“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.”Jefferson to Kercheval, 1816
At the risk of understating Jefferson's emphasis on a strict construction of the Constitution, the above quotation serves as a nice contrast to the sentence from Madison's 1792 essay “Charters” that was used to introduce Chapter 5. Whereas in that passage Madison recommended that public opinion defend its “political scriptures” with a “holy zeal,” Jefferson mocked this kind of reverence as “sanctimonious” and regarded it as an obstacle to progress. This book, however, has offered evidence showing that it would be a mistake, however, to presume that Madison treated the Constitution as holy writ. This is especially evident in his work to preserve, shape, and use the history of the Convention.
Even with all of the attention lavished on Madison's tenth essay in the Federalist, it is possible that Madison's most important contribution was textual rather than conceptual. Were it not for Madison's Notes on the Federal Convention, our knowledge of the Constitution and its design would be left to mere speculation, drawn from the unattractive combination of unmoored abstract reasoning, linguistic acrobatics, and sketchy historical evidence. This point is itself revealing, for it demonstrates that Madison himself wanted the deliberation on the Constitution, messy as it was, to be available to future constitutional designers. Or, as Gordon Lloyd puts it, “Madison reported on an actual conversation over 88 days, six days a week, five hours a day, between up to 55 delegates from a variety of backgrounds.”