Events

Madison's Hand

Fourth Annual Kinder Institute Constitution Day Lecture

An annual tradition at the Kinder Institute, and one that serves as an official kickoff for our public programming each academic year, the 2017 Constitution Day Lecture will be held on Friday, September 22, at 3:30 PM in Jesse Hall 410, with Boston College Founders Professor of Law Mary Sarah Bilder giving a talk on the invisible layers of revision in Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention (see abstract below). The event is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception in the Kinder Institute offices on the fourth floor or Jesse.

Abstract

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?

In an unprecedented investigation that draws on digital technologies and traditional textual analysis to trace Madison’s composition, Mary Sarah Bilder reveals that Madison revised the Notes to a far greater extent than previously recognized. The Notes began as a diary of the Convention’s proceedings. Madison abandoned the project at a critical juncture, however, and left the Notes incomplete. He did not return to finish them until several years later, largely for Thomas Jefferson. By then, Madison’s views were influenced by the new government’s challenges and Jefferson’s political ideas. Madison’s evolving vision of republican government, his Virginia allegiances, his openness to constitutional protection for slavery, his fascination with the finer points of political jockeying, and his depictions of Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney shifted during the writing and rewriting of his account. When the Notes were finally published in 1840, the layers of revision were invisible.

Madison’s version of events quickly assumed an aura of objectivity, and the Notes molded the narrative of the Constitution. Madison’s Hand offers readers a biography of a document that, over two centuries, developed a life and character all its own.

 

Professor Mary Sarah Bilder teaches in the areas of property, trusts and estates, and American legal and constitutional history at Boston College Law School. She received her B.A. with Honors (English) and the Dean’s Prize from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, her J.D. (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, and her A.M. (History) and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization/American Studies. She was a law clerk to the Hon. Francis Murnaghan, Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. Her recent work has focused on the history of the Constitution, James Madison and the Founders, the history of judicial review, and colonial and founding era constitutionalism. Professor Bilder is a member of the American Law Institute, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. She is member of the Massachusetts Bar Association (inactive status) and the State Bar of Wisconsin (inactive status). She was given the Emil Slizewski Faculty Teaching Award in 2007 and was named Michael and Helen Lee Distinguished Scholar in 2009. She was named the Founders Professor of Law in 2016.

Her most recent 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. Richard Beeman, author of Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor, called it “an exceptionally important piece of work that will have a profound impact on all future work on the Constitutional Convention.” More reviews of Madison’s Hand can be found here.

She is also the author of The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and the Empire (Harvard University Press, 2004), awarded the Littleton-Griswold Award from the American Historical Association. Her articles appear in several important collected volumes of essays and a wide variety of journals, including the Yale Law Journal, the Stanford Law Review, the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, the George Washington Law ReviewLaw and History ReviewLaw Library Journal, and the Journal of Policy History. She co-edited Blackstone in America: Selected Essays of Kathryn Preyer (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

She has received a William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Grant, the Boston College Annual Prize for Scholarship, a Boston College Distinguished Research Award, a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, and was a Boston College Law School Fund Scholar. She currently serves on the Editorial Board of Law and History Review, and The Journal of Legal Education, the Board of The New England Quarterly, and is a member of the American Law Institute, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. She was the Lucy G. Moses Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School in 2001 and was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in the spring of 2008.

Professor Bilder is the author of a renowned blog entry on how to teach the Rule Against Perpetuities in one class hour, has been interviewed by The Documentary Group and History Channel, and served as a legal history consultant to Steven Spielberg on Amistad.