JMC fellow Paul Rahe counters Mary Sarah Bilder’s book thesis that Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention are irredeemably subjective and self-interested. Rahe shows that there is ample historical evidence suggesting otherwise. Mary Sarah Bilder’s book is Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention.
Missing the Point
By Paul A. Rahe
From the Claremont Review of Books
The American revolution was a world-historical event, widely recognized as such at the time in Europe as well as North America. In consequence, the process of constitution-making in the American states gave rise to a great deal of discussion in England and on the European continent; and it was in response to this that John Adams penned his three-volume Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in the late 1780s. It should, then, be no surprise that the news that a convention was to be held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to frame a new constitution for the American confederation stirred even greater interest.
Though stationed abroad as ministers, Thomas Jefferson in Paris and Adams in London faced frequent inquiries. Ill-informed initially concerning the Federal Convention, they were no less attentive to unfolding developments than were their compatriots back home. When Jefferson learned the delegates’ names, he rejoiced, describing the gathering as “an assembly of demigods.” When Adams reflected on the Convention’s achievement a few months after its conclusion, he was in high spirits. “The conception of such an idea,” he wrote, “and the deliberate union of so great and various a people in such a plan, is, without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.”
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Paul A. Rahe is a Professor of History and the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. His books are The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy (Yale University Press, 2016), Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect (Yale University Press, 2009), Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic (Yale University Press, 2009), and many others. Professor Rahe was a Visiting Fellow at Bowling Green State University’s Social Philosophy and Policy Center in 2009. He received his PhD in history from Yale University.
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