A recurring theme in this semester’s Theory and Method’s course has been the reliability and accuracy of the archive. If the professionalization of history was premised on scientific, organized, rational methods of historical inquiry grounded in the purity of sources, impure sources serve to destabilize the foundation of the profession. This has certainly been the argument of contemporary postmodernists. As a budding historian passionately interested in American constitutional and legal history, the Washington Post article described below serves to underscore the notion that primary sources are inherently biased, rendering the archive and scholarship tied to it subject for debate.
Boston College Law School’s Legal Historian Mary Sarah Bilder in her new book Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention argues that James Madison extensively revised his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 as Reported by James Madison that so many historians of the Founding era rely on as the only complete primary source on the Constitutional Convention of 1787. However, Bilder calls some of Madison’s “notes” into question in her new book, namely asserting that Madison’s post-Convention political career and image as a Jeffersonian small government Democratic-Republican was threatened by some of his Federalist opinions espoused during the Convention.
According to Bilder, Madison replaced at least five pages of his Notes with revisions, including a statement denouncing the slave trade that he had never made, the explanation of his vote in favor of a president serving a life term “during good behavior” as a tactical ploy instead of his true beliefs, and a revision of his vote in favor of a national veto over state laws. Revision of these opinions, especially the latter two, were politically motivated, as they were inconsistent with Madison and Jefferson’s Republican platform that touted states’ rights as its primary function.
As a constitutional and legal historian who has read and used Madison’s Notes, Bilder’s findings have certainly made the warning of historians like Edward Said and others regarding the impure nature of the archive more tangible and personal. Evidently, even the Father of the Constitution was vulnerable to the idea that founding documents could indeed be “living.”