Tom Ginsburg

Constitutional Knowledge

As he prepared for the Constitutional Convention in the spring of 1787, James Madison plunged into a thorough study of historical confederacies, from the ancient Greeks to the then-modern Dutch and German federations.1 His inquiry, which was informed by materials he had requested from Thomas Jefferson in France, was both schematic and thorough: he picked six cases to focus on, and for each confederacy recorded the various rules of representation, the allocation of powers between center and subgovernment, and various facts about the performance of the system. He assessed costs and benefits—or as he put it in the language of the time, “virtues and vices”—and drew lessons for the project of reorganizing the United States into a viable federal government. Madison’s chief conclusion was that weakness of the federal center was highly risky, shaping his proposals at the Philadelphia convention.

KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge

The University of Chicago