Madison at the First Congress: Institutional Design and Lessons from the Continental Congress, 1780-1783.


Rick K. Wilson

Rice University

Madison took his seat as a delegate to the Continental Congress on March 20, 1780. At the time Madison was an unknown politician, regarded by many as simply another of the young planters sent by Virginia to bear the burden of representing state interests. Very quickly Madison proved his worth as a legislator. Within a year of being seated he was building legislative coalitions that would change the financing of the bankrupt government and add to its capacity to protect its fragile life.

Few realized the role Madison would play in the Continental Congress and no one, including Madison, could realize the effect of the Continental Congress on the ways in which Madison came to think of institutional design. This paper briefly discusses the organization of the Continental Congress, as Madison found it when he presented his credentials in 1780. Madison's role in the Congress is briefly sketched and data is brought to bear concerning his experiences in the Congress. Finally, his unpublished notes from 1786 and 1787, which reflected on the proper design of a new institution, are related to his experiences in the Congress. Although Madison returned to the Continental Congress in its dying years, this period is not touched on. Throughout, the claim is that Madison understood much of what is contemporaneously knows as the "new institutionalism" and that his experiences in the early years were formative.