If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Madison's role in the Constitutional Convention in 1787

Lynne Cheney, author of “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” in conversation with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute.  Created by Aspen Institute.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute i'm here with lynne cheney author of james madison a life reconsidered and we've laid down the timeline let's stroll down a bit and let's talk about the Constitutional Convention in 1787 first of all what was Madison's role there well it was absolutely crucial to the conventions convening he made sure that Washington attended and everyone knew that the convention would be a success in the sense that it would at least gather if Washington attended and then it would not if he did not so that was one of Madison's jobs another job was to make sure that the Congress didn't interfere with the Constitutional Convention he rode through a snowstorm to make sure that they didn't take actions that would keep the Constitutional Convention from moving forward but most important he wrote the agenda for the Constitutional Convention it was called the Virginia Plan by historians later but it really set out the program by which the convention would proceed the fact that he set the agenda didn't mean that he got everything he wanted but it did mean that his stamp was on the Constitution when the convention ended now the Virginia Plan in essence was that we were going to throw out the Articles of Confederation because they were too weak and create what was sort of a balance between the national government and state governments is that about right yes and also of course the tripartite form of government the executive and the legislative end and they didn't think too much about the judiciary but it was there mm-hmm so the question of forming a national government the biggest controversy was between the big states in the little states how did Madison get involved in that well he first of all suspected the states generally of being up to no good he especially was angry with Rhode Island the states were taxing each other they were setting their own foreign policy they were coining money and so part of the reason for the convention was to get the states under control they're for Madison didn't want the states representative states in the legislature he wanted the states represented proportionally the small states of course wanted to be represented as states and they got their way in the Senate every state gets two senators they are not represented proportionally there they are of course in the House of Representatives Madison hated that decision he was not part of it sometimes Madison has talked about as a compromiser but he was anything but he was very strong-willed and he didn't like the compromise but in the end had no choice but to go along when he writes the original call for this convention you see some of the words that we now see in the preamble of the Constitution such as provide for the common defense the securing of liberty and promote the general welfare when he used that phrase promote the general welfare which is I think also an article one did he mean to have an expansive federal government that would do things like that was that more of a flourish it was rhetorical and he was appalled after the new government got underway that Alexander Hamilton didn't see it that way that Alexander Hamilton saw the central government has enabled to take any action it deemed to be for the welfare generally one of the debates of the Constitutional Convention that Madison was very involved in was the notion of how much democracy there should be because democracy back then was a controversial topic Elbridge Gerry and many others thought we didn't want in excess of it and Madison had a very theoretical idea of how you could have democracy and a larger nation what was that well first of all as you say he was convinced that the new government had to be rested on the people that this document that would be completed begins with we the people that's the foundation of government he thought that representative government would he thought this in the beginning would provide a kind of civ you know you would get the very best people who would work the way through this electoral process to become representatives and he thought that the balance that he had achieved or that the convention had achieved between the legislative and the executive branch would keep the government from going overboard in one way or not so it's a very enlightenment sense of balance which is you temper the democracy by having all sorts of checks and balances and that's one of the Madisonian concepts in the Constitution right really in his life he saw this machine called the orrery in princeton and there was also one in philadelphia and it was a machine that showed the universe in balance and it showed how you know a change in any part of the balance in the universe would result in destruction and i think this idea of balance was key to his thinking you know all of the Enlightenment thinkers whether it's Jefferson Franklin or Madison they love science they read Newton and they understood that notion of enlightenment balance do you think we've lost that a little bit now oh I certainly do think so it's such a broad and general concept that I think few of us and I include myself in that resort to it we get caught up in the debates of the day one of the controversies at the Constitutional Convention was the thought that Congress should actually pick the president how did Madison feel about that and what would life have been if they had gone the other way well in the beginning Madison thought that the Congress would be the states represented proportionally and so we thought it would work to have the Congress choose the president but once the state's estates got their hold on the Senate he changed his mind and began working in other directions of course toward the Electoral College and the notion of the people elect the President the difference is that if we had that system that he originally thought about today we would probably never have had Outsiders like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton come to power we would have had a lot more speakers of the house a newt gingrich might have found his way to the president see more easily so it would have been more like a parliamentary system exactly and insiders congressional insiders would have gained a great advantage I think it was wonderful brilliant that that didn't happen and as you say Madison was not thrilled by the notion of having a Senate representing each state and then a house representing the people but in the end then Franklin gives a speech saying this may be the best and in the end Madison to says well it may not be perfect but it's the best we might be able to get right it took him several days to get there after the convention was over but he did he did reach that acceptance of things as they were and in our next lesson we'll be talking about him and Hamilton and Jay how they push for the Constitution but one last question that comes from a former journalist me which is he took all the notes in the convention he was sort of the note-taker and recorder tell me about that role did that give him a special prominence well it he said it almost killed him because he was not only one of the speakers who spoke most often he was also the person who was sitting there recording every speech in a shorthand that he went home at night and transcribed and the burden of that plus being the sort of philosophical ringmaster of the Constitution I think was draining but he provided us an historical record of immeasurable worth we would not know what happened at the convention except in bits and pieces without it thank you very much mrs. Cheney