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Madison's Notes of the Debates


In the oral arguments in ogden v. saunders (1824), a lawyer wondered what the intentions were of those who framed the Constitution when they included the contract clause."Unhappily for this country and for the general interest of political science," he added, "the history of the Convention of 1787 which framed the Constitution of the United States is lost to the world." It was not lost, but no one who was not an intimate of james madison knew that. Incredibly, john marshall wrote his great opinions on constitutional law and joseph story wrote his Commentaries on the Constitution (1833) without knowing that Madison had in his possession his elaborate manuscript record of the constitutional convention.

The Father of the Constitution not only wielded the greatest influence on its formation at the Convention, where he delivered over 200 speeches, but he also kept a record of the debates for nearly four months, a task that he later said "almost killed" him. He sat front and center in a "favorable position for hearing all that passed," and daily he composed a transcript from detailed notes kept of each session. Yet the memory that he had performed the task faded from the minds of participants.

In Madison's will of 1835, leaving his papers to his wife, he wrote that given the interest the Constitution "has inspired among friends of free Government, it was not an unreasonable inference that a report of the proceedings and discussions … will be particularly gratifying to the people of the United States, and to all who take an interest in the progress of political science and the course of true liberty." Why he failed to publish those records during his lifetime, indeed, why he kept them a secret, is inexplicable.

Madison worked on his manuscript intermittently for many years, revising and expanding as additional information became available. For example, he incorporated material from the official Journal, Acts and Proceedings of the Convention (1819) and even from robert yates'sSecret Proceedings and Debates (1821), an Anti-Federalist work that contained useful details through July 5, 1787, including versions of Madison's own speeches. Madison's revisions of his original manuscript revealed his objective of making the record as full and accurate as possible.

After his death in 1836, Dolley Madison offered his papers to the United States. In 1837 Congress agreed on a price of $30,000, and in 1840, fifty-three years after the Convention, Madison's Notes of the Debates was published for the first of many times. It remains our most important source by far of what happened at the Constitutional Convention.

Leonard W. Levy


Madison, James 1977 The Papers of James Madison, Robert A. Rutland, ed., vol. 10. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Warren, Charles 1928 The Making of the Constitution. Boston: Little, Brown.

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