Thursday, March 17, 2016

How James Madison rewrote the history of the Constitution (and why it doesn't matter)

Via our friend John Fea at his The Road of Improvement Leads Home blog

A book on the 1787 Constitutional Convention and two books on the way encounters with Native Americans shaped the emerging American nation have won the Bancroft Prize, considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.
Mary Sarah Bilder, a professor at Boston College Law School, won for “Madison’s Hand: Revisiting the Constitutional Convention”(Harvard University Press), which uses both digital technology and traditional textual analysis to study how James Madison continuously revised his influential notes on the event, thus sharply challenging their claim to be an objective contemporaneous account.

I never trusted Madison anyway, so long after the fact. The story is interesting--Madison never intended to release them until after his death [1836], but when a rival account of the Framing appeared in 1821, Madison set to work to reconcile with it--and now we learn it's heavily edited if not rife with revisionism to make himself look good, and on "the right side of history."

A nice summary of Bilder's work can be found in this WaPo review.

For example, as the slave trade fell further and further into disfavor in the years after the convention, [Madison] added language that made it seem like he had condemned it during the convention itself as “dishonorable to the National character,” words never uttered by him in public before that time, Bilder said in an interview.

Of course, this is all academic for those of us who prefer Constitutional "textualism": I find Madison's overarching advice wise and true--
“As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character. However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions, & as a source perhaps of some lights on the Science of Govt. the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be not in the opinions or intentions of the Body which planned & proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions where it recd. all the authority which it possesses.”
Bold face mine. The Ratifiers are the last word, not the Framers.  The words of the Constitution are no more or less than their "original public meaning."

[crossposted @]

1 comment:

Bill Fortenberry said...

I've often told my students that the only reason that Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution is that he was the only one who took notes. Of course, I have a bit of an ulterior motive for that particular insight.