James Madison Likely Revised His Notes from Constitutional Convention to Distance Himself from Controversial Statements

According to research conducted by Boston College Law professor Mary Sarah Bilder,* “James Madison likely replaced several sheets of his notes chronicling the constitutional convention to distance himself from his own statements that later became controversial,” notes the ABA Journal.

In her book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, Bilder compares Madison original 1787 handwritten notes with the later revised notes published after his death in 1840.

“Along the way,” Bilder writes for the History News network, “he converted himself into a different Madison. In the original Notes, Madison was annoyed and frustrated. Slowly by altering a word here, a phrase there, he became a moderate, dispassionate observer and intellectual founder of the Constitution.”

He also likely replaced several sheets containing his own speeches in the years immediately after the convention to distance himself from statements that became controversial, Bilder writes.

One revision concerned slavery, Bilder told the Washington Post in an interview. As the slave trade fell into disfavor after the convention, Madison added language that suggested he had condemned it during the convention as “dishonorable to the national character.”

Madison had never spoken against slavery or used the words, while others at the conviction did, Bilder said. The words Madison claims to have spoken bore “an uncomfortable resemblance to the same comment” made by a delegate from Maryland as recorded in Madison’s original notes, she said.

Although the revisions differ, at times strongly, with Madison’s original notes, Bilder contends these differences enhance rather than detract from Madison’s later manuscript which reflects a more evolved “understanding about the convention, the Constitution, and his own role.”

*Mary Sarah Bilder is the daughter of UW Law School professor, Richard Bilder.