HIST 116: The American Revolution

Lecture 22

 - The Road to the Constitutional Convention


In this lecture, Professor Freeman discusses how the new nation moved towards creating a stronger, more centralized national government than the Articles of Confederation. Complications of commerce between individual states - a factor that wasn’t regulated by the Articles - led to a series of interstate gatherings, like the Mount Vernon Conference of March 1785. Some strong nationalists saw these meetings as an ideal opportunity to push towards revising the Articles of Confederation. Professor Freeman ends with a discussion of James Madison’s preparations for the Federal Convention, and the importance of his notes in understanding the process by which delegates drafted a new Constitution.

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The American Revolution

HIST 116 - Lecture 22 - The Road to the Constitutional Convention

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Road to the Constitutional Convention [00:00:00]

Professor Joanne Freeman: Coming in to the home stretch. We’re moving towards the Constitution; it’s kind of amazing, kind of weird. And so, as a matter of fact, that’s what we’re going to be doing with today’s lecture, which is going to get us on the road to the Federal Convention. Now just a quick review before we plunge down the road. On Thursday, as I hope you all remember, I talked about some of the problems of the Articles of Confederation and I talked about things that caused confusion or complications like boundaries between states; I talked about Vermont; I talked about the state of Franklin; I talked about Shays’ Rebellion, toward the end of the lecture.

And throughout that lecture, from time to time, I talked about some people who were strong advocates for a stronger central government for the Confederation — and I mentioned a few names in passing. I think I mentioned James Madison, and I mentioned Alexander Hamilton, and I mentioned George Washington. Obviously, there are others. Those are just three big-name contenders. There are others. Though at first, we’re not talking about a massive group of people here. We’re talking about a select group of people who really believe that there has to be a stronger national government.

Now these men saw a host of problems with the Articles of Confederation. I mentioned some of them on Thursday. One of them you’ll actually see a couple of times in the course of today’s lecture. So these nationalists — they saw problems with things like currency, congressional indecision, the fact that Congress was powerless to enforce things, obviously boundary complications between states, and a host of other problems that, at least to them, signaled the really obvious need for some kind of wide-ranging national political reform that would put more power at the center. And for years and years and years these people kept calling for some kind of a national convention to reform the government.

Now, as I mentioned just a minute ago when I said sort of a select group, it’s important to note that this drive for a stronger national government was not initially widespread, and as a matter of fact, there were any number of reasons for people really to fear the idea of strengthening the national government. And you’re going to get a sense of some of these reasons next week when you look at some of the Federalist essays, because part of what the Federalist essays are doing is explaining and promoting the new Constitution, or hopefully, what will be the new Constitution. But the other thing that the Federalist essays are doing is they’re actually trying to calm people’s fears down. Like: ‘okay, you think that if you approve of this new Constitution, horrible things will happen, but here’s yet another way in which horrible things won’t happen.’ So you’ll see that kind of as a running subtheme in the Federalist essays too, when you read them next week.

And, as I suggested in the lecture, I think on Thursday’s lecture, obviously after you’d fought a Revolution against what you perceived to be as a tyrannical centralized power — right? — the British monarchy — it would make perfect sense in general to be a little worried about centralized power. Plus, many people assumed that America was just bound to drift back into what it had been before. And this fear goes actually even into the 1790s. People assumed that because people in America were so used to one way of things, it was kind of a nifty little experiment they were undertaking now, but as a matter of fact, over time, when push came to shove, everything would sort of drift back to where it had been. So the assumption is: waiting out there in the wings somewhere there is an aristocracy that’s going to leap up and take over as soon as they have an opportunity and then suddenly — poof — we’ll have an aristocracy and maybe a monarchy and everything will go back to the way it was before. So it makes sense that people were nervous about centralized power, and it makes sense that the states would be nervous too about centralized power, because they’d be nervous about giving up power to whatever this stronger centralized government was going to be.

So what today’s lecture is going to do is look at how things evolved over the course of just a few years, so that by 1787, which is where we’re going to be on Thursday, there actually was a call for a national convention to reform or amend the government, and then ultimately, the new nation really did end up strengthening the national government significantly, which is all in all pretty remarkable. When you think about some of what I’ve just been talking about, it is pretty remarkable that there was that much change over — in the end — what isn’t that huge an expanse of time.

