Did Madison Write the Constitution and Bill of Rights?
To understand Madison, the Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and his contribution we have to walk quickly through the events leading to the Amended Constitution.
James Madison – Mini Biography
FACT: Madison drafted the Constitution, but Gouverneur Morris is widely credited as the author of the document’s preamble and closing endorsement.
TIP: Many of the ideas in both documents come from the state constitutions (specifically Virginia’s), from the classical liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment, and from past Human Rights documents.
A Quick Story of the History of the Constitution
- The Colonies originally had no governing federal document (the states had governing documents, but there was no federal governing document). They did, however, have a provisional government, a newly formed Continental Congress (with delegates from each state).
- The Second Continental Congress requested a governing document be drafted (so the States could better organize for the Revolution). The drafting began on July 12, 1776, and the result was the Articles of Confederation (1777).
- The new Confederate States were off to a rocky start. There was little unity or central power, states were fighting and making deals with other countries, and the Confederate Dollar was a running joke. This was true even after the Revolution and the Treaty of Paris (1983). It was obvious something had to be done to ensure the future of the states.
- At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787, Madison met with 56 other delegates to Amend the Articles of Confederation. The meeting turned into a call for replacing the Confederacy with “a more perfect Union” (via the Constitution).
- The convention resulted in the delegates choosing between the Madison penned Virginia Plan and the more centralized New Jersey Plan. The Virginia Plan was based on Virginia’s Democratic tradition and the liberal concept of a Republican government with separation of powers. It had a strong central government composed of three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Madison opposed the New Jersey Plan.
- Edmund Randolph, who also opposed the New Jersey Plan, presented Madison’s Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention on May 29, 1787.
- Madison’s multi-branched (bicameral) Virginia Plan was chosen over the less Republican (ruled by elected officials and law), Unicameral (one branch), New Jersey Plan which sought to amend the Articles of Confederation and increase federal power.
- To get the plan passed the Connecticut Compromise (proposed by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, and edited by Benjamin Franklin) and Three-Fifths Compromise (proposed by James Wilson and Roger Sherman) were made.
- The Connecticut Compromise blended the Virginia (large-state) and New Jersey (small-state) proposals regarding congressional apportionment.
- The Three-Fifths, Ahem, you know, ruled that slaves were considered 3/5th of a person. This resulted in the South dominating politics until the Civil War since the slave owners directed the votes of slaves. The concession was made to get the Constitution enacted and was offset somewhat by later by later Compromises like the Missouri Compromise of 1820; see the history of the political parties).
- Since Madison took many notes and wrote the Virginia Plan, and since that was the plan that was used, we can consider that Madison “wrote the Constitution.”
- Despite Madison being the primary author, the under-celebrated Gouverneur Morris wrote the final draft of the soon-to-be ratified Constitution (1787). Morris also spoke more than anyone else at the convention and is widely credited as the author of the document’s preamble and closing endorsement, and has been called the “Penman of the Constitution.”
- Although the Constitution was decided on, it still needed to be ratified by the states. This led to the Anti-Federalist papers (which opposed the Constitution) and their response, theFederalist Papers (which supported it).
- The Federalists began as a name, not a party. Hamilton (who founded the Federalist Party in 1792), Madison, and Jay co-wrote “the Federalist Papers” as a call to the people to ratify the Constitution and embrace the principles of Federalism, a strong central government that favored state power.
- The debate over the Constitution and Federalist papers led to the later the formation of political parties, starting with the Federalist Party.
- After a long year, the Constitution was finally ratified on June 21, 1788.
- In 1789, Madison became a leader in the new House of Representatives created by the Constitution, drafting many basic laws including the Bill of Rights.
- The Bill of Rights also comes from Madison and Virginia. In a similar story, Madison drafted several Amendments, and seventeen articles were approved by the House August 24, 1789. Twelve were approved on September 9, 1789, and then twelve again on September 25, 1789. Eleven of the twelve have since been ratified (with the eleventh, the one about Congress not being able to vote on their own pay raises, only ratified in 1992).
- The ten Amendments ratified on December 15, 1791, are the Bill of Rights. Interestingly, the Anti-Federalists wanted the bill of rights. Around this time Madison had switched sides to support Anti-Federalists like Jefferson.
Thus, Although we can say Madison “wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights” (and some of the Federalist Papers), it would be more accurate to say Madison “Drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights.” The final drafts of Constitution and Bill of Rights were products of committees and debate, which is good, as a single author of the founding documents would be an odd start to a Federal Republic with strong Democratic values.
Due to his vital role in crafting America’s founding documents, today we consider Madison the Father of the Constitution and the Father of the Bill of Rights.
Just as Jefferson is the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Madison is the primary author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and a co-writer of the Federalist papers.
Conflict & Compromise: The Constitutional Convention
TIP: Madison took a break from politics after the Bill of Rights but came back to serve as Jefferson’s Secretary of State from 1801–1809, and then as the Fourth President of the United States March 4, 1809 – March 4, 1817.