Mary Bilder is Professor of American Legal and Constitutional History at Boston College Law School. This interview is based on her new book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Madison’s Hand?
MB: I wrote an article about James Madison’s law notes and how they revealed his mind. I was curious about what we could learn about Madison from his famous notes of the Convention. After reading the late-nineteenth century transcript of the Notes, I began to realize that there were many mysteries surrounding Madison’s Notes. Historians had used Madison’s Notes as an almost objective source to tell the history of the Convention, but very few people had explored the actual manuscript.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Madison’s Hand?
MB: The Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787, but were revised by Madison as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. Over fifty years, Madison transformed the Notes from an incomplete political diary, taken in part for Thomas Jefferson, to a seemingly impartial and objective account of the writing of the Constitution.
JF: Why do we need to read Madison’s Hand?
MB: Many people have used the Notes as if they were a contemporaneous and objective report of the writing of the Constitution. They were not. Even in the summer of 1787, Madison wrote the Notes with hindsight and focused on his political commitments and disappointments. He understood his subsequent revisions as repeated efforts to create a record—his record—of what he saw as significant in the Convention. Yet each revision—small and large—increased the distance from the summer of 1787.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MB: In my last year of law school, Professor Bernard Bailyn taught a course on the History of the US Constitution. A friend told me to take it. I was astounded that I had spent 3 years in law school studying the Constitution but no one had ever talked about how and why it was written. I was fortunate to clerk for a federal judge who loved history and encouraged me to go to graduate school. Because I was an English major in college, I have been particularly interested in the history of the book and cultural and material history.
JF: What is your next project?
MB: I believe that all historians have an obligation to contribute to making available new documentary sources. This book, for example, could not have been written without the work of many people who created documentary editions of Madison’s materials. In the late nineteenth century, for example, a small team of State Department employees created a remarkable transcript of Madison’s Notes showing the revisions. I could not have written my book without their effort. My contribution, however, is in an area unrelated to Madison’s Hand. Several colleagues and I are working to complete a digital catalogue of all the cases and printed briefs appealed to the Privy Council from the American colonies, the Caribbean, and Canada before 1783. Historians have not been able to write about the law of the British empire or early American colonial constitutional law because these sources were never printed or made available. I hope that these sources will help other historians create new arguments and insights about slavery, women’s property rights, commercial law, and a myriad of other issues addressed in these cases.
JF: Thanks, Mary!