And, as you’ll see, part of what’s important to think about — and I’ll mention it a couple times in the course of today’s lecture — is the way in which America found its way into strengthening the government because, as you’re going to see, there’s a series of individual events or individual meetings. None of them really focused on centralizing, strengthening, the central national government, although over time each one of these decisions, as you’re going to see today, pushed things in that direction.

So in a sense what you’re going to see in today’s lecture particularly, is how the new nation backed its way into a stronger central government, one decision at a time. They didn’t leap into a new stronger government. They backed their way in, aided of course by some really strong nationalists in the background trying to push things in that direction like Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and the other crew of really firm nationalists. So basically that’s kind of the subtheme, or one of them at least, of today’s lecture. It’s how the new nation backed its way in to a new stronger central government, one decision at a time.

Chapter 2. Complications of Interstate Commerce and the Mount Vernon Conference [00:06:07]

And in a sense, it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the main issues that pushed this series of events into operation was commence, the question of commerce. With thirteen different states, each with its own arrangement of commerce, there were bound to be complications. And obviously, commerce is a big deal. Right? Commerce matters. Commerce is prosperity. Commerce is livelihoods. Commerce is going to make or break individual states and make or break the new nation. If you think back to the Revolution, and think back to some of the things that people were upset about, again, you’re going to realize commerce is underlying a lot of what we’re talking about here. Right? Rights are intermingled with these thoughts about commerce — but we talked about taxation, direct taxes, imports, exports, shipping. All of these kinds of things and more were among the many central components that were also helping to fuel the Revolution. So it shouldn’t be a really big surprise that they continued to play a major role in the development of the new nation.

And so what we’re going to see in today’s lecture is that the strong nationalists pushing for a stronger national government would find that problems of commerce sometimes opened little doors of opportunity for political reform in ways that might not have been expected. Okay. So that’s what I want to do. I want to sort of show the little process of reform, or, the process of change over time and action.

And one major moment of opportunity that I’m going to start by talking about here for these nationalists took place in 1785 because of a local complication between Virginia and Maryland about navigating the Potomac River. Okay. So this is — It’s local and it also has to do with shipping, again more commerce. So in response to this question, both Virginia and Maryland named commissioners to meet in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss the issue and work out some kind of a policy. So it doesn’t seem necessarily like a really big deal. There were a total of seven men named to be at this meeting. There were three from Maryland. There were four from Virginia, including James Madison.

Unfortunately, Virginia Governor Patrick Henry somehow or other managed to fumble something, so he basically didn’t tell the four Virginia delegates when the meeting was happening and where the meeting was happening. It’s one of those administrative mistakes that you don’t realize when you make it, it will be remembered forever. [laughs] Sorry, Governor Henry, but you goofed. So the Virginia delegation is never told about where or when the meeting is. The Maryland delegates arrive in Alexandria and find nobody waiting for them. It’s like: ‘we’re here.’ And ultimately, two Virginia delegates, the ones who lived closest to Alexandria, managed to make their way there as soon as they found out they were supposed to be there. Madison was not one of the people who ended up being there. So now you have five people, three from Maryland, two from Virginia, meeting in Alexandria and now they begin talking about the problem and maybe entering into some kind of negotiation.

Now meanwhile, George Washington knew about this conference. And given that Mount Vernon is not that far away — just down the road from the town of Alexandria — he invited the commissioners out to Mount Vernon to meet there. Now Washington wasn’t just being hospitable. He actually had a really keen interest in having a canal built on the Potomac, partly to promote its use and hopefully thus to make Alexandria an important link to the West and thus a big center of shipping in the United States. So Washington’s thinking about promoting the importance of Alexandria through doing something with the Potomac. And he had been interested in this idea of building a canal for a while. And he had met with engineers, and he had served in various committees, and this was really something that he felt very strongly about — enough so that apparently during a certain period of time, anyone who went to visit him at Mount Vernon ended up just getting talked to about canals. Right? You just knew in that phase of Washington’s life, if you visit him at Mount Vernon, you’re going to hear about canals. So, as one visitor to Mount Vernon put it at the time, “Hearing little else for two days … I confess completely infected me with canal mania.” Okay. So Washington is suffering from canal mania too.

