Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies” was originally compiled in the spring and summer of 1786, and presumably he had the upcoming Annapolis Convention in mind as he tore into this project. Madison pured through any histories, political treatises, and encyclopedias that could shed light on the arrangement of any other federal republics that had existed. He relied heavily on many recently published French collections—including Felice’s 13-volume Code de l’humanité and the first several volumes of the Encyclopédie méthodique—but he also drew on ancient historians, such as Plutarch and Polybius, and modern political theorists, such as Montesquieu.
His researches culminated in a methodical outline of the structures and organization of three ancient confederacies (the Amphictyonic, Achaean, and Lycian) and three modern ones (the Germanic, Swiss, and Belgic or Holland). For each confederacy, he included a description of their structure and governance, paying particular attention to the organization of their federal authority and listing their “vices”—those features that made them cumbersome, unworkable or even fatal. All of these examples seemed to confirm what he had long been suspecting: The weak bonds of union in these confederacies engendered dissension among the parts, weakness against their foes, and an instability that often doomed their survival. In order for a confederacy to be built to last, there must be more authoritative power at the center.
It is unclear what specific purpose Madison had in mind for his notes at the time he made them. Certainly they could not have been much use to him at the aborted Annapolis Convention. The stated mission of that meeting was limited to commercial reform, and the underrepresented assembly hadn’t even been able to address that topic before adjourning. But in just a year’s time—much sooner than he had any reason to hope for when he embarked on the project—Madison would be drawing upon these notes in his formulation of a new plan of government and in his defense of that plan.
During the debates at the Constitutional Convention, Madison frequently referred to lessons drawn from history, and many of these lessons were first noted in the observations that he had recorded in his notes. When Oliver Ellsworth claimed that all previous confederated states had retained their equality within the confederation, Madison quickly “reminded Mr. Ellsworth of the Lycian confederacy, in which the component members had votes proportioned to their importance.” He went on to say that, even if the facts were otherwise, these ancient examples formed no fit model to emulate, since they had all been failures in their own ways. Madison used his notes even more extensively during the ratification debates, both in his published essays and within Virginia’s Ratifying Convention. In Federalist Nos. 18 through 20, he copied passages from the notes almost verbatim. These notes helped cement Madison’s reputation for being the best prepared delegate at the Constitutional Convention.