James Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention, May 25, 1787
James Madison was thirty-six years old when the convention that wrote the United States Constitution met from May 25 to September 17, 1787, at the statehouse in Philadelphia (later renamed Independence Hall). The convention was called for May 14, but it was not until May 25 that an adequate number of representatives had arrived to make a quorum of seven states. On that day the delegates unanimously elected George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, president of the convention. They elected a secretary and named a committee to create the rules for the convention.
Washington was fifty-five years old. He delayed making the decision to attend for several months after receiving his appointment. Washington had retired to his estate, Mount Vernon, after resigning his commission as commander in chief in December 1783. He had promised never to serve in public office again. Personal obligations at home and uncertainty about the effectiveness of this convention fueled his indecision about returning to public service, but his ultimate choice to attend lent the convention legitimacy. During the proceedings he almost never participated in the debates, but it was known that he supported a strong central government.
Madison had reached Philadelphia on May 5, 1787. He had long recognized the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, and he had devoted himself to studying historic confederations, government structures, and political theory. He believed from the outset that simply amending the Articles would not be sufficient, and he looked forward to creating a new system of central government. Madison outlined the problems and achievements of regimes throughout history, and he developed his proposal for the new United States Constitution in the Virginia Plan.
A leader of the convention from its outset, Madison also took detailed notes of the convention's proceedings. Although not the convention's official secretary (William Jackson was chosen for that post), Madison selected a seat in front of the presiding member and took notes, which he painstakingly transcribed in the evenings and days off during the convention. He also obtained copies of other delegates' speeches, which he inserted in the appropriate places. From the outset it was decided that the convention was to be closed to the public, and its proceedings kept secret while it met. After it adjourned, secretary Jackson destroyed all of his working papers, leaving only the official proceedings, a record of resolutions and votes. Other delegates made notes as well, but Madison's notes remain the most-thorough account of the debates and day-to-day deliberations of the convention.
Madison kept his notes after the convention and seems to have intended from the beginning to publish them. Over the course of his life he worked on the notes, adding a draft introduction and making numerous insertions and deletions, many made from other accounts of the proceedings. He held the notes however, waiting for the deaths of all the convention members (even his own) before permitting the publication of the notes. They were first published in 1840 by Henry D. Gilpin in The Papers of James Madison.
1. How did George Washington react to being chosen as president of the convention?
2. Why wasn't Benjamin Franklin present on May 25?
3. How many people were nominated to be secretary? Who won the election?
1. Why was George Washington a good choice for president of the Constitutional Convention? Do you think he was nominated purely because of his abilities as an arbiter?
2. How can informal documents such as this one be even more informative than formal printed documents such as the official proceedings of the convention?
3. Why was secrecy important to the proceedings of the convention?
Madison bequeathed his papers to his wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison, and they passed to her on his death in 1836. In 1837 the Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention was in a batch of papers that the United States State Department purchased from her. In 1856, William Cabell Rives borrowed the papers, taking them to his home in Albemarle County, Virginia, in order to write a biography of James Madison, The History of the Life and Times of James Madison (3 vols.). He returned some of the papers, including the Notes, to the State Department in 1866. In 1903 by an executive order from President Theodore Roosevelt, the State Department turned over the papers of many of the founding fathers, including James Madison, to the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
The Papers of James Madison. Vol. 10. Edited by Robert A. Rutland and others. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911.
Jensen, Merrill, ed. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976– .