Writings of James Madison, Volume 3

Author: James Madison

To Thomas Ritchie.

MONTPELLIER, Sepr 15, 1821.

DEAR SIR,—I have received yours of the 8th instant, on the subject of the proceedings of the Convention of 1787.

It is true, as the public has been led to understand, that I possess materials for a pretty ample view of what passed in that Assembly. It is true, also, that it has not been my intention that they should forever remain under the veil of secrecy. Of the time when it might be not improper for them to see the light, I had formed no particular determination. In general, it had appeared to me that it might be best to let the work be a posthumous one, or, at least, that its publication should be de layed till the Constitution should be well settled by practice, and till a knowledge of the controversial part of the proceedings of its framers could be turned to no improper account. Delicacy, also, seemed to require some respect to the rule by which the Convention "prohibited a promulgation, without leave, of what was spoken in it," so long as the policy of that rule could be regarded as in any degree unexpired. As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character. However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions, and as a source, perhaps, of some lights on the science of Government, the legitimate meaning of the In strument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be, not in the opinions or intentions of the body which planned and proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions, where it received all the authority which it possesses.

Such being the course of my reflections, I have suffered a concurrence and continuance of particular inconveniences for the time past to prevent me from giving to my notes the fair and full preparation due to the subject of them. Of late, being aware of the growing hazards of postponement, I have taken the incipient steps for executing the task; and the expediency of not risking an ultimate failure is suggested by the Albany publication, from the notes of a N. York member of the Convention. I have not seen more of the volume than has been extracted into the newspapers; but it may be inferred from these samples, that it is not only a very mutilated but a very erroneous edition of the matter to which it relates. There must be an entire omission, also, of the proceedings of the latter period of the session, from which Mr. Yates and Mr. Lansing withdrew in the temper manifested by their report to their constituents; the period during which the variant and variable opinions converged and centered in the modifications seen in the final act of the body.

It is my purpose now to devote a portion of my time to an exact digest of the voluminous materials in my hands. How long a time it will require, under the interruptions and avocations which are probable, I cannot easily conjecture: not a little will be necessary for the mere labour of making fair transcripts. By the time I get the whole into a due form for preservation, I shall be better able to decide on the question of publication. As to the particular place or press, should this be the result, I have not, as must be presumed, turned a thought to either. Nor can I say more now than that your letter will be kept in recollection, and that should any other arrangement prevail over its object, it will not proceed from any want of confidence, esteem, or friendly dispositions; of all which I tender you sincere assurances.


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Chicago: James Madison Jr., "To Thomas Ritchie.," Writings of James Madison, Volume 3 in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.228-229 Original Sources, accessed February 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8NRIBC5AYM3F65Q.

MLA: Madison, James, Jr. "To Thomas Ritchie." Writings of James Madison, Volume 3, in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.228-229, Original Sources. 3 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8NRIBC5AYM3F65Q.

Harvard: Madison, J, 'To Thomas Ritchie.' in Writings of James Madison, Volume 3. cited in , James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.228-229. Original Sources, retrieved 3 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8NRIBC5AYM3F65Q.