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For Constitution Day: Madison’s Notes of a Convention Conducted in Secrecy

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in the summer of 1787 to deliberate on a new plan of government to supplant the ineffective Articles of Confederation, the first point on which they agreed was that their deliberations remain strictly private. The matters they were to discuss were highly controversial. There would be little possibility of reaching an agreement–a mutually acceptable compromise–if delegates had to argue under the scrutinizing lens of public report and comment. They would not be able to listen to each other’s arguments, giving differing opinions due consideration, if they had to constantly justify every word they spoke and every vote they took to constituents at home.

So it is fortunate that in this atmosphere of strict secrecy James Madison set out from the beginning to keep a record of each day’s proceedings. Largely because of Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, we know today what issues the delegates discussed, what concerns they raised, and through what process they reached the joint agreement that became our Constitution. Madison respected the rule of secrecy during his life, not allowing the publication of his notes before his death. (For more on this and numerous other aspects of the Convention, See Professor Gordon Lloyd’s interactive website.)

This excerpt from Madison’s Notes, part of our collection on 50 Core Documents, includes summaries of major points made in the critical debate on representation in the legislative branch: whether the members of Congress would be elected directly by the people or rather elected as delegates to Congress by the state legislatures. It reveals interesting insights into the positions taken on this question by such key delegates to the convention as Elbridge Gerry (MA), Roger Sherman (CT), James Wilson (PA), George Mason (VA), and Madison (VA) himself. At the bottom of the excerpt from the Notes, you can find a drop-down list of documents related to this debate.

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