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Bilder and Doubts Over Madison's Notes

A brief exploration of Mary Sarah Bilder's charges that Madison's Notes do not tell the whole truth of the Constitutional Convention.

Cite as: Kieran Hazzard, Bilder and Doubts Over Madison's Notes, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, accessed 2023)


As the major source on what happened inside the Constitutional Convention, the veracity of Madison's Notes is an important question. Madison’s Notes offer the fullest record of the Convention in one source, and for the most part they appear to have been carefully compiled and written. In the process of modelling the Convention it became clear quite how often historians are reliant on only Madison for a record of speeches and proceedings.

It’s been known for some time that he edited his notes, with Max Farrand in 1911 writing, that Madison often altered his notes to reflect the printed Journal and added some details recorded by Yates. Where Farrand records changes to Madison’s manuscripts we have endeavoured to preserve these in the 2019 edition by including his original notation, by placing additions between angle brackets.

Writing in 1953, William Crosskey accused Madison of forging large parts, in order to obscure his changing political position after 1787 and to make himself seem central to events. One example given was supressing the role of Pinckney. Crosskey also accused Madison of inventing Dickinson's speech on Blackstone on 29 August. Crosskey’s ‘Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States’ caused considerable debate, however, over time his accusations have lost weight.

This may have a good deal to do with the work of James Hutson, who felt Crosskey had wildly exaggerated his claims. Hutson, while still cautious of the fallibility of Madison’s Notes, rejected the ideas that Madison was a deliberate forger. Instead, Hutson stressed that Madison’s Notes were never intended as verbatim reports, and that his own speeches were added into the Notes as written remembrances after giving them off the cuff.

Crosskey may have been wrong about forgery but there are still problems. Mary Sarah Bilder in 'Madison's Hand' (2015), suggests a number of speeches were altered after the fact by Madison in an attempt to control the story of the Convention. She points out that Madison did not make the notes for posterity, but for himself to keep track, keep a memory, and to provide Thomas Jefferson with an account. He was not impartial observer. He wrote shorthand notes and then wrote these up in evening or days after the session in question. Early notes are less organised and complete. Later he took to summarising each speech in one sentence at start and then reporting body of speech.

She argues that the first two thirds of his notes were written in 1787, while the section after 21 August and text of his speeches were added later, possibly in late 1789. With a complete draft being made by 1797. Crucially, she states that careful manuscript analysis shows that revisions after this are visible. In addition, his notes are selective. The revisions turned them from a partial diary record into a public history. In doing so he covered over his political miscalculations in 1787 and makes the big compromises made in the Convention seem inevitable. She also states that he added material from other sources, and rationalised and standardised his own language.

The changes and later additions which she particularly highlighted are Madison's 5 June comments on inferior courts and the 17 July vote on executive tenure on good behaviour. Sheets containing his speeches on 6, 7, 8, 21, 23, 25, 26, and 29 June were all later additions, as well as his speech on 6 June echoing Federalist 10. On 25 June he has rearranged the first paragraph of Pinckney's speech, but seems to have been corrected by Farrand. Bilder also suggests that Madison’s anti-slavery comments on 25 August were added later, along with the whole section from 22 August to 17 September.

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