What Madison REALLY said about holding a second convention

Opponents of a convention for proposing amendments frequently cite a passage in a 1788 letter written by James Madison to create the impression that Madison opposed the Article V application and convention process. Opponents invariably lift the passage out of context.

It is clear to anyone who reads the entire letter, or the rest of Madison’s correspondence, that Madison did NOT oppose the Article V convention process. He opposed only an idea then being promoted by anti-federalists and by the State of New York. They wanted an immediate convention to re-write the entire Constitution before it was even implemented!

Madison repeatedly asserted that he would not object to a convention in a year or two. He wanted political passions to cool. He wanted to give Congress a chance to adopt a bill of rights. And he thought that if the government were in operation for a while, Americans would better understand which modifications made sense. For example, on August 10, 1788, Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson that, “The delay of a few years will assuage the jealousies which have been artificially created by designing men and will at the same time point out the faults which really call for amendment.” On August 23, 1788, he added:

A very short period of delay would produce the double advantage of diminishing the heat and increasing the light of all parties. A trial for one year will probably suggest more real amendments than all the antecedent speculations of our most sagacious politicians.

Clearly if Madison was willing to consider a convention in a year or so, he would have thought 233 years sufficient!

One more point: These letters make clear that Madison’s opposition to a second convention was based heavily on the prediction that the new Congress would propose amendments to cure the doubts of many who had opposed the Constitution. If he had been convinced that the new Congress would prove as obstinate as the modern one, he may have favored even an immediate general convention.

So that readers can verify Madison’s views for themselves, this link connects to the fifth volume of Madison’s collected works. It contains most of his correspondence at the time. In addition, I’ve collected Madison’s other letters on the subject, insofar as I can find them. Here is the list of letters in which Madison discusses the “second convention” idea:

And that’s not all. While convention opponents frequently promote “nullification” as an alternative to Article V, Madison explicitly rejected that. At the height of the Nullification Controversy, he explained in a letter to Edward Everett (publisher, member of Congress, scholar, and later the principal speaker on the day when Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address) why nullification was a bad idea, why Madison’s Virginia Resolution did not endorse it, and why an amendments convention was the proper alternative. You can read the letter here. He further rejected nullification two letters written to Daniel Webster, one in 1830, reproduced here, and another three years later, reproduced here.

Obviously the claim that Madison opposed an Article V convention and favored nullification is pure disinformation. Where did it come from? The culprit for inventing the story that Madison opposed amendments convention seems to have been Arthur Goldberg. Goldberg was a liberal labor lawyer, Kennedy confidant and JFK’s Secretary of Labor. JFK also appointed him as a Supreme Court justice—a job for which Goldberg really wasn’t suited and soon abandoned.

The 1970s and 198os witnessed popular campaigns for using the application-and-convention procedure to adopt a balanced budget amendment and an amendment overruling the abortion decision of Roe v. Wade. Goldberg participated in a counter-campaign by establishment figures and by powerful newspapers to discourage use of that procedure. Accordingly, in 1983 he wrote an article lifting Madison’s quote out of context. His article also repeated other myths, such as the discredited claim (see also here) that the 1787 Constitutional Convention exceeded its authority.