Ashbrook Thesis: Human Nature and the Constitutional Convention
December 24, 2020
We’ve been featuring the work of our undergraduate Scholars on their senior theses, a challenging project each Scholar completes before graduating. Erin Lingenfelter, a senior from Loudonville, Ohio, became interested in the challenges the Founders dealt with in designing the Constitution.
At Ashland University, Erin majored in Political Science and minored in Applied Music and Theatre. She was also heavily involved on campus, holding leadership positions in University Choir, Alpha Phi sorority, and as a Resident Assistant. Erin was selected as the Madrigal Queen for the 38th Annual Madrigal Feaste, a popular holiday tradition at Ashland University. Earlier in April, Erin was also honored as the 2013-2014 Outstanding Female Undergraduate Student of the Year.
Erin’s thesis, “The Influence of Human Nature: James Madison’s Understanding of the Difficulties of the Constitutional Convention,” focused on Madison’s account of that time. In number 37 of The Federalist, a series of essays published pseudonymously in newspapers that argued for ratification of the new Constitution, Madison takes a philosophical view of the problem, explaining how human nature made the work of the convention difficult.
Why were you interested in this subject?
I became interested in James Madison’s Notes of Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787 while working as an intern editing the Teaching American History website. Dr. Chris Burkett, who would become my advisor, pointed me toward Federalist No. 37. I read it and was immediately impressed; I wanted to study it in conjunction with Madison’s Notes.
What difficulties does Madison say the Constitutional Convention faced?
Finding the proper balance between national and state government posed a significant problem. Madison admits that no human being has more than a hazy vision of the proper way to organize political life. When over 50 men try to work out the problem, the best design becomes more difficult to see.
The framers also faced the shortcomings of language. Words have different meanings for different people. Additionally, language does not include every word necessary to express each shade of thought.
The Notes of the Convention are filled with examples of this. On one of the first days, delegates argued about whether the new government would be “national” and “supreme.” For some delegates, a “national” government seemed necessary. For others, that word implied an abolition of the state governments and a much too powerful regime. The various understandings of this single word impeded the convention’s ability to make decisions.
How were these difficulties dealt with?
Madison says that to make decisions, delegates to the convention had to either resist their “party animosities” or accept the changes proposed as better than no change at all. I think Madison believes the delegates saw the new plan, while not in every point what each delegate wanted, as better for the country than keeping the old plan of government.
This is the longest academic project you have undertaken. How did you approach it?
I began reading for background in the summer of 2013, but the real work began during fall semester. First I analyzed Federalist No. 37, aiming to understand Madison’s view of human nature, and wrote a first chapter on this. For the second chapter, I did the same with selected days from Madison’s Notes, drawing connections back to No. 37. Finally, I wrote the last chapter as an essay in the true sense of the word – an attempt – to see how the men at the convention of 1787 accomplished all that they did and how Madison understood their work.
My advisor Dr. Chris Burkett helped me throughout the process. We met almost weekly during the fall semester and frequently during spring semester, prior to my defense.
What is the most important thing you learned through the thesis?
In the Ashbrook Scholar program, there is a large emphasis placed on writing. I enjoy writing, but with every other paper I have been handed a prompt and asked to work with it. It was very valuable to do the hard work of developing my own prompt and watching it change as it became more developed.