Current Projects

Current Book Project:

James Madison and the Lost Pinckney Plan
A Constitutional Con and Cover-Up

As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, only two members–James Madison of Virginia and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina–conceived the audacious strategy of drafting their own plans of government. Both men hoped to control the contours of the upcoming debates with bold opening proposals.  Madison’s thoughts on government became the foundation for the Virginia Plan, which was the basis for debates in the first half of the summer and a leading influence on the final Constitution.  The Pinckney Plan had a more mysterious and controversial fate.  The other delegates in the room mostly ignored it, and no one, apparently, kept a copy of the original.  Thirty years later, Pinckney circulated what he claimed was the Plan he offered in 1787; however, many people at the time and ever since argued that it was too close to the final Constitution to be genuine. Nevertheless, Pinckney successfully used his pseudo-plan in two cases of “fraudulent originalism” during the Missouri Compromise debates: he based his arguments about the “Framers’ intent” for the Constitution on a document he had forged and managed to insert within the official records published soon after the Missouri controversy began.

Madison understood the full scope of Pinckney’s “constitutional con” as it unfolded; he knew that the 1818 Plan was not only a forgery but a plagiarized version of one of the Convention’s committee reports. But he chose to stage a posthumous cover-up in 1840.  Although he discredited the bogus plan, he simultaneously salvaged Pinckney’s reputation by insisting it was simple error, and he buried the evidence of plagiarism.  For many years Madison’s debunking convinced those who examined his arguments, and it was generally 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, their combined content 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 contributions to the Constitution exaggerated, and his word trusted; meanwhile, Madison’s reputation for impartiality and reliability took a serious hit.

James Madison and the Lost Pinckney Plan is a book about some of the lesser-known episodes of the Framers’ construction of the Constitution, as well as the stories they later told about those events. But it is also a book about the trustworthiness of sources that historians use when searching for the truth about some of the most important events in American history. A close examination of the documentary evidence demonstrates that one of the two Wilson manuscripts identified as extracts of Pinckney’s Lost Plan was a case of mistaken identity.  Furthermore, scholars have been too credulous when assessing Pinckney’s record. An unflinching look at Pinckney’s claims — his repeated deceptions and plagiarisms — will demonstrate that he is an unreliable source for determining his genuine contributions to the Constitutional Convention. Unfortunately, not only have scholars continued to defend the bogus 1818 Plan, but Supreme Court justices — as recently as 2015 — have persistently used it when deciding constitutional cases. Meanwhile, Madison’s accounts are not fully reliable either. He had a less self-serving but no less misleading tendency to exaggerate the contributions of others and conceal their faults, Charles Pinckney being but one example.

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 their first publication in 1840, 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. 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 180 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 some 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.

Current Article, Under Construction:

Madison’s Antislavery Constitution

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.

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.  Nevertheless, a thorough and close examination of Madison’s unique approach to the Constitution—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 and the 2022 Shawnee Conference at Baylor University.

Current Article, Under Construction:

Madison’s “Free Exercise” Clause Requires Religious Exemptions 

This article will argue that, contrary to prevailing opinion, James Madison–the leading force behind the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause- understood it to require some accommodations for religious believers, exempting them from otherwise valid laws. This article is intended for a law journal.

Current Article, Under Construction:

James Madison’s Constitution: In Order to Establish of Justice

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).