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Collection James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859

James Madison and the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787

An essay documenting Madison as intellectual leader and keeper of the memory of the gathering that created the United States Constitution in the summer of 1787.

Managing History

John C. Payne's Copy of James Madison's Original Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In the 1820s and 1830s James Madison struggled to draft a "Preamble" and "Sketch never finished nor applied" for a preface to his planned publication of his "Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787," the convention that had drafted the U.S. Constitution. Now that document's fiftieth anniversary was approaching as fast as Madison's life was slipping away.

As far back as the 1790s, Madison had planned to publish his journal of notes from the convention and had begun to "correct" it accordingly. Later he even had his wife's brother, John C. Payne, recopy his journal and incorporate many of his emendations and corrections into the text. Yet Madison continually postponed the publication of his journal out of fear that his political enemies would use it against him and that its incompleteness and errors would distort a strict-constructionist approach to the Constitution. To thwart such misrepresentation, he spent time throughout several decades improving his journal until there were many emendations, deletions, interlineations, and insertions in the text.

As the fiftieth anniversary approached, some people had begun to call Madison the Father of the Constitution. However, he feared that the publication of his journal would lead his enemies to mock him and that he would be drawn into controversy, just as his friend Thomas Jefferson had become immersed in a debate over the true authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

Nevertheless, Madison reflected back on the road to the Constitution during dull winter days at Montpelier. His work on George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the first step towards independence and the Constitution. He still had his amended copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 8, 1776) in his papers. He could see his major contribution, the replacing of the phrase "all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion" with "all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it." It was a triumph that foreshadowed his "Memorial and Remonstrance" (1785) and later the Bill of Rights (1789).

Madison recalled his long hours of work on the Virginia Constitution in 1776 and his longer service as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress (1780-83 and 1787-88). In light of his later career, the years in the Continental Congress seemed a brief yet vital part of his life. Not only had he helped steer the nation to victory in the American Revolution, but his "Notes of Debates in the Continental Congress" served as one of the best sources of information for the activities of Congress during the years leading to military victory and the frustrations leading to plans for a new federal Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.

Engendering a National Government

[Detail] James Madison, June 8, 1776. "A Plan of Government." Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Like all successful political endeavors, the new federal Constitution—written just four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution—has many "fathers" and many origins. None is more important than the economic/political unrest following the war and a band of ultra-nationalists led by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and George Washington.

Without going into the well-known peregrinations of the nationalists as they led the way to a federal Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, it is nonetheless important to note that the partnership between Washington and Madison was the key that unlocked the door to the convention hall. As Madison wrote to Washington on April 16,1787, having "formed in my mind some outlines of a new system, I take the liberty of submitting them without apology, to your eye."

[Detail] Vices of the Political System of the U. States, April 1787. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The outline for a new government that Madison entrusted to Washington originated in a paper he had just completed, "Vices of the Political System of the US [sic]." When the Virginia delegates arrived in Philadelphia in early May 1787 with Washington at their head, they immediately sat down and prepared a document based on Madison's outline that became known as the "Virginia Plan of Government." Madison's plan, which favored the large states and gave enormous power to a new federal government, became the nationalists' opening line of debate.

After four months of debate and compromise, recorded in great detail in Madison's "Notes of Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787," the Constitution of 1787 emerged. Yet even on the verge of triumph in the convention, Madison feared failure. Writing on September 6, 1787, to his friend Jefferson, then minister to France, Madison worried that the "plan should it be adopted will neither effectually anser its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts agst the state governments." But polished with a preamble written by Gouverneur Morris and the Committee of Style, the new constitution was presented and approved by 39 of the 42 delegates then in attendance.

Writing The Federalist and the Bill of Rights

Madison was a stalwart in defense of the new plan. Joining with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write a series of essays that could help turn public opinion toward ratification, Madison was a prime author of what became known as The Federalist—an oft-reprinted series of newspaper and then pamphlet articles. No one has absolutely identified the individual author of each of the 85 essays. Hamilton wrote more than 50 essays and Madison fewer than 20. Yet his acknowledged authorship of "Federalist Number 10," arguing that private rights and public good would be best protected in a single large republic rather than a mélange of small republics, cemented Madison's reputation as a nationalist and a political genius.

The federal Constitution was eventually approved by the states and went into effect in 1789. The absence of a Bill of Rights was the loudest and most effective criticism of it. Although he believed that individual rights were fully protected by the Constitution as it stood, Madison recognized that drafting a Bill of Rights was politically imperative. His "Notes for a Speech in Congress," June 8, 1789, highlights the arguments he used as a leader in the First Federal Congress to push 12 amendments to the Constitution through Congress in its first year. Ten of these amendments were ratified by the states and have been enshrined as the Bill of Rights.

Yes, Madison could be satisfied with his role in the founding of the federal government. But he could never bring himself to release his notes of debates in the Constitutional Convention for publication before his death.