who felt Crosskey had wildly exaggerated his claims. Hutson, while still cautious of the fallibility of Madison’s Notes, rejected the ideas that Madison was a deliberate forger. Instead, Hutson stressed that Madison’s Notes were never intended as verbatim reports, and that his own speeches were added into the Notes as written remembrances after giving them off the cuff.

Crosskey may have been wrong about forgery but there are still problems. Mary Sarah Bilder in 'Madison's Hand' (2015), suggests a number of speeches were altered after the fact by Madison in an attempt to control the story of the Convention. She points out that Madison did not make the notes for posterity, but for himself to keep track, keep a memory, and to provide Thomas Jefferson with an account. He was not impartial observer. He wrote shorthand notes and then wrote these up in evening or days after the session in question. Early notes are less organised and complete. Later he took to summarising each speech in one sentence at start and then reporting body of speech.

She argues that the first two thirds of his notes were written in 1787, while the section after 21 August and text of his speeches were added later, possibly in late 1789. With a complete draft being made by 1797. Crucially, she states that careful manuscript analysis shows that revisions after this are visible. In addition, his notes are selective. The revisions turned them from a partial diary record into a public history. In doing so he covered over his political miscalculations in 1787 and makes the big compromises made in the Convention seem inevitable. She also states that he added material from other sources, and rationalised and standardised his own language.

The changes and later additions which she particularly highlighted are Madison's 5 June comments on inferior courts and the 17 July vote on executive tenure on good behaviour. Sheets containing his speeches on 6, 7, 8, 21, 23, 25, 26, and 29 June were all later additions, as well as his speech on 6 June echoing Federalist 10. On 25 June he has rearranged the first paragraph of Pinckney's speech, but seems to have been corrected by Farrand. Bilder also suggests that Madison’s anti-slavery comments on 25 August were added later, along with the whole section from 22 August to 17 September.

Commentaries (14)

Bilder states that three sheets in the first section of Madison's Notes do not match the rest, and as a result believes that these were later replaced by Madison. In particular she points to the fact the material copied by Madison from the Journal does not appear as a clear addition as on other sheets but integrated into the text. Indicating that they were written as the text was produced. One of these sheets contains Madison's comments on inferior courts on 5 June, it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

Rutledge's Amendment Removing Legislature's Power of Appointing to Inferior Courts was debated on 05 June 1787

One of Bilder's major claims is that Madison's argument in Federalist 10 did not originate in the Convention. She states that three sheets in the first section of Madison's Notes do not match the rest, and as a result believes that these were later replaced by Madison. In particular she points to the fact the material copied by Madison from the Journal does not appear as a clear addition as on other sheets but integrated into the text. Indicating that they were written as the text was produced. One of these sheets contains Madison's speech on republics on 6 June. In it he can be seen to developing an argument which echoes that of his essay in No. 10 of the Federalist Papers. Bilder suggests that Madison altered this speech sometime between 1789 and 1791, and may therefore have retrospectively added elements from his Federalist argument.

Associated event:

Pinckney's Amendment for the First Branch of the National Legislature to be Chosen by the State Legislatures was debated on 06 June 1787

Bilder states that three sheets in the first section of Madison's Notes do not match the rest, and as a result believes that these were later replaced by Madison. In particular she points to the fact the material copied by Madison from the Journal does not appear as a clear addition as on other sheets but integrated into the text. Indicating that they were written as the text was produced. One of these sheets contains Madison's comments on representation in the Senate on 7 June, it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

Wilson's Amendment for the Second Branch of the National Legislature to be Elected by Districts was debated on 07 June 1787

Bilder states that three sheets in the first section of Madison's Notes do not match the rest, and as a result believes that these were later replaced by Madison. In particular she points to the fact the material copied by Madison from the Journal does not appear as a clear addition as on other sheets but integrated into the text. Indicating that they were written as the text was produced. One of these sheets contains Madison's comments on the national government requiring a negative on state laws on 8 June, it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

Pinckney's Amendment for Wider Power to Negative All State Laws was debated on 08 June 1787

There are five sheets covering sessions in late June and July within Madison’s Notes which Bilder believes to have been replaced. The primary evidence for which is that the paper used by Madison differs from that of the notes surrounding these pages, or on any other document created by Madison in the summer of 1787. One of these sheets contains Madison’s speech on the role and power of the national government in comparison to that of the states. Bilder suggests that it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

