Current Book Project:
Madison’s Word on Trial
Appraising the Records of the Constitutional Convention
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison wrote the only comprehensive and detailed account of the debates that formed the United States Constitution. Although there are other primary sources for understanding the Constitutional Convention, the rest are mere fragments of the story and are often defective for other reasons as well. Since they were first published, Madison’s records have been the gold standard for understanding the deliberations and political machinations that fashioned the ultimate design of the United States Constitution. The Library of Congress has long recognized the singular importance of Madison’s manuscript records; in the 1940s they designated these papers a “Top Treasure.” Fewer than twenty manuscripts have been honored with that designation, and Madison’s manuscript Notes are on par with the original Constitution and Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence in national preeminence. Early in 2018, the Library released new high-resolution images of Madison’s manuscript Notes on their website, an event which promises to stimulate renewed interest in them.
No doubt because of their importance, Madison’s Notes have always been the target of suspicions and accusations. Starting in 1840, the same year that the Notes were first published, skeptics and detractors have sought to discredit them. In the nineteenth century, Alexander Hamilton’s followers accused Madison of altering his Notes in order to undermine Hamilton’s reputation and promote the Jeffersonian agenda. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was William Crosskey who led the charge to prove Madison’s duplicity. And in the twenty-first century, for the first time, an entire monograph was published ostensibly proving that Madison had “doctored” his Notes years after they were written. All of these detractors sought to prove that one of the brightest gems in America’s library of Crown Jewels was actually paste. Until now, however, no one has ever undertaken a comprehensive and impartial appraisal of these records.
Madison’s Word on Trial examines the numerous claims, and especially the accusations, which have been published about Madison’s records of the Constitutional Convention in the 175 years since they first went public. While the book collects the many verifiable truths that have already been uncovered about Madison’s Notes, the pith and essence of this project is an examination of 142 fallacies that have circulated throughout the scholarly literature—all attempting to prove that Madison was an unreliable scribe and his Notes an unreliable record. The book therefore exposes a longstanding and pervasive bias against the Notes that has lurked within scholarly accounts of the Convention for years. It aims to be the first comprehensive and authoritative appraisal of the Notes, replacing suspicion and innuendo with fact and a sound research methodology. However, this book does not seek to vindicate the Notes from legitimate criticism. Any comprehensive and impartial appraisal will reveal a few genuine flaws in the Notes. Nevertheless, scholars who rely on these records for understanding how the Constitution was formed can be assured that their trustworthiness rests on a solid foundation.
Reconstructing the Lost Pinckney Plan
Plagiarism is the Sincerest Form of Flattery (Article)
During the opening debates of the Constitutional Convention, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed a plan of government. The other delegates mostly ignored it; they chose “the Virginia Plan” as their starting point in debates. No one, it appears, kept a copy of the original Pinckney Plan. Thirty years later, Pinckney circulated what he claimed was the Plan he offered in 1787, although most people at the time and ever since have argued that it was far too close to the final Constitution to be the original. For many years it was simply assumed that the real contents of the Pinckney Plan could never be known. Then, in the first decade of the twentieth century, two manuscripts were found, both in James Wilson’s handwriting, which were identified as extracts of the lost plan; together they represented substantial contributions to the final Constitution. Since then, several scholars have contended that Pinckney never received his due because James Madison sought to diminish his role through hatred and envy. Thus Pinckney’s reputation was rehabilitated, his name sometimes exalted, and his word trusted; meanwhile, Madison’s reputation took a serious hit. However, a closer examination of the documentary evidence will show that one of the two Wilson manuscripts is likely unrelated to the Pinckney Plan. Furthermore, an unflinching look at Pinckney’s repeated deceptions and plagiarisms will demonstrate that he is an unreliable source for determining his genuine contributions to the Constitutional Convention.
