Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Americans have long held the belief that they are exceptional and have a providential destiny to be a “city upon a hill” as a beacon for democracy for the world.

Unlike the French revolutionaries who believed that they were bound to destroy monarchy and feudalism everywhere, the American revolutionaries laid down the principle of being an example for the world instead of imposing the belief on other countries.

In 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams probably expressed this idea best during a Fourth of July address when he asserted the principle of American foreign policy that:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

While the Spanish-American War raised a debate over the nature of American expansionism and foundational principles, the reversal of the course of American diplomatic history found its fullest expression in the progressive presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

Progressives such as President Wilson embraced the idea that a perfect world could be achieved with the spread of democracy and adoption of a greater international outlook instead of national interests for world peace. As president, Wilson believed that America had a responsibility to spread democracy around the world by destroying monarchy and enlightening people in self-government.

When World War I broke out in August 1914 after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Wilson declared American neutrality and asked a diverse nation of immigrants to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.”

American neutrality was tested in many different ways. Many first-generation American immigrants from different countries still had strong attachments and feelings toward their nation of origin. Americans also sent arms and loans to the Allies (primarily Great Britain, France, and Russia) that undermined claims of U.S. neutrality. Despite the sinking of the liner Lusitania by a German U-boat (submarine) in May 1915 that killed 1,200 including 128 Americans, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned because he thought the U.S. should protest the British blockade of Germany as much as German actions in the Atlantic.

Throughout 1915 and 1916, German U-boats sank several more American vessels, though Germany apologized and promised no more incidents against merchant vessels of neutrals. By late 1916, however, more than two years of trench warfare and stalemate on the Western Front had led to millions of deaths, and the belligerents sought for ways to break the stalemate.

On February 1, 1917, the German high command decided to launch a policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare in which all shipping was subject to attack. The hope was to knock Great Britain out of the war and attain victory before the United States could enter the war and make a difference.

Simultaneously, Germany curiously sent a secret diplomatic message to Mexico offering territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for entering the war against the United States. British intelligence intercepted this foolhardy Zimmerman Telegram and shared it with the Wilson administration. Americans were predictably outraged when news of the telegram became public.

On April 2, President Wilson delivered a message to Congress asking for a declaration of war. He focused on what he labeled the barbaric and cruel inhumanity of attacking neutral ships and killing innocents on the high seas. He spoke of American freedom of the seas and neutral rights but primarily painted a stark moral picture of why the United States should go to war with the German Empire which had violated “the most sacred rights of our Nation.”

Wilson took an expansive view of the purposes of American foreign policy that reshaped American exceptionalism. He had a progressive vision of remaking the world by using the war to spread democratic principles and end autocratic regimes. In short, he thought, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

Wilson argued that the United States had a duty as “one of the champions of the rights of mankind.” It would not merely defeat Germany but free its people. Americans were entering the war “to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life.”

Wilson believed that the United States had larger purposes than merely defending its national interests. It was now responsible for world peace and the freedom of all.  “Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.”

At the end of the war and during the Versailles conference, Wilson further articulated this vision of a new world with his Fourteen Points and proposal for a League of Nations to prevent future wars and ensure a lasting world peace.

Wilson’s vision failed to come to come to fruition. The Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles because it was committed to defending American national sovereign power over declaring war. The great powers were more dedicated to their national interests rather than world peace. Moreover, the next twenty years saw the spread of totalitarian, communist, and fascist regimes rather than progressive democracies. Finally, World War II shattered his vision of remaking the world.

Wilson’s ideals were not immediately adopted, but in the long run helped to reshape American foreign policy. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw increasing Wilsonian appeals by American presidents and policymakers to go to war to spread democracy throughout the world.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner

On March 3, 1917, 162 words changed the course of World War I and the history of the 20th Century.

Germany officially admitted to sending the “Zimmermann Telegram,” which exposed a complex web of international intrigue, to keep America out of World War I.  It was this, and not the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, that led to the U.S. entering the European war.

The Zimmermann Telegram was a message sent by Arthur Zimmermann, a senior member of the German Foreign Office in Berlin, to Ambassador Heinrich von Eckardt in the German Embassy in Mexico City. It outlined Germany’s plans to support Mexico in a war with the United States should America enter the European War:

We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain, and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.