So he invites these commissioners to meet at his home at Mount Vernon, knowing that there he can wine and dine them and hopefully encourage some kind of compromise, and maybe even promote the development of the Potomac. The meeting at Mount Vernon was ultimately known as, logically enough, the Mount Vernon Conference. Surprise, surprise. This should be an easy one to remember, the Mount Vernon Conference. It took place on March 25, 1785, and continued for three days. Mount Vernon Conference, March 25, 1785.

In the end, the Mount Vernon Conference not only settled some matters of navigation, but it also dealt with things like customs duties between the two states, trade regulations between the two states, and made recommendations about somehow or other coordinating one state’s currency with the other state’s currency. And the delegates also recommended that they meet annually to keep channels of cooperation and communication open. There’s the key to the Mount Vernon Conference: let’s meet annually to talk about this.

So although it wasn’t intended to set any kind of a precedent, that conference ends up being a step in the direction of some kind of regular interstate cooperation apart from the Confederation Congress. It’s not just a local conference about the Potomac and two states. Now it’s proposing some kind of long-term something in which two states get together and sort of figure out how to cooperate amongst themselves.

And a little side note that actually won’t really play a role in today’s lecture but it’ll sort of echo something in Thursday’s lecture: In a sense, the Mount Vernon Conference ended up kind of violating Virginia’s instructions to its commissioners, because the Virginia assembly, in appointing the commissioners, had said, ‘Okay. So for you to approve of something, three out of the four of you have to approve of it — right? — but only two guys actually showed up. So even though the two guys were there and voted and things happened, three out of four of them didn’t vote on anything. Right? So officially, formally speaking, they weren’t abiding by the mandate that they had gotten from their home state, and I only mention this now because this will echo with some of things that happen in conjunction with the Federal Convention, the Constitutional Convention, on Thursday too.

Chapter 3. Nationalist Hopes to the Revise the Articles of Confederation [00:13:11]

Okay. So let’s pause here for a minute just to note how these people backed their way into this agreement, because the Mount Vernon Conference didn’t consist of five really ardent nationalists just trying to find a sneaky way to do something that’ll push people towards being more organized in a centralized way. The conference wasn’t branded as anything other than a meeting for commissioners from Maryland and Virginia to discuss navigation. That led into a conversation about interstate trade. That led into a decision to maybe meet regularly and talk about this more broadly. So in a sense, what begins this chain of events — a somewhat significant interstate agreement — is kind of unintentional. It’s something really practical that gets it going.

We’ve seen this a lot in this course — right? — something very practical that moves people to take action, and then there are really interesting outcomes from that response to something, some really practical need. And as we’ll see, given all of the fears about centralized power, in some ways it’s this kind of informal, indirect way of proceeding that’s maybe the best way for people to move towards centralizing or to move towards giving a central government more power. We’re going to see that again and again today.

Okay. So it’s informal, it’s indirect in a sense, but the Mount Vernon Conference did have the support of some eager nationalists. So certainly James Madison was in favor of it, even though he didn’t make it — but he was in favor of it. He should have been there, and of course George Washington is the host — so yet another strong nationalist who is clearly in favor of it. Both men certainly would have done their best to usher the agreement through the Virginia legislature. It also passed the Maryland legislature as well.

Even more significant, Maryland proposed bringing Delaware in, the next time they met — inviting them to attend the next year’s meeting — and the commissioners themselves when they were at Mount Vernon, they thought maybe they should invite Pennsylvania too. Okay. So now we potentially have four states maybe agreeing to meet every year to talk about interstate trade matters.

Now James Madison, who’s thinking nationally, hoped that the Virginia legislature would agree to submit this agreement to the Confederation Congress, and then maybe all of the states would agree to meet in this way every year. And of course that idea did not happen; it failed. Instead, the Virginia legislature proposed a resolution that called on the other states to appoint delegates, and to deliberately sit back and consider, quote, “the trade of the United States” as a group, and to propose some kind of an act regarding the issue that could be sent to the Confederation Congress for passage. So clearly, amidst fears about centralized power at the time, this is a pretty significant suggestion on the part of the Virginia legislature.

And it’s worth noting that even the mere suggestion of something like this had to be helped along in its passage by some really careful strategy. So although Madison really clearly wanted this proposal to go through the legislature, Madison is not the guy who proposed it, because if Madison, Mr. Nationalist, stood up and said, ‘Hey, I really think that we should all meet, all of the states together, and consider the trade of the United States,’ everyone would have said, ‘Oh, it’s Mr. Nationalist speaking. I’m sorry. We don’t trust you.’ So instead another man — actually John Tyler, who is the father of a future President Tyler — is not particularly known for his nationalist sentiments, so his motives wouldn’t be held suspect, and he’s the guy who actually makes this proposal. So even just to recommend something along these lines, people are being very strategic.

