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a line of handwriting, about 5 words, crossed out; the same line of text crossed out with a red background, green handwriting, and a black cross out wherein you can begin to see the green letters coming through the black
Crossed out text reading “have an indirection by the” in the processed image (bottom). Credit: Chris Bolser

Renewed Meaning: Exploring Madison’s Constitution Debate Notes

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The following is a post written by Christopher Bolser, Preservation Technician, Preservation Research and Testing Division.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 produced one of the most important documents in the history of the United States, at a time when the nation was barely born. This living document has served as the foundation of our nation for 234 years and has managed to withstand the test of time in an ever-changing society. Thanks to our fourth president, we can see how the founding fathers meticulously constructed the United States Constitution. James Madison’s notes contain a number of alterations that vary in length from a single word, to several sentences, and even entire paragraphs. Oftentimes these changes were rearticulated in a more specific manner for one reason or another. Curiosity encourages us to peek behind these redactions and reveal the erasures, so that we can have insight into Madison’s thought process when these notes were being written.

A page full of tidy cursive writing with cross-outs and corrections written in the margins
Full spectrum color image of folio 90b displaying redactions throughout the page. Credit: Meghan Wilson

Working together with the Manuscripts Division and Conservation Division, the Preservation Research and Testing Division was fortunate enough to capture the entirety of James Madison’s original notes using multispectral imaging (MSI). MSI is an imaging technique that captures multiple shots of each individual page of the collection under two angled LED panels that emit 13 individual captures. These wavelengths begin with the ultraviolet, and span through the visible spectrum, and end in the near infrared to provide a high-resolution full spectrum color image without risking damage to the collection item.

The resulting image stack, or image cube, allows for researchers and staff to observe the unique responses of the various properties of the inks and paper to each of the emitted lights. Some responses can be observed instantaneously in the near IR bands, while the majority require advanced image processing techniques, including principle component analysis and false color rendering to be seen. These techniques were utilized in order to enhance obscured script in Madison’s Notes with the majority of the regions of interest being able to be unveiled at various stages of processing.

In Madison’s papers, the most common strikethroughs are those replaced with words or sentences between the lines. An upwards facing arrow to indicate where the edit is to be inserted often accompanies these edits, often preceding the redaction. Other exposed cross outs show that the decision to change the notes were probably instantaneous. These redactions are usually followed by a reiteration that would be congruent with the statement made before the expulsion but would probably be incoherent if the redaction remained in the full statement.

Not every redaction is a major change. In several cases, the alteration is a result of an apparent writing error such as a misspelling or an improper title. There are even some cases where the obscured text appears to be the same as the corrected edits with only subtle differences that are difficult to highlight.

Occasionally there were parts of Madison’s notes that were removed without any replacements. Some instances were of a single word that was heavily struck through, even though the redacted word would have made sense grammatically if it had remained a part of the notes. However, these alterations could share similar a reasoning with the instantaneous changes or writing errors.

While revealing the redactions won’t change the Constitution itself, resurrecting Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention provides unique insight into the arguments and concerns he and the rest of the founding fathers shared throughout the convention. The meticulous effort displayed throughout his edits, highlights the importance that Madison placed on the word choice; it also inspired our curiosity to uncover his alterations and muse about these revisions. We will never experience what it was like during the Constitutional Convention but are fortunate enough to gain a contemporary view through Madison’s perspective from the notes he left behind.

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