Report of the Committee of the Whole House was debated on 21 June 1787

There are five sheets covering sessions in late June and July within Madison’s Notes which Bilder believes to have been replaced. The primary evidence for which is that the paper used by Madison differs from that of the notes surrounding these pages, or on any other document created by Madison in the summer of 1787. One of these sheets contains Madison’s comment on the whether members of the House of Representatives should be ineligible for certain public offices. Bilder suggests that it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

Madison's Amendment to Lessening Restrictions on Legislators Holding Other Offices was debated on 23 June 1787

Charles Pinckney gave a major speech on 25 June 1787 on republicanism and U.S. society, which was recorded by Madison and Yates. Bilder suggests that Madison made major changes to his version on the speech several years after the Convention. Bilder states that there is plenty of evidence that Madison intended to edit the speech by rearranging the order of paragraphs and paraphrasing some of Pinckney’s sentences. Major changes were made to the first paragraph, and he omitted the final one. Despite this, Madison did not attempt a wholesale rewrite, and struck out some of his own changes. Madison wrote himself that “the residue of this speech was not furnished… by Mr. Pinckeney”, suggesting the origin of some differences, while Farrand also had noted many of the changes. Farrand supposed that the changes were the result of Madison having seen Yate’s version of the speech and rewriting the version given to him by Pinckney to correspond with that order. James Hutson, includes Pinckney’s draft for this speech in his ‘Supplement to Max Farrand’s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787’ (1987), p. 113, which is transcribed below for comparison with Madison’s version. “Our true situation appears to me to be this.—a new, extensive country containing within itself, the materials of forming a government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil & religious liberty,—capable of making them happy at home.— This is the great end of republican establishments. We mistake the object of our government, if we hope or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad.—Conquest or superiority among other powers is not or ought not ever to be the object of republican systems.—If they are sufficiently active & energetic to rescue us from contempt & preserve our domestic happiness & security, it is all we can expect from them.—It is more than almost any other government ensures to its citizens. I believe this observation will be found generally true.—that no two people are so exactly alike in their situation or circumstances as to admit the exercise of the same government with equal benefit.—that a system must be suited to the habits & genius of the people it is to govern & must grow out of them. The people of the U. S. may be divided into three classes. Professional men who must from their particular pursuits always have a considerable weight in the government while it remains popular.—Commercial men, who may or may not have a weight as a wise or injudicious commercial policy is pursued.—If that commercial policy is pursued which I conceive to be the true one, the merchants of this country will not or ought not for a considerable time to have much weight in the political scale. The third is the landed interest, the owners of &cultivators of the soil who are & ought ever to be the governing principle in the system—. These three classes however distinct in their pursuits are individually equal in the political scale, & may be clearly proved to have but one interest.—The dependence of each on the other is mutuel?—the merchant depends on the planter—both must in private as well as public affairs be connected with the professional men—who in their turn must in some measure depend upon them.—Hence it is that from this manifest connection & the equality which I before stated exists, & must for the reasons then assigned continue, that after all there is one but one great & equal body of citizens, composing the inhabitants of this country among whom there are no distinctions of rank & very few of fortune. For a people thus circumstanced, are we then to form a government & the question is, what kind of system is best suited to them. Will the British government.—no!—why? because Great Britain contains three orders of people distinct in their situation their passions & principles.—These orders combined form the great body of the nation & as in national expenses & accounts the wealth & resources of the whole community must contribute so ought each component part to be properly & duly represented.—No other combination of power could form this due representation but the one that exists.—Neither the peers or the people could represent the royalty, nor could the royalty & the people form a proper representation for the peers.—Each therefore must of necessity be represented by itself or the sign of itself & this accidental mixture certainly has formed a government admirably balanced. But the United States contain but one order that can be assimilated to the British nation this is the order of commons.—they will not surely then attempt to form a government consisting of three branches two of which shall have nothing to represent . . . they will not have an Executive & Senate hostile because the King & Lords of England are so.—The same reason do not exist & therefore the same provisions are not necessary. We must as has been observed suit our government to the people it is to direct.—These are I believe as active, intelligent & susceptible of good government as any people in the world.—The confusion which has produced the present relaxed state is not owing to them.—It is owing to the weakness & impropriety of a government incapable of combining the various interests it is intended to unite & support & destitute of energy— The people of the U. S. are perhaps the most singular of any we are acquainted with.—Among them there are fewer distinctions of fortune & less of rank; than among the inhabitants of any other nation.—Every freeman has a right to the same protection & security and a very moderate share of property entitles them to the possession of all the honors & privileges the public can bestow.—Hence arises a greater equality, than is to be found among the people of any other country, and an equality which is more likely to continue. I say this equality is likely to continue; because in a new country, possessing immense tracts of uncultivated lands—where every temptation is offered to emigration & where industry must be rewarded with competency, there will be few poor & few dependent.—Every member of the society almost, will enjoy an equal power of arriving at the supreme offices &consequently of directing the strength & sentiments of the community.—None will be excluded by birth, & few by fortune from a power of voting for proper persons to fill the offices of government—4 the whole community will enjoy in the fullest sense that kind of political Liberty which consists in the power which the members of the state reserve to themselves of arriving at the public offices, or at least of the having votes in the nomination of those who fill them— If this state of things is true & the prospect of its continuing, probable, it is perhaps not politic to endeavour too close an imitation of a government calculated for a people whose political situation is, & whose views ought to be extremely different Much has been said of the constitution of Great Britain.—I will confess That I believe it to be the best constitution in existence, but at the same time I am confident, it is one that will not suit or cannot be introduced into this country for many centuries.—If it were proper to go here into a historical dissertation of the British constitution, it might easily be shewn that The peculiar excellence, the distinguishing feature of that government cannot possibly be introduced into our system.