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Posted at 2:06 PM ET, 06/23/2010

Law student James Madison rediscovered through lost notes

By Valerie Strauss

The discovery that law notes thought to have been written by Thomas Jefferson were actually penned by James Madison has led to a call for a reassessment of the fourth U.S. president.

Thirty-nine sewn-together pages of notes on common law cases were initially found among the papers of Thomas Jefferson at the Library of Congress. But Mary Sarah Bilder, professor of law at Boston College, studied the handwriting, style of language, summarizing technique, paper watermarks and numbering system and concluded that Madison was the author.

Bilder wrote about her findings, and made a call for a reassessment of Madison in an article in the latest edition of Law and History Review, a leading legal history journal.

Until now, she writes, Madison was seen as having little interest in law for much of his adult life, unlike Jefferson, the third president; John Adams, the second president; or John Marshall, secretary of state and chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The notes, however, cover a wide range of topics, including criminal law, elections, the make-up of court systems, Habeas Corpus, legislatures, how to accurately measure time and even sex and relationships.

Mistaking the notes for Jefferson’s was easy, she writes, because the two men had very similar handwriting. In fact, Madison once “faked” Jefferson’s handwriting in altering a letter.

The notes came to the Library of Congress in 1931 from Mary M. McGuire of New York, grandchild of James C. McGuire, the administrator of the Dolley Payne Madison estate and the largest collector of Madison manuscripts.

Madison also made a surprising number of notes on cases relating to sex and relationships. Perhaps recalling erstwhile love Kitty Floyd, who broke off their engagement, he made notes on breaches of promise to marry. And he seemed particularly interested in children born out of wedlock.

Why, Bilder said, should “remain purely speculative.”

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 23, 2010; 2:06 PM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  history, james madison and law, james madison notes, jefferson's papers, library of congress and jefferson, library of congress and madison, lost notes found, madison notes found, thomas jefferson and james madison  
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