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James Madison: Still the Best Commentator

September 20, 1987|DAVID LAUTER | Lauter is a writer in The Times' Washington bureau

The 200th anniversary of the drafting of the Constitution has stirred publishers of American history to bring forth a flood of new books, reprints of old books and collections of essays to commemorate and explain the events of Philadelphia.

The harvest includes narrative accounts of the Constitutional Convention's debates, biographies of the major actors, sober analyses of late 18th-Century American politics and fascinating glimpses of daily life in the age of George Washington.

Traditionally, accounts of the writing of the Constitution have fallen into two categories: glorifications and debunkings. Two of the best examples, one in each category--Catherine Drinker Bowen's "Miracle at Philadelphia" and Charles Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution"--are now available again, in paperback.

The title of Bowen's book--borrowed from a term first used by Washington in a letter to his Revolutionary War aide, the Marquis de Lafayette--fully describes her attitude toward the events of 1787. "No doubt I shall be charged with an outmoded romanticism," she wrote in the 1966 preface to her book: "It is true . . . in the Constitutional Convention the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory; as Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove." Those looking for indiscreet gossip or shadowy motivations must look elsewhere.

For all that, Bowen's book provides an accurate, detailed and highly readable day-by-day account of exactly what was said, who said it and how the delegates voted from the convention's beginning to its end.

For the bicentennial year, it has been reissued in paperback with a brief foreword by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.

Beard had a gloomier view. The Constitutional Convention, he argued in his highly influential 1913 book, was an anti-democratic conspiracy dominated by wealthy men. For example, he contended, many had speculated in government bonds and expected a strong central government to increase the value of their investments.

This specific charge has been discredited by historical research: The largest single holder of government debt at the convention, for example, was Massachusetts' Elbridge Gerry, who opposed the new Constitution, while many of those who supported it fared worse financially under the new government. Later in his career, Beard abandoned his controversial thesis.

Nonetheless, Beard's broad economic interpretation greatly influenced intellectual attitudes toward the Constitution throughout the middle years of this century and is a prime example of the debunking spirit in American history.

Leonard Levy, the eminent constitutionalist who chairs the history department at Claremont Graduate School, has included Beard's thesis as the first chapter in a new paperback edition of his "Essays on the Making of the Constitution."

In addition to Beard, readers receive several of the best criticisms of the economic interpretation and seven other discussions of major issues in the history of the Constitution, including Levy's own essay on the Bill of Rights.

Levy and Dennis J. Mahoney are co-editors of a newer collection, "The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution," consisting of 21 essays, including William M. Wiecek's "The Witch at the Christening: Slavery and the Constitution's Origins."

For dedicated students of the Constitution who wish to make their judgments first hand, the three-volume classic scholarly source on the convention, "The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787," edited by Max Farrand and published in 1937 by Yale University Press, has just been reissued in paperback with a fourth volume, edited by James H. Hutson, containing commentary on the Farrand edition and new documents discovered since 1937.

But more impressive, somehow, than the records of the convention is James Madison's "Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention." Madison recorded the convention debates as best one man with a quill pen could do, and while he certainly did not get every word, scholars who have compared his account with other, more fragmentary journals say Madison's accomplishment was formidable.

The schoolbook nickname for James Madison is "Father of the Bill of Rights." But Robert A. Rutland claims more for Madison in "James Madison: The Founding Father." Briefly, Madison is, in Rutland's view, the father of the entire Constitution, a statesman far more influential at the Constitutional Convention than George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.

Madison's later tenure as President counted for much less than his work at the Convention did--which is just as Madison wanted it because he advocated a strictly limited executive branch.

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