—that it's balance between the crown & the people cannot be made a part of our constitution.— that we neither have, or can have the members to compose it.—nor the rights, privileges & properties of so distinct a class of citizens to guard.— that the materials for forming this balance or check do not exist, nor is there a necessity for having so permanent a part of our legislative until the Executive power is so constituted as to have something fixed & dangerous in it's principle.—by this I mean a sole, hereditary, tho' limited Executive— That we cannot have a proper body for forming a legislative balance, between the inordinate power of the Executive or the people is evident from a review of the accidents &circumstances, which gave rise to the peerage of Great Britain.—I believe it is well ascertained that the parts which compose the British constitution arose immediately from the forests of Germany, but the antiquity of the establishment of nobility is by no means clearly defined.—Some authors are of opinion that the dignity denoted by the titles of dux et comes was derived from the old roman to the German Empire, while others are of opinion that they existed among the germans long before the romans were acquainted with them.—the institution however of nobility is immemorial among the nations who may properly be termed the Ancestors of Britain.—At the time they were summoned in England to become a part of the national council & the circumstances which have contributed to make them a constituent part of that constitution, must be well known to all gentlemen who have either had industry or curiosity to investigate the subject.—The nobles with their possessions [?] & dependants composed a body permanent in their nature & formidable in respect of their powers.—They had a distinct interest either from the king or people—an interest which could only be represented by themselves, & the guardianship of which could not be safely intrusted to others.—At the time they were originally called to form a part of the national counsel, necessity perhaps as much as any other cause induced the monarch to look up to them.—It was necessary to demand the aid of his subjects in personal & pecuniary services,—the power & possessions [?] of the nobility would not permit taxation from any assembly of which they were not a part & the blending the deputies of the commons with them, & thus forming, what they called their parler-ment was perhaps as much the Effect of accident as of any thing else.—The commons were at that time compleatly subordinate to the nobility whose consequences & influence seem to have been the only reason for them that superiority.—a superiority so degrading to the commons—that in the first summons, we find, the freemen called upon to consult the commons to consent—from this time the peers have composed a part of the British legislature & notwithstanding their power & influence have deminished & the commons increased yet still they have been found always, an excellent balance against either the incroachments of the crown or the people. . .— I have said that such a body cannot exist in this country for ages & that until the situation of your people is exceedingly changed no necessity will exist for so permanent a part of the legislature.—To illustrate this I have remarked that the people of the U. S. are more equal in their circumstances than the people of any other country.—that they have few very few rich men among them?—by rich men, I mean those whose riches may have a dangerous influence, or such as are esteemed rich in Europe.—perhaps there are not 100 on the continent.—that it is not probable this number will be greatly increased.—.—that the genius of the people, their mediocre situation & the prospects which are afforded their industry in a country which, must be a new one for centuries are unfavorable to the rapid distinction of ranks.—The distinction of the right of primogeniture & the equal division of the property of intestates will also have an effect to preserve this mediocrity.—for laws invariably affect the manners of a people.—On the other hand that vast extent of unpeopled territory which opens to the frugal [?] & industrious a sure road to competency & independence will effectually prevent for a considerable time that increase of the poor or discontented & be the means of preserving that equality of condition which so eminently distinguishes us. If Equality is as I contend the leading feature of the U. S. where then are the riches & the wealth whose representation & protection is the peculiar province of this permanent body.—Are they in the hands of the few who may be called rich, in the possession of less than 100 citizens.— certainly not—they are in the great body of the people among whom there are no men of wealth & very few of real property—is it probable, that a change will, be created, & that a new order of men will arise.—If under the British Government, for a century, no such change was probable, I think it may be fairly concluded it will not take place while even the semblance of republicanism remains.—How Is this change to be effected.—Where are the sources from whence it is to flow.—From the landed interest.—no—they are too unproductive & equally divided in the majority of the States.—From the monied interest if such exists at present, little is to apprehended.—Are they to spring from Commerce I believe it will be the first Nobility that ever sprung from merchants.—Besides Sir I apprehend upon this point the policy of the U. States has been much mistaken, We have unwisely considered as the inhabitants of an old instead of a new country.—We have adopted the maxims of a state full of people & manufactures & established in credit.—We have deserted our true interests & instead of applying closely to those improvements in domestic policy which would have insured the future importance of our commerce We have rashly & prematuraly engaged in schemes as extensive as they are imprudent—This however is an error which daily corrects itself & I have no doubt that a few more severe trials will convince us, that very different commercial principles ought to govern the conduct of these states. The people of this Country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any State we are acquainted with in the modern world, but I assert that their political situation is distinct from either the people of Greece or Rome or of any state we are acquainted with among the Antients.—Can the orders introduced by the institution of Solon, can they be found in the U. S.—can the military habits & manners of Sparta be assimilated to our habits & manners.—Are the distinctions of patrician & plebian known among us?—Can the helvetic or belgic confederacies, or can the unwieldy, unmeaning body called the Germanic Empire can they be said to possess either the perfection or a situation like ours.—I apprehend not they are perfectly different, either in their distinctions of rank, their constitutions their manners & their policy. All that we have to do then is to distribute the powers of government in such manner & for such limited periods as while it gives a proper degree of permanency to the magistrate will reserve to the people the right of election they will not or ought not frequently to part with— I am of opinion that this may be easily done & that with some amendments the propositions before the committee will fully answer this end— No position appears to me more true than this that the general government cannot effectually exist without retaining the states in the possession of their local rights.—They are the instruments upon which the Union must frequently depend for the support & execution of their powers however immediately operating upon the people & not upon the states. Much has been said about the propriety of removing the distinction of state governments, & having but one general system, suffer me for a moment to examine this Question.”