So ultimately there is a decision to hold a meeting about American trade, a meeting that supposedly is going to include all of the states. It’s agreed to by the Virginia legislature and it’s scheduled to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, the next year, September 1786. Okay. So that’s been going on in the South. We have Virginia, we have Maryland, maybe Delaware and Pennsylvania. But it’s not as though none of this sort of activity or none of these fears have been happening in the North, and they had been, also involving trade.

So at roughly the same time that all of this is going on in the South, the Massachusetts legislature ended up proposing their own resolution to think more broadly about the national government, again, spurred by trade complications. Basically, Northerners, and in particular merchants in Boston, found themselves affected by British trade restrictions in some ways that they really didn’t like, and they wanted the Confederation Congress to do something about it, and they also realized the Confederation Congress probably didn’t have enough power to do anything about it. So the Massachusetts legislature, thinking along these lines, proposed something more broadly. So instead of just saying, ‘Well, let’s get together and talk about trade,’ the Massachusetts state government asked the Massachusetts delegates in the Confederation Congress to suggest calling a general convention of all of the states to revise the Articles of Confederation as a whole. Okay. That’s a big suggestion.

So the Massachusetts legislature basically asks its delegates in the Confederation Congress, ‘Hey, would you — here’s a proposal for us to call some kind of meeting for all of the states just to revise the Articles. Would you present it to the Confederation Congress?’ And the response of the three Massachusetts delegates in the Confederation Congress is really interesting, because it shows you why it seemingly took things happening outside of official channels, like the Mount Vernon Conference, for there to be broad interstate changes. Because basically, in short, the Massachusetts delegates responded by just refusing to submit the whole proposal to the Confederation Congress.

And their written response is really interesting. I’m going to quote just a couple sentences from it here — and this is what the delegates in the Confederation Congress responded to the people back in Massachusetts:

“Many are of opinion, the States have not yet had experience sufficient to determine the extent of powers vested in Congress by the Confederation; & therefore that every measure at this time, proposing an alteration is premature … [T]he present Confederation with all its inconveniences is preferable to the risque of general dissentions & animosities, which may approach to Anarchy & prepare the way to a ruinous system of Government.”

And what specifically did these guys think when they said “general dissentions and animosities”? Well, in part they meant the following, again their words:

“We are apprehensive & it is our duty, to declare it, that such a measure” — reforming the Articles — “would produce thro’out the Union, an exertion of the friends of an Aristocracy to Send members who would promote a change of Government: & we can form some judgment of the plan, which Such members would report to Congress.”

Okay. So essentially the Massachusetts delegates to the Confederation Congress say: ‘No, we’re not even going to consider this idea of revising the Articles because it’s going to result in what they call “baleful aristocracies.” Right? This is dangerous. It’s opening things up so that it’s going to get more centralized. Scary aristocratic types are going to take over. Bad things will happen. “Poof” — spirit of the Revolution all gone.

So here in 1785, we have Maryland, we have Virginia, we have Pennsylvania, we have Delaware trying to do something centralizing about trade, and Massachusetts also suggesting some pretty bold reform because of problems with trade. What was still pending at this time was the meeting that had been scheduled to meet in Annapolis in September of 1786.

Now, Madison for one was not overly optimistic about whatever was going to happen at Annapolis, because he basically assumed — and he probably was smart to assume it — as soon as you ask all of the states to agree to meet and decide anything, it’s not going to work, right? You’re just bound to fail. And indeed, he gets to Annapolis and things just don’t look too good. As he wrote to his brother: “I came to this place a day or two ago, where I found two commissioners only. A few more have since come in, but the prospect of a sufficient no. to make the meeting respectable is not flattering.”

