On Tuesday, October 27th, distinguished scholars of American constitutionalism gathered together for a special event to celebrate the publication of Professor Mary Bilder’s book, Madison’s hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard University Press). The panel discussion was sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College.
Ever since their publication in 1840, four years after their author’s death, James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention have been treated by historians and constitutional lawyers as if they were impartial and uniformly accurate. Madison’s Hand will likely give the historians and lawyers pause. Bilder’s painstaking analysis reveals for the first time the extent to which Madison revised the notes during the time between the 1787 Convention and his death, in 1836. It also reveals the self-serving nature of some of the revisions. Madison tried to reshape perceptions around his own position on slavery, for example (for additional content, see earlier Q&A with Professor Bilder in BC Law Magazine online).
“No one could be anything but impressed with the care and intelligence with which Professor Builder reads Madison’s notes,” said Panelist Heather K. Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School, at the Clough Center event. “It takes an incredibly varied skill set to pull off a book like this one. One has to be able to spend an inordinate amount of time focused on the trees, the leaves, even the tiny beetles on the leaves, and yet still know enough about the forest to situate the work as she does.”
Panelist Saikrishna Prakash, the James Monroe Distinguished Professor of Law and Horace W. Goldsmith Research Professor at the University of Chicago Law School., called the book “absolutely wonderful…I enjoyed reading it once and now I am on my second time around. It reflects so much work and so much care on Mary’s part. It’s so well-written; I just can’t imagine how many days, weeks, months, years that she poured into this book.” Saikrishna Prakash’s scholarship focuses on separation of powers, particularly executive powers. He teaches Constitutional Law, Foreign Relations Law and Presidential Powers at the Law School.
“Mary described it as a biography of Madison’s notes, which is of course it is,” said David Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. “It is also in a lot of ways a biography of Madison and one of things that comes through in the book in a wonderful way is Mary’s sympathy with Madison and her understanding of Madison, a sort of biographer’s understanding, a very deep psychology level of understanding him as a human being.”
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. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization. She was a law clerk to the Hon. Francis Murnaghan, Jr., U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. She writes primarily in the areas of constitutionalism and the history of the Constitution, early American legal culture and the legal profession, and the history of the book and legal education. 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 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 State Bar of Wisconsin (inactive status). She was given the BC Law Emil Slizewski Faculty Teaching Award in 2007 and was named Michael and Helen Lee Distinguished Scholar in 2009.
In addition to Madison’s Hand, she is 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. She co-edited Blackstone in America: Selected Essays of Kathryn Preyer (Cambridge University Press, 2009). 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 Review, Law and History Review, Law Library Journal, and the Journal of Policy History.
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.