Gordon Lloyd Describes Ashbrook's New Edition of James Madison's Record of the Constitutional Convention (part 1)

December 24, 2020

Ashbrook has published a new edition of James Madison’s Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Madison’s day-by-day account of the deliberations at the Constitutional Convention preserves a record of our Founding. Professor Gordon Lloyd, Senior Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a faculty member in the Ashbrook Center’s Master of Arts in American History and Government program for social studies teachers edited the volume. We recently asked him why the new edition was needed.

Why is Madison’s Debates in the Federal Convention in 1787 an essential document of our history?

It recounts an extraordinary moment in human history, a process of careful deliberation that Madison deliberately set out to record. When he went to the Convention, he chose a seat near the Speaker’s chair so that he might hear everything said in debate and make his original set of notes. He was intensely interested in the decisions the delegates would make; he knew that what they were trying to do—to establish a workable democratic republic across an already large nation—had never before been attempted. He had prepared for the Convention by carefully reading all the histories of ancient republics he could find and thinking about the flaws of those regimes. He had reached his own conclusions about what would make the best design for government (and it was not exactly the plan eventually adopted). He sensed that posterity would want a record of what happened at the Convention. As it happened, the delegates would agree to conduct the entire proceedings in absolute secrecy, so as to avoid prompting a public critique before a final plan was agreed on. Without the record Madison made of the speeches, we would not know today what options the Framers considered or how they reached compromises.

Why did you decide to produce a new edition of Madison’s Debates?

The historians who edited the versions now available do not use the final version Madison left, the one he wanted published. He had used many abbreviations to make his original notes, working late in the night after each day’s debate to flesh out each day’s journal entry, but by the end of the Convention his journal was still somewhat rough. So from time to time during the rest of his career, but especially after he retired from the presidency, he worked to turn his original manuscript into a graceful literary document.

During the 19th century, Americans read an edition that had been prepared from Madison’s last edit and published by the Library of Congress. But after two copies of the original unedited journal turned up in the 1890s, Max Ferrand used these to put out a new edition for scholars. He assumed that an account written at the time the events occurred was more accurate than a later revision. He also didn’t want to call Madison’s account definitive, so he put out a multi-volume text placing Madison’s account alongside the less complete records made by others. A later 20th century editor, Adrienne Koch, dropped the other accounts from her edition, rightly elevating Madison’s account. But Koch uses the original journal also, adding a barrage of scholarly footnotes. She bestowed on Madison’s Debates the unfortunate title, Notes, and the name has stuck.

Madison wanted this journal to be a literary masterpiece that Americans could be proud of, not a set of notes and jottings. In the introduction to my edition, I compare Madison’s Debates to Plato’s Republic. Plato’s book depicts a nightlong discussion between Socrates and a few friends as they outline the perfect regime. Madison’s work offers a rival vision: 55 delegates from geographically distinct areas arguing for 88 days to arrive at the best regime possible for the time.

Madison had learned from his study of the classical republics that popular governments eventually failed, as did federations of independent states. So his account emphasizes what is novel about the New World. Americans make liberty with justice the goal of self-government. In Plato’s Republic, liberty is not an essential value. The goal is to eliminate faction and produce justice with harmony. By contrast, the Founders did not seek harmony, but “a more perfect union”—not a perfect one, since that would be incompatible with human freedom.

Madison also shows Americans creating new institutions. In the British system, the powers of the social classes were separated, so that you had one branch of the legislature representing the upper class and another representing the lower class. In America, the people of the states are represented not through a “lower branch” and an “upper branch” and but a “first branch” (the House) and a “second branch” (the Senate).

If you bury Madison’s account in a set of scholarly references, or set it beside the contrary recollections of others, some of whom did not vote for the final draft—or if you call what Madison produced mere “notes”—you don’t capture Madison’s sense that something momentous happened at the Convention. Never before in the history of the world had so many people representing so many different localities and interests sat down to talk about self-government at such length.



We will post part 2 of this piece next week.