And sure enough, ultimately only five states sent delegates who arrived in time for the meeting. Even Maryland, the host state, did not send delegates to the Annapolis Convention — okay; that’s a real snub — out of fear that it transcended the power of the Confederation Congress. So the host state wasn’t represented at the Annapolis — Maryland — convention. Three other states besides Maryland also chose not to send delegates: South Carolina, Georgia, and Connecticut — yay, Connecticut — all decided they would not send delegates. And then delegates from some of the states that were at the outer edges of the Union — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, North Carolina — they arrived too late to take part. [laughs] All these people having these sort of weird administrative bad moments. Sorry, guys, you didn’t take place in the historic convention in Annapolis because you left home late or whatever it is they did; they didn’t plan well. So all of those states are not represented at the Annapolis Convention.

But so, they had all this fanfare. All these nationalists were like: ‘wow, we really need to meet about this.’ They finally get a meeting. It’s scheduled for Annapolis, and now it seems like nobody’s going to attend. So as one Delaware delegate wrote to a friend: Should half of the states fail to participate, quote, “How ridiculous will all this parade appear?” So they’re getting ready in Annapolis to be mortified. That after all their efforts: big deal, nobody cares.

Chapter 4. Madison’s Historical Analyses of Republics and the Results of the Annapolis Convention [00:23:29]

Now, before we see what actually transpired in the Annapolis Convention, I want to have a little brief James Madison moment. This is kind of a James Madison lecture. He’s going to shine. But I want to have a little moment for him here, because, as you’re going to see throughout the rest of this lecture and also on Thursday, he does a number of really interesting things and ultimately some really important things in 1786 and 1787, all of them in one way or another bound up with strengthening the government.

And I brought a very sophisticated visual aid. Okay. So [laughter] this is James Madison. I bring this James Madison because a graduate student gave this to me years ago, and what really amuses me about this — I don’t know if you can tell. This is a GI Joe body with a Madison head stuck on top [laughter] and you can’t see really, because of the lace covering his hands. He has the kung fu grip thing going, [laughter] like he wants to be holding a gun. So this is buff James Madison. [laughter] This is a macho Madison. It is the weirdest-looking thing with this little, tiny scholarly head sort of stuck on top. [laughter] This is my high-tech visual aid. Here. We’ll stick Madison over here. He actually has a little — Oh. Look, he’s missing a shoe — his little stand — [laughter] this little Madison stand. Poor guy. There’s no respect. He’s not even getting respect now in the class during his moment. He’s shoeless. [laughter] Okay. So we’re giving Madison some love.

Okay. I do want to look at what Madison was doing in the month before the Annapolis Convention because it’s actually really interesting. He does this twice. He does this for two different summers. He’s think — obviously thinking to himself: okay, I don’t know what’s coming down the road but there might be actual reform happening; this is very exciting. So I’d better prepare myself for the possibility of government reform. So in this summer of 1786, he basically does a little research project, and he decides he’s going to study confederacies of all time. Right? He’s going to look at ancient times. He’s going to look at modern times. He’s going to look at every confederacy that ever existed, and then list in some way their virtues and their vices. So in essence, Madison is going to look over all time and then come up with these rules of confederacies, right? — what works, what doesn’t, and then hopefully once he figures that out somehow or other maybe it’ll help him in making suggestions to create or improve the present one.

Now this is real — This is age of reason thinking, this idea that if you can figure out the patterns of the past, you can figure out the laws of nature and the way that things are supposed to work. And there’s a great example. When I was in grad school, I guess, I read a book that at the time I thought was really fascinating, which I guess means I’m destined to be a professor of early American history, because I am the only one who finds it fascinating. But — and I thought it was really fascinating. It’s actually by Adam Smith. It’s called A Theory of Moral Sentiments, and what amazed me about it was, it’s Adam Smith coming up with a sort of theory for patterns of human emotion and morality. So that’s, again, “Age of Reason” thinking. Adam Smith is like: ‘okay, I’m going to come up with a theory of moral sentiments and then present it to you as to how morality works in human nature.’ What I found really interesting about it was just, if you’re trying to figure out the mindset of people in the eighteenth — late eighteenth century, that book is helpful. It may not present the all-time tried and true theory, but it is really interesting. It says all kinds of sort of quirky, interesting things in there that — even if some people felt that way, that’s really interesting, really — because another time period is really a different mindset. So the Smith book is kind of in the same spirit as Madison’s efforts to study all confederacies and then come up with these amazing patterns.