The story of how this telegram became the pivotal document of World War I reads like a James Bond movie.

America was neutral during the early years of the “Great War.” It also managed the primary transatlantic telegraph cable. European governments, on both sides of the war, were allowed to use the American cable for diplomatic communications with their embassies in North and South America. On a daily basis, messages flowed, unfettered and unread, between diplomatic outposts and European capitals.

Enter Nigel de Grey and his “Room 40” codebreakers.

British Intelligence monitored the American Atlantic cable, violating its neutrality. On January 16, 1917, the Zimmerman Telegram was intercepted and decoded. De Grey and his team immediately understood the explosive impact of its contents. Such a documented threat might force the U.S. into declaring war on Germany. At the time, the “Great War” was a bloody stalemate and unrest in Russia was tilting the outcome in favor of Germany.

De Grey’s challenge was how to orchestrate the telegram getting to American officials without exposing British espionage operations or the breaking of the German codes. He and his team created an elaborate ruse. They would invent a “mole” inside the German Embassy in Mexico City. This “mole” would steal the Zimmermann Telegram and send it, still encrypted, to British intelligence.

The encryption would be an older version, which the Germans would consider a mistake and assume it was such an old code it was already broken. American-based British spies confirmed that the older code, and its decryption, was already in the files of the American Telegraph Company.

On February 19, 1917, British Foreign Office officials shared the older encoded version of Zimmermann Telegram with U.S. Embassy officials.  After decoding it and confirming its authenticity, it was sent on to the White House Staff.

President Woodrow Wilson was enraged and shared it with American newspaper reporters on February 28. At a March 3, 1917 news conference, Zimmermann confirmed the telegram stating, “I cannot deny it. It is true.” German officials tried to rationalize the Telegram as only a contingency plan, legitimately protecting its interests should America enter the war against them.

On April 4, President Wilson finally went before a Joint Session of Congress requesting a Declaration of War against Germany. The Senate approved the Declaration on April 4 and the House on April 6.  It took forty-four days for American public opinion to coalesce around declaring war.

Why the delay?

Americans were deeply divided on intervening in the “European War.” Republicans were solidly isolationist. They had enough votes in the Senate to filibuster a war resolution. They were already filibustering the “Armed Ship Bill” which authorized the arming of American merchant ships against German submarines. German Americans, a significant voter segment in America’s rural areas and small towns, were pro-German and anti-French. Irish Americans, a significant Democratic Party constituency in urban areas, were anti-English. There was also Wilson’s concern over Mexican threats along America’s southern border.

Germany was successful in exploiting America’s division and its isolationism. At the same time, Germany masterfully turned Mexico into a credible threat to America.

The Mexican Revolution provided the perfect environment for German mischief. Germany armed various factions and promoted the “Plan of San Diego” which detailed Mexico’s reclaiming Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Even before the outbreak of the “Great War,” Germany orchestrated media stories and planted disinformation among Western intelligence agencies to create the impression of Mexico planning an invasion of Texas. German actions and rumors sparked a bloody confrontation between U.S. forces and Mexican troops in Veracruz on April 9, 1914.

After years of preparation, German agents funded and inspired Pancho Villa’s March 9, 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico. In retaliation, on March 14, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John “Black Jack” Pershing, along with 10,000 soldiers and an aviation squadron, to invade northern Mexico and hunt down Villa. Over the next ten months, U.S. forces fought twelve battles on Mexican soil, including several with Mexican government forces.

The costly and unsuccessful pursuit of Villa diverted America’s attention away from Europe and soured U.S.-Mexican relations.

Germany’s most creative method for keeping America out of World War I was a fifteen-part “Preparedness Serial” called “Patria.” In 1916, the German Foreign Ministry convinced William Randolph Hearst to produce this adventure story about Japan helping Mexico reclaim the American Southwest.

“Patria” was a major production. It starred Irene Castle, one of the early “mega-stars” of Hollywood and Broadway. Castle’s character uses her family fortune to thwart the Japan-Mexico plot against America. The movie played to packed houses across America and ignited paranoia about the growing menace on America’s southern border.  Concerns over Mexico, and opposition to European intervention, convinced Wilson to run for re-election on a “He kept us out of war” platform.  American voters narrowly re-elected Wilson, along with many new isolationist Congressional candidates.

