ConText: An Experiment in Crowd-Sourced Commentary

Brookings Institution, March 16, 2012

What do the Constitutional Convention, the Talmud, and Wikipedia have in common? That’s the question behind a new project Brookings has launched in partnership with the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier. The project, about which I am deeply excited, is at one level an attempt to bring to life the most important document in American history that nobody ever reads: Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. At another level, however, it is a broader experiment in crowd-sourcing commentary on dense historical texts and in illuminating those texts for the public, for students, and for scholars in new ways.

It also has an interesting story behind it.

For several years now, Brookings and Montpelier have been conducting joint programming on a variety of issues related to the Constitution and contemporary public policy. Montpelier, for those of you who have never visited it, is the plantation of James Madison. The idyllic setting is also the home of the Center for the Constitution, which conducts educational seminars about constitutional thought for a variety of audiences: teachers, police officers, legislators, judges. The Brookings-Montpelier collaboration began as an effort to marry such discussion of Founding Era thought with Brookings work on contemporary public policy. Over time, however, we began talking about ways to expand the collaboration into publications. At one point, I suggested to Sean O’Brien—then the director of the center and now the chief operating officer of the larger Montpelier operation—that perhaps we should jointly publish a new edition of the Notes of the Convention. They are, after all, the best record of the Founding debates we have. And while everyone reads the Federalist Papers, very few lay people touch the Notes, which are dense, written in a kind of shorthand code, and are hundreds of pages long.

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