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The Constitution Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means - James Madison and the Fallacy of Intent in Constitutional Interpretation

Friday, March 15, 2019 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM
Boston Bar Association - 16 Beacon Street, Boston, MA


James Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention have acquired nearly unquestioned authority as the description of the U.S. Constitution’s creation. No document provides a more complete record of the deliberations in Philadelphia or depicts the Convention’s charismatic figures, crushing disappointments, and miraculous triumphs with such narrative force. But how reliable is this account?

Professor Mary Bilder, will discuss some of the topics covered in her book, Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, which reveals that Madison revised the Notes to a far greater extent than previously recognized.  While the Notes may have begun as a diary of the Convention’s proceedings, Madison left the Notes incomplete, and did not return to finish them until several years later, when Madison’s views had changed and had become influenced by the new government’s challenges and Jefferson’s political ideas.  As such, Madison’s Notes no longer represented a contemporaneous, objective account of the Convention’s activities, but instead became, in many cases, Madison’s later subjective interpretation of what he thought had been meant by various textual changes during the Convention.  Professor Bilder’s revelation demonstrates the fallacy of relying on Madison’s Notes as evidence of the Framer’s “intent” when it comes to the Constitution. 

Professor Bilder teaches in the areas of property, trusts and estates, and American legal and constitutional history at Boston College Law School.  Her book, Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, was awarded the 2016 Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy, the James C. Bradford Prize for Biography from the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, and was named a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.

Registration Categories:
BBA Member – Free. Included as part of your membership.
Non-Member - $100.00


Sponsoring Section/Committee(s):




Carolyn Barrett


BBA Event Calendar