James Madison’s Notes are the most authoritative record available of what transpired at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Madison sat up front, took voluminous notes, and worked late into the night filling in the details.
The Library of Congress has just put 626 high-quality color images of Madison’s Notes online. You can download them, but there’s no search function for the text at the Library of Congress site. Yale Law School has the full text of the Notes by date, but the easiest way to search the text I’ve found is at Montpelier.org.
In looking at all this for tonight’s webinar, I was surprised to find yet another attack on America’s founding. People have been taking potshots at Madison’s Notes ever since they were published in 1840, four years after his death. A 2015 book, Madison’s Hand, by Boston College law professor Mary Sarah Bilder is the latest attempt to discredit the Notes. Madison revised the Notes throughout his life, but Bilder claims that Madison deliberately took things out, and invented speeches that had never been given, in order to score points in political fights he was having in the 1790s.
Her claims have been criticized, but they amount to another attempt to put the “Father of the Constitution” and the other Framers under a cloud of hyper-partisanship and self-interest. This is a variation on the Progressive theme that the Framers were venal and the Constitution is entirely the product of self-interest. For example, Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States that the Framers were from the monied classes and rigged the game in favor of themselves as moneylenders, land speculators, and slave owners [pp. 90-91]. There were no higher principles at stake in the writing of the Constitution, Progressives maintain, just naked economic self-interest.
If that were true, and there was nothing noble about it, how has our Constitution endured for 230 years? If Ben Franklin having been a womanizer and several of the Framers having been slave owners disqualified all their ideas, how could the Constitution have survived the Civil War and other severe tests in our history? If the Framers didn’t have their finger on the pulse of human nature and a firm grasp on correct principles of human governance, how could our Constitution become the longest lasting written Constitution still in use today?
The Framers found the answer to the central question of political science of all time: how do you prevent the concentration of power in too few hands. You put too much power in too few hands and bad things happen. King George shuts down your legislatures and starts taxation without representation. Too much power in too few hands and pretty soon 100 million people are dead, as has happened under socialism. This is why there are such things in the Constitution as separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism – to limit government and divide up power so things don’t get out of hand. Limited government never killed 100 million people.
The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are classical liberal documents. Classical liberalism doesn’t promise perfection, but does represent the most coherent, sustainable, and humane political philosophy ever devised. It elevates the individual, embraces every person in the protection of individual rights, and condemns no one to a life of drudgery serving the state.
Let’s contrast that briefly with collectivism, which Howard Zinn and other Progressive critics of the Constitution espouse. Coherent – every time I turn around, I find another contradiction in collectivist thought. Marxism extolled the virtues of the proletariat, but Lenin, Gramsci, and Mao didn’t think working people were up to the job of revolution and dreamed up ways to get around them. Sustainable – our Constitution has stood the test of time, unlike the seven constitutions in four years adopted in the failed New Harmony commune in the 19th century in Indiana. Deluded Leftists thought they had seen the future in the Soviet Union, but it went kaput after just 75 years. Humane – collectivism can hardly be considered humane, unless you think deliberately starving tens of millions of people to death in the Holodomor, the Great Leap Forward, and other socialist engineered famines is humane.
Thank your lucky stars you live in America where we have limited government under the Constitution. And, as I’ve repeated many times on these webinars, resist all attempts to denigrate the Founders’ ideals and tear down our founding documents. The Constitution is what stands between you and tyranny, the fate that has befallen most of humanity over time. That’s a self-interest we should all be able to get behind.