Associated event:

Fourth Resolution (Second Branch of Legislature) was debated on 25 June 1787

There are five sheets covering sessions in late June and July within Madison’s Notes which Bilder believes to have been replaced. The primary evidence for which is that the paper used by Madison differs from that of the notes surrounding these pages, or on any other document created by Madison in the summer of 1787. One of these sheets contains Madison’s speech on the length of term for Senators. Bilder suggests that it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

Read's Amendment for Nine Year Terms with Triennial Elections was debated on 26 June 1787

There are five sheets covering sessions in late June and July within Madison’s Notes which Bilder believes to have been replaced. The primary evidence for which is that the paper used by Madison differs from that of the notes surrounding these pages, or on any other document created by Madison in the summer of 1787. One of these sheets contains Madison’s speech on State societies and representation in the first branch of the legislature. Bilder suggests that it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

Seventh Resolution - First Clause (Equitable Representation) was debated on 29 June 1787

There are five sheets covering sessions in late June and July within Madison’s Notes which Bilder believes to have been replaced. The primary evidence for which is that the paper used by Madison differs from that of the notes surrounding these pages, or on any other document created by Madison in the summer of 1787. One of these sheets contains Madison’s speech on the separation of powers and the process of impeaching a president. Bilder suggests that it is therefore possible that this was added or edited after the fact.

