Constitutional Convention, Records of
CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, RECORDS OF
The records of the constitutional convention of 1787 are not so full as scholars and jurists would like them to be. A verbatim account of the proceedings does not exist and, absent modern technology, could not have been produced. Stenographers in Philadelphia covered the state ratifying convention, which met in the fall of 1787; but the Federal Convention met in secrecy and, even if the local stenographers had been admitted, the rudimentary state of their craft and assorted personal shortcomings would have made a satisfactory result unlikely.
We must rely for information about the Convention on a journal kept by its secretary, William Jackson, and on notes kept by various delegates. Some of the notes, especially those made by james madison, are extensive; others are fragmentary. Taken together, the existing records give us a satisfactory narrative of events at the Convention—although details of the drafting of many key provisions are sparse, leaving the original intent of the Framers enigmatic. It is also true that the documentation becomes poorer toward the end of the Convention. The delegates, tired and eager to go home, recorded less than they did earlier, and what they recorded was sketchier. This is unfortunate, because the last weeks of the Convention saw many important compromises and changes about which, in the absence of adequate records, we know far too little.
The story of how Madison created his notes is familiar: "I chose a seat in front of the presiding member, with the other members, on my right and left hand. In this favorable position for hearing all that passed I noted in terms legible and in abbreviations and marks intelligible to myself what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members; and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the Convention I was enabled to write out my daily notes during the session or within a few finishing days after its close." Conscientiously completed at considerable physical cost—Madison later confessed that the task "almost killed" him—these notes are the principal source of information about the convention. That Madison kept his notes in his possession until his death caused one suspicious scholar, william w. crosskey, to charge that during his life he had tampered with them—"forged" them, in fact—to make them consistent with political actions he had taken after 1787, an accusation since proven to be without foundation. The one considerable problem with Madison's notes is that they contain only a small proportion of each day's debates. They should not be used with the assumption that they are comprehensive.
The source next in importance to Madison's notes is the Convention records kept by New York delegate robert yates. They were published in 1821 under the title Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled at Philadelphia in the Year 1787 by an anonymous editor, who turned out to be Citizen Edmond Genêt, the incendiary ambassador of revolutionary France to the United States in 1793. When Madison first saw the published version of Yates's notes, he warned against their "extreme incorrectness"—and with good reason, for it has been discovered that Genêt was guilty of the sin Crosskey laid at Madison's door: tampering with the manuscript version of Yates's notes, deleting some parts and changing others. The Secret Proceedings must therefore be used with extreme caution.
Several other delegates left notes, records, and scraps of paper that shed varying amounts of light on what occurred at Philadelphia, among which the notes of rufus king and john dickinson are the fullest. alexander hamilton, james mchenry, william pierce, pierce butler, william paterson, charles pinckney, and james wilson left more fragmentary materials. oliver ellsworth and luther martin said a good deal about the workings of the Convention in polemics generated by the campaign for the ratification of the constitution during 1787–1788. Their accounts should be consulted, but their partisanship obviously dictates that their statements be used with caution.
The remaining source of information about the Convention is the official journal published in 1819 at the direction of Congress and edited by then Secretary of State john quincy adams. Although Adams complained that the manuscript record left by Convention Secretary William Jackson was "very loosely and imperfectly kept," he was able to make perfect sense of it, with the result that the journal that issued from his editorship is a reliable, if bare-bones, narrative of the daily business of the Convention.
Scholars are aware that several delegates kept manuscript notes of Convention proccedings that have not been found. It is possible that in the future our understanding of Convention proceedings will be enriched, if not fundamentally changed, by the discovery of yet another set of Convention notes.
Hutson, James H. 1986 The Creation of the Constitution: The Integrity of the Documentary Record. Texas Law Review 65: 1–39.