Bench Memos

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Crowd-Sourcing James Madison’s Notes of the Debates on the Constitution


Here’s an ambitious and interesting new project that the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes has helped to launch in partnership with the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier: “crowd-sourcing” Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.

As Wittes explains, Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention consist of “a long, impenetrably-difficult text” and thus are the “most important document in American history that nobody ever reads.” In an attempt to make the Notes accessible, Wittes hit upon the idea of applying modern technology to the model of the Talmud, “the multi-volume exposition of Jewish law that developed after the Romans sacked the Temple in Jerusalem”:

The Talmud is a series of debates—and commentaries on those debates—on a text called the Mishnah. The rabbis found an ingenious way of commenting on this dry, lengthy text in a language (Ancient Hebrew) which was already in Roman times no longer their vernacular (they spoke and wrote in Aramaic). On a page of Talmud, a passage of Mishnah is physically surrounded by layers of commentary text, more and more of them as the centuries wore on. So in the center of the page is a short passage, by tradition, of course, Divine, but often in practice dry as dust; yet radiating out from that passage is centuries of wisdom and thought. It is not merely a form of crowd-sourced scholarship, but it is a visual means of expressing that scholarship and crowd-sourcing that seemed to me to have broad application to the exposition of lengthy and difficult historical texts like the Notes.

Thanks to the development of software named ConText, an online version of Madison’s Notes is now available, with each of its thousands of lines inviting “layers of commentary—commentary on the history (what was going on in the room), current events (how these events relate to current politics), theoretical and philosophical issues, and subsequent constitutional interpretation and dispute.” So if you’re able to provide informed commentary, you can start contributing right away. (Both contributors and readers should consult this “how to” page.)


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