James Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 has never been a bestseller. Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, randomly flips open his own copy of a published edition to page 129 and starts reading aloud to illustrate why.
“Mr. Randolph's plan,” Madison wrote, “as reported from the Committee June 13 being before the house, the 1. propos: ‘that a Natl. Govt. ought to be established consisting &c.’ being taken up.”
For one, this stuff doesn’t translate out loud very well. The book continues like this for some 600 pages, recounting in Madison’s shorthand and dated English the most minute details of the convention held in Philadelphia that year, a gathering that ultimately produced a much better-known document: the U.S. Constitution. Wittes argues, though, that these notes — a kind of Congressional Record of their time — may be the most important text in American history that no one ever reads.
“There is a large story here about how the Constitution was written and the compromises that went into it and the substance of what was proposed by different factions in different states and different communities of what was really quite a far-flung country,” Wittes said. “This is actually how we know that story.”
For nearly 200 years, there has been a broad disconnect between the insight contained in Madison’s notes — which is deeply relevant even to the health-care case the Supreme Court will begin hearing next week — and just about anyone’s ability to access it. Historians dip into the Notes. But even they rarely slog through it cover-to-cover.
The Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia has been trying for years to figure out how to unlock the document. Now, in a partnership with Brookings, they’ve put it online to test a kind of scholarly Wikipedia for American history. And if their idea works, it could reframe how researchers tap and study dated documents — and how the rest of us understand even more modern ones.
Wittes and Sean O’Brien, Montpelier’s executive director, wanted to create an interactive model for layers of commentary on the original notes that could reveal and add to their value. Who, for instance, was that guy Mr. Randolf? Perhaps a margin note from a scholar of the era could explain this for the rest of us. There is no existing document in American constitutional tradition that does exactly this: that layers living analysis on top of an old but vital document to keep it relevant for modern ears. But such a thing exists in Jewish tradition.
The Talmud does exactly this (and a quick Google image of it is probably the best way to illustrate that). That text contains, in short, what’s considered to be the law of God as generations of rabbis have debated it, literally on the page.
Wittes jokes that the solution they settled on comes out of a “hybrid of the insights of third-century rabbis and modern crowdsourcing software.”
Of course, it doesn’t take that long to crowdsource things in the Internet age. Brookings and Montpelier place Madison’s original text at the center of the new Web platform they’re calling ConText. To either side of it are panels for commentators to add information, paragraph by paragraph, about both the basic factual background elided by Madison’s shorthand and the political theory and modern relevance that flow from the founders’ debates.
“It’s not the Declaration of Independence,” Wittes says, citing a document that’s regularly read in whole by middle-school kids all across the country. “It doesn’t’ have a preamble like the Constitution. It’s sort of the users manual to the Constitution. You’re not going to make it sing. But can you make it at least speak?”
As the Supreme Court begins to finely parse the founders’ intent behind the Commerce Clause in the coming health-care case, much of the answer lies in Madison’s notes (and you can now search directly for those passages). Similarly, Wittes hopes law scholars will add commentary about the Supreme Court case directly alongside them.
All of this means it may have taken two centuries’ of technological advancement and the advent of the Internet to fully interpret a historical record scratched out by hand in the 18th century.
“James Madison was clearly interested in making this document available for posterity,” O’Brien said. “And the fact that this may be the first time that it ever really is available to the general public in an approachable way — and that the home of James Madison, Montpelier, has been able to help make that come to pass — is a wonderful thing. It makes us feel like hopefully we’re fulfilling James Madison’s legacy.”
The founders who met in Philadelphia in 1787 were sworn to deliberate in secrecy (a historical note entirely inconsistent with today’s notions of “open government”). Nothing was to be revealed about the process behind crafting the Constitution until after all of the men behind it were dead. And, as it turned out, Madison was the primary organizer behind the convention, its best note-taker — and its last living participant.
He spent the last years of his life — after penning the much better-known Federalist Papers and serving as president — retired at Montpelier revising these notes for publication.
Today, Wittes hopes they’ll be accessed anew by historians of the era, constitutional law experts, students and political theorists.
“All that said, I don’t know,” Wittes admitted. “It could be that a group of people most excited about it are fifth-grade civics classes, which would delight me.” As of Thursday — closing out the site’s first full week of availability — 61 people had signed up to contribute.
O’Brien hopes that the site will become not just a central repository for existing understanding about the Notes, but also a platform for discovering insights about them that were never known before.
“That is my dream!” O’Brien said. “I really hope that that’s true that someone who’s been studying this as their hobby finally has a way to get their information out and to share it with not only the greater world, but with academics, and we discover a new way of looking at a document.”
This is not entirely farfetched at a time when studying the Constitution as a personal hobby seems on the rise. What else could we learn by similarly crowdsourcing Madison’s other papers, or Thomas Jefferson’s decades-long correspondence with John Adams, or even 21st-century unclassified documents intelligence officers would like to decipher?