Associated event:

McClurg's Amendment for Presidential Terms based on Good Conduct was debated on 17 July 1787

The last three and a half weeks of the Convention contain some of the most important developments in the framing of the constitution, yet Bilder suggests that Madison’s record of these events may have been altered. She states that there is “no evidence proves that these sheets were written in August-September 1787.” Instead the evidence points to their being written in late 1789. The most compelling evidence to Bilder is that Madison incorporated what looks like large parts of text from the Journal into the body of his notes, whereas previously these were clearly made as additions to his earlier writings. There are far fewer corrections and changes to these sheets, and are the notes are written on different paper to previous sessions. This therefore suggests that they were later compositions or replacements. That said Madison’s Notes for 15 and 17 September, while on this alternative paper, cannot have been copied from the Journal as Jackson did not keep a record on these last two days.

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In one session in late August Madison writes that he made two anti-slavery comments. Bilder suggests that these may have been changed or added after the Convention, probably in 1789. The last three and a half weeks of the Convention contain some of the most important developments in the framing of the constitution, yet Bilder suggests that Madison’s record of these events may have been altered. She states that there is “no evidence proves that these sheets were written in August-September 1787.” Instead the evidence points to their being written in late 1789. The most compelling evidence to Bilder is that Madison incorporated what looks like large parts of text from the Journal into the body of his notes, whereas previously these were clearly made as additions to his earlier writings. There are far fewer corrections and changes to these sheets, and are the notes are written on different paper to previous sessions. This therefore suggests that they were later compositions or replacements.

Associated event:

C.C. Pinckney's Amendment to Protect the Slave Trade until 1808 was debated on 25 August 1787

In one session in late August Madison writes that he made two anti-slavery comments. Bilder suggests that these may have been changed or added after the Convention, probably in 1789. The last three and a half weeks of the Convention contain some of the most important developments in the framing of the constitution, yet Bilder suggests that Madison’s record of these events may have been altered. She states that there is “no evidence proves that these sheets were written in August-September 1787.” Instead the evidence points to their being written in late 1789. The most compelling evidence to Bilder is that Madison incorporated what looks like large parts of text from the Journal into the body of his notes, whereas previously these were clearly made as additions to his earlier writings. There are far fewer corrections and changes to these sheets, and are the notes are written on different paper to previous sessions. This therefore suggests that they were later compositions or replacements.

Associated event:

Report of the Committee on Slave Trade and Navigation: Article VII: Section 4 - Clause 2 (Taxation of Slave Trade) was debated on 25 August 1787

Bilder suggest that Madison’s Notes for the last day of the Convention show particular evidence of later composition. She points to the how Madison recorded Franklin’s two speeches as being of the most interest. Madison placed one speech early in the session, followed by Franklin’s famous remarks about the rising sun later. These had appeared in publication in December 1787 in the ‘American Museum’. Madison may have copied the speeches before leaving, but Bilder points out that his version is very similar to that published. She also suggests that he may have changes the order of events. McHenry recorded that the Constitution was read, amended by Gorham, and then Franklin spoke. Madison recorded the speech coming just after the reading. This change may have been made for literary reasons, as Madison started to consider publication of his notes. Framing the last day with a speech by Franklin praising the Constitution, Bilder suggests, was away of foreshadowing ratification. Similarly, the sun anecdote was a perfect closing moment, that may have only been said to one or two people. Though Madison may not have heard it on the day. Added to this, the last three and a half weeks of the Convention contain some of the most important developments in the framing of the constitution, yet Bilder suggests that Madison’s record of these events may have been altered. She states that there is “no evidence proves that these sheets were written in August-September 1787.” Instead the evidence points to their being written in late 1789. The most compelling evidence to Bilder is that Madison incorporated what looks like large parts of text from the Journal into the body of his notes, whereas previously these were clearly made as additions to his earlier writings. There are far fewer corrections and changes to these sheets, and are the notes are written on different paper to previous sessions. This therefore suggests that they were later compositions or replacements.

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