So he’s reading through book after book after book. He’s keeping record — keeping little notes about various confederations and what he likes and what he doesn’t like and what worked and what didn’t work — really, really trying to figure out some kind of pattern that’s going to help the United States. And supposedly he recorded his notes in a little notebook that was about forty pages long, that maybe he intended to have with him during debate; maybe he intended to have it with him as a sort of writing reference. I love just the whole system and operation of this. Right? I will figure it all out and then I will carry it in my pocket, my knowledge about all confederacies over time, well, let me look in — Yeah. So this is very Madison, very typical Madison. And actually, little bits of that end up appearing in the Federalist essays, so if he was thinking it was going to be a help in his writing, he was right; he actually does draw on it.

And so he looks at all these confederacies, and so it’s not a big surprise. What does Madison discover? Well, basically everywhere he looks he finds jealousies and animosities between member states of whatever confederacy we’re talking about. He sees domestic turmoil. He sees international humiliation. He sees basically weak unions or problem unions. That’s the lesson he draws from his little survey.

So this is on his mind. Right? He does this little studying project, and then he heads out to Annapolis to join the Convention in September of 1786. Only five states were represented: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia. I’ll repeat that for you: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia. A total of twelve delegates, so we’re not talking about massive numbers of people here. And logically enough you get the twelve guys there from the five states, and the first thing they do is, they compare what their home states told them to do. Okay. ‘Why did your state send you here? Why did your state send you here? Is there actually anything that we have in common?’

What they discovered was that four of the five states had instructions from their home states confining their attention to just matters of trade. Right? Okay. Go to Annapolis and talk about trade, period. But we’re going to have a New Jersey moment. Is there — Are there New Jersey people — Oh, we’ve got New Jersey people. Yes. Okay. This is a New Jersey — a shining New Jersey moment. So four of the five just said, ‘Just consider trade.’ New Jersey — New Jersey has three magical words in their instructions from home. And the New Jersey instructions say: yeah, go ahead, consider trade and, quote, “other important matters.” [laughs] Okay. That’s the only opening they needed. It’s like: ‘oh, other important matters.’ [laughs] In that case we can think more broadly than trade, right? So New Jersey has the little, tiny key that lets these people meeting at Annapolis at least think about moving beyond just talking about trade.

They talk for three days about whether they should really proceed along any line because of the magical three words in the New Jersey instructions. They finally decide that yes, they will take advantage of that little opening to talk about other important matters. So they prepared an address to their own states and to all the other states that had decided not to come, or that hadn’t made it on time, that are rushing somewhere from North Carolina — and the address was prepared by Alexander Hamilton, obviously yet another one of these strong nationalists. He’s trying, I think as early as 1780: we need a stronger government.

So Hamilton’s address asked the states to name delegates to meet in Philadelphia the following year to, quote, “take into consideration the situation of the United States; to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” Okay. So basically, we need to meet and just think more broadly about the government, is what Hamilton’s proposal says.

Now again, look at how almost accidental what we’re looking at here is, right? — this significant proposal to alter the Articles. With only a handful of men present at Annapolis, this suggestion almost is more a matter of desperation like: ‘well we have to come out of this with something; thanks to New Jersey we can do something, so here, let’s make a proposal and send it out and see what happens.’ And this bold move is grounded on three words in the New Jersey instructions. Again, it’s all of these sort of out-of-formal-channels, informal ways in which people are promoting some kind of more centralizing agenda.

So once the move is taken, they send this out — the address is sent out. Nationalists like Hamilton and Madison and others throughout the states take full advantage of it and really push, so that something will come of this; there’ll be some kind of an attempt to actually strengthen the national government. In eight states nationalists managed to get their state legislatures to pass resolutions suggesting precisely the kind of broad agenda for a conference that the Annapolis people wanted.

So eight states are like: ‘yeah, okay, we could get behind a conference to reconsider the government.’ Which brings us to Shays’ Rebellion momentarily, because in a really handy stroke of timing, Shays’ Rebellion happens right in the middle of what we’re talking about right now. Right? So they’re like: ‘well, let’s push to try and make the government stronger. Oh, Shays’ Rebellion.’ Right? So the nationalists are like: ‘we hate this but, yes.’ [laughs] It’s like: ‘this is really bad but wow, this is a handy PR tool’ — because now they can point to Shays’ Rebellion and say, ‘Look. We’re collapsing into chaos. Wow. Do we need a stronger national government.’ So the timing of it, if you’re a guy who really wants a stronger national government in this period, was a good stroke of fortune.

