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Lynn Uzzell on Madison's Notes
Michael Ramsey

At Liberty Law Blog, Lynn Uzzell (University of Virginia/University of Richmond, American politics & political theory):  Madison’s Notes: At Last, a New and Improved Look.  From the introduction: 

The Library of Congress last week released new digital scans of James Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention, and they are exquisite. Researchers now have an invaluable resource for discovering the true worth of Madison’s Notes, which he revised throughout his life, and which were not published until 1840, four years after his death. Famously, he wanted them to be made public only after those who framed the Constitution had died. Sensing that his semi-official record of the deliberations in Philadelphia in 1787 would be a political football, he hoped that the passage of time might diminish this effect.

Of course, even so, the Notes were controversial as soon as they entered the public realm. Alexander Hamilton’s son tried to discredit them, starting in 1840. He has had many successors, but Madison’s Hand, the 2015 book by Boston College law professor Mary Sarah Bilder, has been the most systematic and the most successful attempt thus far to cast suspicion on the Notes. According to Bilder’s book, the Notes Madison kept during the proceedings were not originally intended as an objective record but were a subjective diary. Bilder also alleged that he frequently omitted material that he wished to keep hidden—sometimes replacing whole sheets merely to redact material—and that he invented speeches that had never been spoken. Supposedly it was all done (as Gordon Lloyd outlined in his review of this book for Law and Liberty) in service of the Madisonian and Jeffersonian struggle against the Federalists during the 1790s.

And from further along:

To originalists of every variety I would say: there are several reasons you should care about the repeated attempts to discredit Madison’s Notes.

One is that the natural foe of originalism, however construed, is judicial fiat, and its historiographic counterpart can be found in these efforts to deny the reliability of the Notes. The proper role of historians, like the proper role of judges, is to exercise judgment, not will. The many attempts to debunk the Notes have relied not on Madison’s actual writings but on creative conjectures, speculations, and innuendo. They have been rife with factual errors, distortions, and serious omissions of fact. ...

(Plus four other reasons).  In conclusion:

For too long, Madison’s detractors have faced little accountability. Until now there was no easy way to check their claims. Researchers have found it exceedingly difficult to gain access to the papers labeled a “Top Treasure” by the Library of Congress, and prior reproductions of these pages have been of poor-to-middling quality. When I wrote to my congressman, Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, to describe this sad state of affairs, his office responded to my suggestion that a new set of high-resolution scans was long overdue. They persuaded the Library of Congress to prioritize the Notes within its existing digitization project, and the result is last week’s release of these high-resolution, color images.

With these sharper images, scholars can confidently assert that Madison’s Notes are far more trustworthy and unbiased than the spate of scholarship that has repeatedly sought to discredit them. However, given the bias against the Notes shown by various historians, and the indifference shown by various originalists, the question remains: Will there be sufficient numbers of scholars, writers, and historians who care about uncovering the truth?

An interesting counterpoint to efforts, within and outside originalism, to deemphasize or discredit Madison's notes.  Only one quibble -- the essay states: "The late Justice Antonin Scalia famously avoided any reference to the Convention debates when drafting his opinions."  As I've documented in my recent article on Scalia's originalism, that's not entirely true.  Scalia did sometimes (but not often) rely on the debates, without fully explaining his view of their relevance.

(Thanks to Mark Pulliam for the pointer).