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James Madison’s 265th Commemorative Birthday

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Mary Bilder, author of "Madison's Hand Revising the Constitutional Convention," speaks at a panel discussion on Madison in honor of his 265th birthday, March 16, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.
Mary Bilder, author of “Madison’s Hand Revising the Constitutional Convention,” speaks at a panel discussion on Madison in honor of his 265th birthday, March 16, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

On Wednesday, March 16, the Law Library and the Library’s Manuscript Division commemorated James Madison’s 265th birthday with a panel discussion by distinguished attorneys and Madison biographers Mary Sarah Bilder and David O. Stewart, and a birthday cake celebration that featured musical performances by Stephen Winick and Jennifer Cutting of the American Folklife Center. The events were held in the James Madison Memorial Building, which serves as the official national memorial to the fourth president of the United States.

Madison is most commonly remembered as the “father” of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. The speakers substantiated Madison’s role in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, but through their compelling research presented a more comprehensive and complex view of the Founding Father’s personal and political life.

Roberta I. Shaffer, law librarian of Congress, opened the program by discussing Madison as a bibliophile, noting his large collection of books and his instrumental role in establishing a legislative library. Jim Hutson, chief of the Manuscript Division, then discussed the Madison Papers (Madison’s notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention), citing them as one of the Library’s great treasures. Hutson also described the Library’s circuitous acquisition of the Papers, noting that they are now digitized for public use.

Mary Sarah Bilder, law professor and Michael and Helen Lee Distinguished Scholar at Boston College of Law and author of Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, focused her remarks on what she described as four aspects of Madison: “Madison as note taker [at the Constitutional Convention], politician, drafter and reviser.” Bilder said that forensic techniques she conducted on Madison’s notes led her to conclude that “Madison revised his notes as his understanding of the Convention, Constitution and his own role at the Convention changed.” Even though Madison was not the official secretary of the Constitutional Convention, his notes are highly regarded because they “depict the convention as a political drama with compelling characters, lengthy discourses on political theories, crushing disappointments and seemingly miraculous successes,” according to Bilder. The notes cover every day of the Convention from May 14 through September 17, 1787.

The problem, Bilder explained, is that Madison did not write his account as a court reporter or stenographer, but rather as a legislative diary likely intended for his own and Thomas Jefferson’s use. (Jefferson was in Paris during the Convention.) For that reason, his note-taking was very selective, she said, and scholars tend to agree that they “only capture 10 percent of what was likely said at the Convention.” Madison also revised his notes in later years to better position himself politically or reflect what he wished he had said at the Convention.

For example, she noted that Madison was on record at the Convention as a vehement supporter of a strong national government that would have suppressed state rights by giving veto power over state laws and that he voted in support of Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to allow the president to serve on “good behavior”—that is serve a life term appointment. Madison also supported a bicameral congress that would have been two houses—one representing free men and the other representing free and enslaved African-Americans, without giving any voting rights to enslaved African-Americans. This proposal according to Bilder would have favored Virginia as the state with the largest enslaved population at the time. Furthermore, Bilder noted that Madison “freed no one at his death” and continued to revise his notes until the end of his life. On the other hand, she cited Madison as an indispensable member of the constitutional drafting committees, who loved to write and often made thoughtful contextual changes.

David Stewart, author of Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, described Madison as a man with “good political judgement who had the foresight and a gift of working with other people.” He described Madison as a short, skinny man with a small voice and thinning hair who could easily become lost among other charismatic figures of the day like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Despite Madison’s small stature, he had a grand political resume, Stewart said, which included note taker and delegate at the Constitutional Convention; fighter for constitutional ratification through the Federalist Papers; leading member of the first Congress; author of George Washington’s inaugural address and the Bill of Rights; Jefferson’s secretary of state; co-founder of the first American political party; and wartime president during the War of 1812.  Stewart said his historical research persuaded him that most of Madison’s greatest achievements were the result of great partnerships, most notably his partnerships with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and First Lady Dolley Madison.

Although Hamilton was flashier and more boisterous than Madison, Stewart argued that they found their commonality in both being highly intelligent and committed to “making America a great nation in the world,” their greatest collaboration being their work on the Federalist Papers according to Stewart.

Stewart described George Washington as the “indispensable man” of the early republic and that Madison became the “indispensable man to the indispensable man”—passing the legislation Washington wanted, writing the speeches he needed and serving as the liaison between Washington and Congress particularly through speech and legislative writing.

Thomas Jefferson and Madison were “soul mates,” according to Stewart. “They were both the sons of rich Virginia fathers and their forty year friendship covered every subject,” he said. Stewart also argued that their greatest achievement was founding the Democratic-Republican Party.

According to Stewart, Madison’s partnership with James Monroe was the most relaxed partnership that he examined, despite the fact that Monroe ran for president against Madison. Monroe agreed to serve as Madison’s secretary of state and helped him defeat the British in the War of 1812.

Lastly, Stewart discussed Madison’s relationship with First Lady Dolly Madison, who Stewart characterized as “so much fun,” often wearing white turbans with either fruit or a feather tucked inside. Stewart argued that Dolly really served more as a political partner to Madison because, unlike her husband, she knew how to be charming and gregarious with White House guests. Stewart also shared Dolley’s historical achievement in saving the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington during the War of 1812 from British troops.

Stewart remarked in closing that it is important to remember that while Madison had many achievements, he was also a slaveholder for 85 years, a fact that troubled Madison according to his own memoranda. “He realized his own hypocrisy of championing liberty as a slaveholder,” Stewart said. On the other hand, Stewart argued that Madison’s personal and political partnerships reveal a man of “genuineness, integrity, modesty and openheartedness.”

Update: Event video added below.

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