“Patria,” and other German machinations, clouded the political landscape and kept America neutral until April 1917. Foreign interference in the 1916 election, along with chasing Pancho Villa, may have kept America out of WWI completely except that Zimmerman’s Telegram, outlining Germany’s next move, was intercepted by British Intelligence. It awakened Americans to a real threat.

Words really do matter.

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Amanda Hughes

Prior to World War I, oceanic travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had to route dangerous passages around southern South America. Considerations for a way to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific were present for centuries. More recent among these include survey expeditions Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, who wrote as an Army Captain in 1852 of disease and other tragedies during military travels while crossing the Isthmus of Panama, “The horrors of the road in the rainy season are beyond description.” A survey by Grant  included Panama where it was found that the current route of the Panama Canal was nearly the same as what was proposed by Grant’s survey.

Other efforts by Count Ferdinand de Lesseps of France, who built Egypt’s Suez Canal, led the charge to begin construction on a canal across the isthmus of Panama in 1880. By 1888, challenges such as illness from yellow fever, malaria along with constant rain and mud slides resulted in ending plans by the French.

Further attempts to diminish the lengthy and costly trek began with a United States negotiation with Great Britain with Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer who served as British minister to Washington, and United States Secretary of State John M. Clayton. A sense that a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was viewed as necessary in order to maintain American strength throughout the world. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 allowed for the United States and Britain to maintain joint control by quelling rivals over a proposed canal idea for construction through Nicaragua, northwest of Panama. That agreement was replaced by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty during President William McKinley’s Administration in 1901 by United States Secretary of State John Hay and British Ambassador Lord Julian Pauncefote. This agreement replaced the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 because movement toward building the canal was still had not occurred. Since no action was being taken toward construction after several decades, requests that the United States hold charge over the canal’s construction and control brought about the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty where Britain agreed the United States should take control of the project.

In June 1902, Congress passed H.R. 3110, the Hepburn Bill named for Representative William Peters Hepburn which also became known as the Panama Canal Act of 1902 and the Spooner Act. The bill approved construction of a canal in Nicaragua connecting the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Senator John Coit Spooner offered an amendment to the bill that would provide the president, who was Theodore Roosevelt at that time, authorization to purchase the French company that canceled construction in the late 1800s and allow the United States to purchase the rights, assets and site for construction on land owned by Columbia for a canal through Panama not to exceed $40,000,000.

An isthmian canal was especially viewed as imperative by Congress by 1902 in order to improve United States defense. The USS Maine had exploded in Cuba and the USS Oregon that was stationed on the West Coast would need a long two months to arrive on the Atlantic side near the Caribbean to aid in the Spanish-American War. In a Senate speech, Senator Spooner mentioned:

“I want…a bill to be passed here under which we will get a canal. There never was greater need for it than now. The Oregon demonstrated [that] to our people.”

Conflicts regarding sovereignty over Panama continued past earlier agreements made. By 1903, The United States aided a revolution to help Panama gain independence from Columbia, establishing the Republic of Panama through the Hay-Herrán Treaty of 1903. United States Secretary of State John Hay and Tomás Herrán, Columbian Foreign Minister signed the treaty, but Columbia’s congress would not accept it.

That same year, Secretary Hay, and Phillippe Bunau-Varilla representing Panamanian interests signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, and ratified by the Senate in 1904. While tensions still remained, the new agreement provided independence for Panama and the agreement allowed the United States to build and use a canal without limit. This increased the Canal Zone and gave the United States, in effect, sovereign power including authority to maintain order in the affected area.

Finally able to go ahead with the project, President Roosevelt selected a committee for an Isthmian Canal Commission to see the canal through, including a governor and seven members. The commission was previously arranged by President William McKinley who was assassinated in 1901. Other presidential involvement was especially present by Howard Taft who served as President after Roosevelt. As Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Taft visited the canal more and participated the most over the longest time. The commission under Roosevelt was arranged to have a representative from the Army and Navy and the group would report to the secretary of war. The United States Army engineers were involved in the planning, supplies, and construction throughout. President Roosevelt argued that: “the War Department ‘has always supervised the construction of the great civil works and…been charged with the supervision of the government of all the island possessions of the United States.’”

