Gordon Lloyd Describes Ashbrook’s New Edition of James Madison’s Record of the Constitutional Convention (part 2)

December 24, 2020

Last week we posted the first part of an interview with Gordon Lloyd on his new edition of James Madison’s Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, published by Ashbrook.Lloyd compared Madison’s record of our Constitutional Convention to a classic of political philosophy, Plato’s Republic. We asked Professor Lloyd to elaborate on this: 

Reading Plato’s Republic is a bit like reading drama—the characters of the people Socrates is conversing with are revealed as they try to define just government, and the conclusions they reach are surprising. Is this similar to the experience of reading Madison’s account of the Convention? 

I think so. You have characters, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution. At the back of my edition, I append a summary of the events, which I title “The Constitutional Convention: A Four-Act Drama.” I want readers to follow the dynamic of the debate. For example, the summary shows how during the first month—what I call Act I—conflicts between delegates arise as rival plans are presented, and a deadlock looms. During Act II, from late June to the end of July, a compromise is sketched out, but the final agreement could still be scuttled because of some sharply opposed interests.

So, up until the end of the process, the delegates were not sure they’d complete their task. What problems did the Framers have to overcome to reach agreement?

Well, unwillingness to compromise. When, where, and why do you compromise what you believe? And as a separate issue, to what extent do you let yourself be persuaded by the deliberation that takes place, rather than continuing to represent the wishes of the people who sent you?

Then, stamina was needed to get through 88 days of discussion in a closed, stuffy room in the heat of summer. And there was a generational difference. Those who were older, in their mid-forties and fifties, who were around at the signing of the Declaration, had grown more prudent and cautious. The younger ones, in their thirties—Madison, Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris—they were the ones willing to take a risk—along with Washington, who urged these younger people to get to the root of the problem; don’t just patch it up. There were serious sectional differences. For example, what do you do about slavery? Some threatened to walk out and abandon the process.

The first two acts of the drama involved exploring the possibilities, but in Acts III and IV, decisions had to be made. Madison reveals the difficulty of principled negotiation.

It’s amazing that the outlines of a compromise emerged from the Gerry committee in just three days: from July 2 to July 5.

Yes, the breakthrough came during the Fourth of July recess. If you look at the composition of that committee, it was made up entirely of people who wanted to compromise. Madison was not on that committee!

 Jefferson described the men who participated in the Convention as a group of “demi-gods.” Madison says they were “pure in their motives” and aimed to “secure the permanent liberty and happiness of their country.” Do you agree?

Something about the dynamic of the process brought out the best in them. They were more experienced, they had read more and they understood what was at stake better than the average person. They understood they had to back off. But how easy is it for a demi-god to back off?

At the end of June, Washington was in despair. Why can’t they find a solution? I think that if Washington had told the other delegates they must adopt one of the offered plans, they would have fallen in line. But he did not. Washington seemed to realize that the delegates had to go through all the hazards of negotiation until they reached a breakthrough.

All the way through individual delegates are thinking, “Well, there are certain parts I don’t like.” Then Franklin on the last day of the convention says, isn’t that what life is about? Isn’t it about striving for the best that is possible?

As he got older, people began referring to Madison as the “Father of the Constitution;” but he insisted that the Constitution was the work of many people. It’s the dynamic of people working together for the common good, but trying to protect their differing interests. They lose their tempers, and some walk out, but others stay the course. And don’t forget ratification, where you had 3,000 people being elected to debate the proposed Constitution up and down the coast without a drop of blood being spilled. In no other country before had this happened.