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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

The Constitutional Convention and Ratification

In April 1787, Madison wrote a short pamphlet entitled "Vices of the Political System of the United States" explaining the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

In a letter to George Washington, written before the opening of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Madison proposed a plan that would increase the power of the central government and allow it to act as "a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States."

Anticipating opposition, he recommended a mode of ratification that would bypass state legislatures, empowered by the Confederation, and go directly to the people. Madison's letter provided the essentials of the Virginia Plan proposed before the Convention in May 1787 by Edmund Randolph.

  • What problems in the government under the Articles of Confederation had Madison identified prior to the Constitutional Convention?
  • Based on those problems, why did Madison believe it was important for the central government to have a "negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States"?
  • List the important ideas for the new constitution that Madison explained in his letter to Washington. For each, list a problem with the government under the Articles of Confederation that it addressed. How well did Madison address those problems in his new plan? Explain your answer.


The collection includes Madison's "Original Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention" in two parts, the first presenting an introduction and notes through July 25, the second beginning July 26, 1787.

On September 30, 1787, shortly after the close of the Federal Convention, Madison wrote a letter to Washington, explaining that some in Congress claimed that the convention had violated its charge and that the "new Constitution was more than an Alteration of the Articles of Confederation under which Congress acted, and even subverted the articles altogether." The letter further explained how defenders of the Constitution countered this argument and discussed efforts by states to offer amendments.

  • On what grounds did some argue that the convention "subverted" the charge of Congress to amend the Articles?
  • What arguments did supporters of the Constitution use to defend the document before Congress?
example of portion of the Madison letter written in cipher, preferably the bottom of the second page where Madison talks about Adams and Hancock

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1788. Partly in Cipher. This excerpted portion of the letter shows an example of a cipher used by Madison and Jefferson in their correspondence.

In a letter to Washington written during the debate over ratification of the Constitution, Madison included the first seven essays of The Federalist. Madison requested that Washington, if he agreed with the essays, circulate them in Richmond to encourage ratification in Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson, serving as envoy to France, had written to Madison from Paris in December 1787, expressing his general support for the Constitution but criticizing the omission of a bill of rights. In a letter to Jefferson written on October 17, 1788, Madison writes that his "opinion has always been in favor of a bill of right,."and also explains his related concerns

  • What were Madison's reservations about including a Bill of Rights in the Federal Constitution?
  • In the letter, Madison says, "the President will be from a Southern State." On what assumption did he base this statement? Was Madison correct in this assumption?
  • Madison continues on to describe, in cipher, two possible candidates for vice-president, John Hancock and John Adams. The transcription of the letter decodes these descriptions. How did Madison assess the qualifications of these two men? Why do you think he put these descriptions in code?

After the bitter ratification debate, some prominent individuals still wished to call a new convention. According to Anti-Federalists, the failure to secure a declaration of rights was one of the basic flaws in the Constitution. To combat further opposition to the Constitution and to fulfill a pledge made during several state ratification conventions, Madison proposed a bill of rights in a speech in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. Read Madison's notes for his speech introducing the bill of rights, in which he listed his recommended additions to the Constitution and reasons why they should be adopted.