Approved, yet fraught with many build challenges, the Panama Canal under control of the United States began in 1904 with construction at the bottom of Culebra Cut, formerly called Gaillard Cut, with 160 miles of track laid at the bottom of the canal. The track would need to be be moved continually to keep up with the shoveling of the surrounding ground and to keep construction materials arriving along the canal route using hundreds of locomotives. Locomotives were used to haul dirt, called dirt trains, along the route. Wet slides caused by rain and slipping of softer dirt were among many hindrances to construction. Other slides, some of which occurred during dry seasons, were caused by faults in the earth due to cuts in the sidewalls of the canal. The slides expanded into the cuts, but the workers kept at their tasks. Rock drills were used to set dynamite shots. Six million pounds of explosives per year were used to cut the nine mile canal. The first water to enter the Panama Canal flowed in from the Chagres River. The Chagres Basin is filled by the Gatun Lake, formed by the man-made Gatun Dam on the Atlantic end of the canal.

Led by Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, improvements began for how the canal would work. The American engineers redesigned the canal so that two sets of three locks would have one set at the entrance of the Pacific side, and the other set on the Atlantic side. It was the largest canal lock system built at that time. The lock chambers were 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide and up to 81 feet tall, equipped with gates, and allowed for two-way traffic. The large ships and containers are accommodated by the width of the canal. The locks were designed to raise and lower ships in the water controlled by dams and spillways. The engineering marvel of the locks and dam system proved cost effective by saving money, construction time and providing safety. An earth dam was designed with a man-made lake to limit excavation. It was also the largest dam in the world at the time of construction, intended to maintain the elevation of water level. The dam allowed millions of gallons of water to be released daily through the canal, with a top thick underwater spillway that offered protection from flooding.

Col. William C. Gorgas who served as Surgeon General of the Army during World War I, previously worked to prevent disease and death during construction of the canal. Col. Gorgas worked to eradicate major threats of yellow fever and malaria which was viewed as a much greater threat than all of the other diseases combined. He mentioned during a 1906 medical conference, “ malaria in the tropics is by far the most important disease to which tropical populations are subject,” because “the amount of incapacity caused by malaria is very much greater than that due to all other diseases combined.”

The total cost of the canal to America, as completed in 1914, is estimated at $375,000,000 dollars. The total included $10,000,000 paid to Panama and $40,000,000 to the French company. Fortifying the canal cost an additional $12,000,000. Thousands of workers were employed throughout construction from many countries. The jobs were often dangerous, but those overseeing the project made efforts to protect from injury and loss of life.

In 1964, Panama protested control over the canal by the United States which led to the Permanent Neutrality Treaty that Panama wanted in order to make the canal open to all nations, and a Panama Canal Treaty providing joint control over the canal by the United States and Panama. These treaties were signed in September 1977 by President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera. Complete control over the Panama Canal was transferred to Panama in 1999.

Engineers whose efforts to put forth unprecedented technological construction ideas overcame seeming insurmountable odds cutting the fifty miles of canal through mountains and jungle. Completed and opened on August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal offered a waterway through the isthmus of Panama connecting the oceans, creating fifty miles of sea-level passage. The American cargo and passenger ship, SS Ancon, was the first to officially pass through the Panama Canal in 1914. A testament to American innovation and ingenuity, the American Society of Civil Engineers has recognized the Panama Canal as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is author of Who Wants to Be Free?, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments, and Moments with Billy Graham.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

In 1788, as the United States Constitution was adopted, senators would be elected by state legislatures to protect the states from the federal government increasing its own power. Problems related to the election of senators later resulted in lengthy senate vacancies. A popular vote movement began as a solution, but it failed to consider importance of separation of powers as designed by the Framers to protect liberty and maintain stability in government. The popular vote was an attempt to hamper the more deliberative body that is the United States Senate, and succumb to the more passionate, immediate will of the people, so on April 8, 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted.

