Debates in the
Federal Convention of 1787
James Madison is usually credited with being the principal author of the
U.S. Constitution at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but,
while he was an active participant in the debates and in the drafting of the
document, he also managed to take the most complete set of notes on the debates
in that convention, capturing the essence, if not the exact words, of the
participants, and giving us a definitive insight into the intent of the Framers.
His were not the only notes taken, and several of the other participants
wrote of their recollections of the Convention, including the official recording
secretary, William Jackson, but none are nearly as complete, nor do they differ
from Madison's Notes, as they are often called, in any significant details.
Jackson's notes are mere recordings of the resolutions and votes on them, with
little on the content of the debates.
Madison's Notes were not published until about 1840, perhaps to fulfill an
early decision by the original convention forbidding disclosure of the
proceedings, to which Madison may have felt himself bound while the other
participants lived, and it was after all the rest of them had died that he did
finally publish them. The original manuscript is in somewhat rough form,
evidently the original state in which he wrote it in haste during or shortly
after the Convention itself. One must suppose he intended an editor to clean it
up and expand on his many abbreviations, but scholars have rather chosen to
present editions that reflect that original rough state, with misspellings,
inconsistent abbreviations and numberings preserved for our edification. That
can cause some pause for people when they first try to read it, until they
figure out the abbreviations, but it is worth the effort, for one gains an
important sense of the energy, the intensity, and sometimes the frustrations of
the delegates to that historic meeting as the hammered out a truly innovative
experiment in self-government.
To the best of my knowledge this is the first online edition of the Notes. I
have had the benefit of both an "official" 1900 edition and later
editions with the footnotes of editors. I have also included Madison's Preface
to the Notes, which provides additional insight into the Convention and its role
For persons interested in resolving issues of constitutional intent and
interpretation, this is an essential reference. It makes clear what some of the
terms mean that are used in the Constitution, words that are not commonly heard
today, or whose meanings have changed.
Any errors in this edition are my responsibility, and I ask that anyone
finding such errors communicate them to me for correction.