So again, as we’re looking at ultimately what’s going to become the Constitutional Convention or the Federal Convention, you can see here some of the problems of having a central government with such diffuse powers, because even now, someone says, ‘Well, let’s strengthen the government’ — and then Congress takes a long time to think about the possibility of strengthening the government, surprise, surprise. So a committee is appointed to consider this idea in October of 1786, and in February of 1787 the committee finally issues a report. And the report says: well, revising the Articles maybe, right? None of this, let’s review everything. Revising the Articles, okay, maybe we can go along with that and the states should name delegates to attend the conference to just improve the Articles, not to just evaluate the needs of the Union.

So four states ultimately follow that formula. Right? They say, ‘Okay, only revise.’ Other states follow the Annapolis formula and say, ‘Oh, okay. Let’s actually reconsider the government.’ So the meeting at Philadelphia — what ends up being the Constitutional Convention — starts out with a confused, contradictory mandate, because there’s no general agreement about number one, what the meeting is really supposed to accomplish and number two, how it’s even supposed to be planned.

So eight states get the call from Annapolis and respond. The other states are — A number of the other states wait until the Confederation Congress says something and then they respond to the Confederation Congress instead. So ironically, in a meeting that’s supposed to repair shortcomings of the Confederation Congress, that meeting itself is being complicated by shortcomings of the Confederation Congress. You can see how it’s very hard to do anything in a really national manner with all of the states.

So obviously the nationalists are really hoping things are going to follow the Annapolis formula, as Washington put it, revising the — not just revising the Articles, but probing “the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and provid[ing] radical cures.” So that’s what the nationalists want. As we’re going to see on Thursday, strong nationalists were really active in the month before the Convention, planning and preparing to push forward their agenda.

And here we have James Madison, shoeless [laughs] James Madison — where did his shoe go? — shoeless James Madison moment number two. Well, see, I guess that he makes professors happy, because he liked studying, all by himself, like: I’ll do a summer study project, which — He’s a scholarly founder. Scholars like James Madison. So scholarly project number two: He decides that now — just like before he was looking for virtues and vices of confederacies over time — now he’s going to look at vices in the American confederacy, and he actually titles this document “Vices of the Political System of the U. States,” or the United States. So he again comes up with a list of vices, problems in the American system, and he lists things like states trespassing on each other’s rights; like a lack of unity between states even when unity is desperately required; like the fact that states can encroach on federal authority without any repercussions; states violate treaties and again — well, who’s going to do anything about it? So he’s making a list of all these vices and some of them, again, ultimately end up being talked about in the essays that he contributes to the Federalist.

So Madison basically has this long-term study project in preparation for what comes to be known as the Constitutional Convention. As we’ll talk about on Thursday, he also arrives — in addition to all of his studying — with a draft plan of government, so in case he hasn’t done enough: now I will arrive with the draft plan of government. And we will talk more about what his plan suggests for an entirely new Constitution on Thursday.

Chapter 5. Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention [00:37:27]

In the last bit of the course of today’s class, I want to mention one other thing I think just because I don’t think I’m going to have time to talk about it on Thursday, but I don’t want to go without mentioning it, because it’s yet another one of the sort of weird, interesting things that Madison does associated with the Constitutional Convention and it’ll have more meaning after Thursday’s lecture but I’ll mention it now. And some of you may already know this, because you may have used this in papers or things for classes, but Madison took notes and he didn’t just take notes; he really took notes. He noted almost all of the proceedings of the Convention. Of all of the delegates, he ended up taking the most careful, the most consistent, not quite minute by minute, not quite comprehensive, but really thorough notes of what went on at that Convention, of what people said, of how they argued, about what they argued about, about what was done. His notes are really amazing. They’re published. They’re easy to find. They’re even on the Internet.

The Library of Congress has — I think they’re called Farrand’s Notes of Debate or something but they’re — you can see Madison’s notes; you can read Madison’s notes. He actually invented some kind of a little shorthand, so during the day with his little shorthand he was copying down everything that people said, and then at night he was transposing that back into real writing. And again, this was like his project of the Constitutional Convention. And his notes — They’re published and they’re easy to find, but the fact is his actual notes are at the Library of Congress.

