It’s been called the “foundational” story of the United States. In the spring and summer of 1787, delegates gathered in Philadelphia and labored from May through September, arguing, wheeling, dealing and ultimately hammering out a constitution for the United States. The “Federal Convention,” as it was called then, teetered on the brink of collapse several times as the delegates battled over each clause, over the shape of the presidency, over representation in the Congress and over the relative powers of the states vs. the national government, and the small states vs. the large.
It’s a dramatic story. It’s been told and retold, interpreted and reinterpreted for more than two centuries by scholars and judges alike, based largely on a single work: a tome of some 600 pages in modern book form, called “Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 as Reported by James Madison” or more simply “Madison’s Notes,” a day by day summary of who said what about each proposition put forth by the delegates and how the votes came out on each as the document slowly evolved. The work was published after Madison’s death in 1836, when no other delegates were still living.
Their value stems in part from the fact that the no outsiders were allowed in the Philadelphia State House chamber where the delegates met and the delegates sworn to secrecy. While fragmentary notes from other delegates preceded Madison’s, none came close to telling a full story, until publication of the notes.