Wednesday, November 11, 2015

James Madison as an Unreliable Narrator

Heather K. Gerken

I just attended a terrific mini-symposium on Mary Bilder’s new book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, sponsored by the Clough Center at Boston College (video here). Any symposium with David Strauss and Sai Prakash is a good one in my book, and Professor Bilder’s book is as lucid and engaging as she is.  The book meticulously documents the extraordinary large number and striking number of important changes Madison made to his notes on the Constitutional Convention over the course of his life.

While the book is understated and even-handed, it is sure to kick up controversy. That’s because it raises an important question: What do we make of the fact that Madison is an unreliable narrator? What do we make of the fact that the notes on which so many have relied were altered in self-interested ways? That Madison papers over controversy and shows what Professor Bilder calls a “discomfiting willingness” to conceal his responsibility for mistakes? That his story apparently changed not only due to his own effort to paint his place in history, but due to Jefferson’s pernicious influence?

I suspect that many will be shocked by Madison’s conduct, and these revelations certainly ought to spawn a spirited methodological discussion among originalists. Those who dislike originalism will also be tempted to pounce. The “read the mind of the Framers” variant of originalism is now passé, but still. If the views of one person are this hard to untangle, how do we gauge the views of a nation? Moreover, the book makes clear there is a gap between original public meaning and the true intent of the Framers, as things were passed for reasons that we might not guess from the text.

On the panel, we were divided as to what to make of Bilder’s important book. Professor Prakash was quite critical of Madison, whereas Professor Strauss and I were more forgiving. No matter what your view, however, the book is excellent and well worth a read.

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