And, a million years ago — I’m not going to say how many years ago — many years ago, I worked at the Library of Congress, and I worked on exhibits at the Library of Congress, museum exhibits, curating them. And the Library of Congress is an amazing place to do that because, how much fun is it to be able to pick stuff from the Library of Congress to put in exhibits? They have everything. They have amazing stuff. They have the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets on the night he died. They have drafts of the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of — and it’s just amazing, amazing stuff. I remember one exhibit I worked on, on the Bicentennial of Congress. We had a little room where we were stacking stuff for the exhibit, and it was like well, it’s space instruments from the first voyage into space and a draft of the Gettysburg Address, and here is — it was like aah, [laughter] like waves of history emanating out of the room.

So they have Madison’s notes there and the Library, and — I don’t know if the same thing exists now — but I know that a million years ago, when I worked at the library, they had the top treasures — I think it was the top twelve treasures of the Library of Congress, and they kept them in a vault. And it was like, the Gutenberg Bible, Madison’s notes, Jefferson’s draft of the declaration. What else? George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, just like: aah, sort of objects in this vault in the Library of Congress. And supposedly, when these items come out of the vault, they are supposed to be accompanied by an armed guard. Okay, which I thought was a rule, but like, ‘ha, ha, sure, armed guard, okay, high security’ — but lo and behold, when I wanted to get some of George Mason’s notes to put in the exhibit, there was a guy with a gun walking next to me. [laughter] It was like: George Mason, we’re protecting George Mason from — I don’t know who is going to come running down the halls of the Library of Congress — but anyway they really meant it with the armed guard.

But so, for that same exhibit, I got to look through Madison’s notes. I got to pick a page from Madison’s notes to put in the exhibit. And it’s just amazing to see them because — okay, they’re the notes from the moment, so there’s the guy basically recording how the Constitution’s being created. And Madison — [laughs] I was about to say something which this doesn’t illustrate. He’s actually a little guy. [laughs/laughter] He’s not GI Joe. He’s a small man, a quiet man, sort of bookish kind of a guy, so he has this little, tiny, bookish, perfect, meticulous handwriting. His handwriting was just like you think James Madison’s handwriting ought to be. You look at it and you’re like, ‘that must be James Madison.’ And so, there is this box of these little slips of paper with his little, meticulous Madison notes of what he saw at the Federal Convention. For some magical reason — I think it was long enough ago that nobody will get fired by my saying this — there was no guard. [laughs] They just left me with the box, so I was sort of like: aah, Madison’s notes, this is so exciting — like, yeah, I think it’ll take me an hour to find a page, so that I could leaf through and see everything. It’s kind of an amazing artifact.

And the fact of the matter is, Madison was doing that for a very specific reason. Madison — This whole generation tends to think about posterity. I’ll talk about that a little bit in the last lecture as well, but they’re very posterity minded so part of the reason why Madison goes through all of this trouble to record what’s going on at the Convention — although I think he actually doesn’t record jokes. I think some other people’s notes — now that I’m thinking about it — some other people’s notes suggest that Madison did not think constitution-making was funny. [laughter] There will be no jokes in Madison’s notes. They’re pretty sad jokes. Eighteenth-century jokes often are not like: ha, ha — and it’s like [laughter] okay. [laughs] It’s kind of sad. There is a book called something like George Washington Laughing, but it’s George Washington laughing at other people’s jokes because [laughter] I guess he didn’t tell them.

Anyway, so I think Madison expunged the humor out of the whole situation, but he’s thinking about posterity — not necessarily by taking out the jokes — but he’s really thinking about the fact that somewhere down the road, if this actually works, if this Constitution actually survives and actually functions, it’s going to be this amazing thing. It’s going to be a room of people that deliberated and thought about government and then created it based on deliberating in a really purposeful way, which almost never happens when you’re creating a government, and then they created what Madison hoped would be a fair, just, small “r” republican government.

So he’s thinking: well, if I take all of these notes, and I record this whole process down, it’s almost like a little guidebook to future countries that might want to make republican governments — like: here’s how we did it. And that was the idea behind what he was doing — was, he really did want to preserve the process, and that’s pretty much what he did with his notes. So those of you who are interested, again they’re kind of easy to find; they’re all over the place. F-a-r-r-a-n-d, Max Farrand, I think is the most famous version of them, but they’re very easy to find. I think I will end there; I will not move on to talk about Madison’s plan. I will talk about the plan and the Constitution on Thursday. Those of you have not yet handed in papers should be handing in papers — and I will see you on Thursday.

[end of transcript]

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