Madison’s Antislavery Constitution (Article)
While only rarely singled out, James Madison has been implicated with the rest of the Framers of the Constitution in the generic accusation, first voiced by William Lloyd Garrison, that the Constitution they constructed was “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” According to this narrative, the Framers were indifferent or worse to the evils of slavery, and they sought important protections for the South’s peculiar institution in the Constitution in order to ensure slavery’s permanence in the new nation. One recent book has even denied that Madison ever spoke out against the slave trade at the Convention, in spite of the forceful denunciations found in his records of the debates, claiming instead that those speeches were later interpolations inserted only after he saw which way the wind was blowing. The scholarly trend of condemning the Founders for their positions on slavery has become so commonplace that Alan Gibson has dubbed the cohort “the prosecutors” (which in turn has provoked a reactionary brand of “vindicator” scholarship).
There is no such thing as a uniform theory—“The Framers’ intentions”—when it comes to interpreting the Constitution’s approach to slavery; each delegate was unique, and on no single subject was there more fundamental disagreement within the Convention than on the subject of slavery. A thorough and close examination of Madison’s unique approach to the Constitution, however—including provisions he wanted to see in the plan but failed to achieve, the arguments he employed to defend certain clauses of the Constitution, and his occasionally singular interpretation of the Constitution’s slavery provisions—demonstrates that he intended the Constitution to be read in a far more antislavery way than has hitherto been appreciated. Madison was by no means an abolitionist, if the term is understood to mean that class of activists who pursued abolition at any cost and for whom that goal was their first priority. But Madison was a shrewd political thinker, and his unique interpretative approach to the Constitution demonstrates that he intended it to be a vehicle for the ultimate extinction of slavery. This paper was presented to the 2017 Madison scholars’ conference at Montpelier.
James Madison’s Constitution: In Order to Establish of Justice (Article)
Charles Beard has cast a long shadow on the scholarship of America’s Founding. Even though his most radical claims have been debunked, many historians today still have a difficult time transcending the reductionist paradigm of equating all politics with the pursuit of economic interests. Hence Woody Holton has recently argued that the repeated cries for justice uttered by the Founding generation had no meaning beyond the protection of class interests, and particularly the interests of the wealthy class. And whereas Gordon Wood has faithfully portrayed the Founders’ arguments about justice, and he does justice to their sincerity, he is careful to treat these claims as specific to a particular time, place, and, especially, a particularly elitist class of men. It is rare for scholars to take James Madison’s claims of justice seriously, and none have yet attempted a systematic examination of the meaning of the word for Madison and the doggedness with which he, personally, pursued justice as a political goal.
Madison never wrote a treatise on justice, comparable to Book V of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, so there is no one place to discover his comprehensive views on the subject. Instead, his understanding of justice must be inferred from his individual judgments about particular issues. Nonetheless, by examining those cases and drawing those inferences, it becomes clear that Madison’s interpretation of justice, when viewed as an end of government, was remarkably robust and complex. And far from being confined to securing economic interests generally—and far less was it narrowly confined to protecting a specific economic class—the meaning of justice for Madison was roughly consonant with the classical meaning of justice which is found in Aristotle and elsewhere. A lecture based on this paper was delivered as part of the 2015 Constitution Day celebration for the James Madison Program at Princeton (a fragment of that lecture can be seen on the “Lectures and Presentations” page).
Writing Federalist No. 10 for an Antifederalist Audience (book chapter)
Too often, the Federalist essays are examined as though they were a philosophical treatise rather than rhetorical discourse. This is a mistake, first, because the authors of The Federalist were seeking to persuade a particular audience at a particular moment in time, and they sometimes defended positions with which they personally disagreed, or at least exaggerated the strengths or weaknesses of certain arguments for the larger goal of ratifying the Constitution. Second, it is a mistake because it may cause readers to miss unexpected twists or eccentricities in the argument in pursuit of the abstract purity of its logic. In Madison’s defense of an extended republic in Federalist No. 10, scholars have frequently argued or assumed that the “multiplicity of interests” argument is the most important reason for extending the sphere of republican government. In point of fact, Madison explicitly argues in Number 10 that this advantage is of equal importance with the need to secure more virtuous representatives. Nonetheless, this assertion of equality is surprising for Madison; it does not fit neatly with his other defenses of an extended republic; and it was almost certainly argued here for strictly rhetorical reasons.