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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Identifying Causes of Historical Events

The Federal Convention, known today as the Constitutional Convention, was a critical event in U.S. history, but its outcome was far from inevitable. Madison's actions prior to the convention were among the factors that shaped the outcome.

Read Madison's letter to Caleb Wallace, August 23, 1785, detailing a proposal for the structure of a new government with substantially more powers than granted under the Articles of Confederation. In a March 1786 letter to James Monroe, Madison writes of the need to correct the "vices of the Confederation".

Read Madison's letter to George Washington dated April 16, 1787. This letter was in response to Washington's correspondence of March 31, in which Washington expresses satisfaction that a convention would be called to amend the Articles of Confederation; he went on to say that he believed it was hopeless simply to offer amendments. (See this letter in the George Washington Papers.)

  • What do these letters, written more than a year before the Federal Convention, reveal about Madison's determination to replace the Articles of Confederation?
  • What does the correspondence between Washington and Madison reveal about their concern for the success of the forthcoming convention?
  • Why did Washington believe it was wise not to have advocates of the convention reveal their desire to radically alter the Articles of Confederation?
  • Find additional evidence in the collection of Madison's beliefs regarding the appropriate work for the Federal Convention and his preparation for the convention. How important do you think Madison's role was in shaping the outcome of the convention?