Sunday, July 31, 2016

historical detective story

I have long studied the Constitution and the convention in Philadelphia that developed it. There are important lessons about the U.S. government and political processes in the stories of 1787. I've just finished Mary Sarah Bilder's fascinating and revealing study of those events, based on an investigation of the papers James Madison wrote during and after the convention.

Bilder conducted a close reading of the various manuscripts and studied even the various watermarks on the pages. The watermarks, for example, when compared to those on other Madison letters, allowed her to date the pages with great accuracy.

What she discovered and was able to deduce or infer forces us to revise some of the conventional thinking about Madison and the Constitution.

-- Madison's contemporaneous Notes ended on July 18, 1787. His pages n the last month of the Convention were written several months later.
-- New pages documenting several of his early speeches were substituted much later, probably in 1796.
-- Madison was in the forefront of southerners working to insure that the Constitution protected slavery, but he later revised or added notes to soften his position.
-- He refused repeated requests by Thomas Jefferson to publish his Notes because he knew that they would not confirm interpretations Jefferson and he had both adopted by 1797. They were published only after his death in 1836.

None of this diminishes Madison's central and valuable role in framing the Constitution and helping to win ratification. But it shows that people can change their minds and in so doing may also want to change their memories.

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