We’ve all heard the phrase: “shooting oneself in the foot.” reminds us: To shoot oneself in the foot means to sabotage oneself, to make a silly mistake that harms yourself in some fashion. The phrase comes from a phenomenon that became fairly common during the First World War. Soldiers sometimes shot themselves in the foot in order to be sent to the hospital tent rather than being sent into battle.”[i]

Can a state, one of the United States, be guilty of “shooting itself in the foot?” How about multiple states? How about thirty-six states all at once? Not only can they be, I believe they have been guilty, particularly as it regards the Seventeenth Amendment. Let me explain.

“Checks and balances, checks and balances,” we hear the refrain often and passionately these days. The phrase “Checks and balances” is part of every schoolchild’s introduction to the Constitution. In May 2019, when President Donald Trump exerted executive privilege to prevent the testimony before Congress of certain White House advisors, NBC exclaimed: “Trump’s subpoena obstruction has fractured the Constitution’s system of checks and balances”[ii] I’m not certain the Framers of the Constitution would agree with NBC as exerting executive privilege has been part of our constitutional landscape since George Washington,[iii] and if exerting it “fractures” the Constitution, the document would have fallen into pieces long, long ago. As we will see, a significant “fracturing” of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances did occur in this country, but it occurred more than a hundred years before President Donald Trump took office.

The impeachment power is intended to check a rogue President. The Supreme Court checks a Constitution-ignoring Congress, as does the President’s veto. Congress can check (as in limit) the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and reduce or expand the number of justices at will. There are many examples of checks and balances in the Constitution. The framers of the document, distrustful as they were of human nature, were careful to give us this critical, power-limiting feature.[iv] But which was more important: the checks or the balances?

Aha, trick question. They are equally important (in my opinion at least). And sometimes a certain feature works as both a check and a balance. The one I have in mind is the original feature whereby Senators were to be appointed by their state legislatures.

We all know the story of how the Senate came into being which was the result of Roger Sherman’s great compromise. It retained the “one-state-one-vote” equality the small states enjoyed with the large states under the Articles of Confederation while also creating a legislative chamber, the House, where representation was based on a state’s population. Their six-year terms allowed them to take “a more detached view of issues coming before Congress.”[v] But how should these new Senators be selected: by the people, as in the House, or otherwise?

On July 7, 1787 the Constitutional Convention unanimously adopted a proposal by John Dickinson and Roger Sherman that the state legislatures elect this “Second Branch of the National Legislature.”  Why not the people? Alexander Hamilton explains:

“The history of ancient and modern republics had taught them that many of the evils which those republics suffered arose from the want of a certain balance, and that mutual control indispensable to a wise administration. They were convinced that popular assemblies are frequently misguided by ignorance, by sudden impulses, and the intrigues of ambitious men; and that some firm barrier against these operations was necessary. They, therefore, instituted your Senate.”[vi] (Emphasis added)

The Senate was to avoid the “impulses” of popularly-elected assemblies and provide a “barrier”  to such impulses when they might occur in the other branch.

James Madison explains in Federalist 62 who particularly benefits from this arrangement:

It is … unnecessary to [expand] on the appointment of senators by the State legislatures. Among the various modes which might have been devised for constituting this branch of the government, that which has been proposed by the convention is probably the most congenial with the public opinion. It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.”[vii] (Emphasis added)

Appointment by the state legislatures gave the state governments a direct voice in the workings of the federal government. Madison continues:

“Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the Senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people (in the House), and then, of a majority of the States. It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may in some instances be injurious as well as beneficial; ….” (Emphasis added)

For those with lingering doubt as to who the Senators were to represent, Robert Livingston explained in the New York Ratifying Convention: “The senate are indeed designed to represent the state governments.”[viii] (Emphasis added)

Perhaps sensing the potential to change the mode of electing Senators in the future, Hamilton cautioned: “In this state (his own state of New York) we have a senate, possessed of the proper qualities of a permanent body: Virginia, Maryland, and a few other states, are in the same situation: The rest are either governed by a single democratic assembly (ex: Pennsylvania), or have a senate constituted entirely upon democratic principles—These have been more or less embroiled in factions, and have generally been the image and echo of the multitude.[ix] Hamilton refers here to those states where the state senators were popularly elected.

The careful balance of this system worked well until the end of the 19th century and the beginnings of the Progressive Era.

Gradually there arose a “feeling” that some senatorial appointments in the state legislatures were being “bought and sold.”  Between 1857 and 1900, Congress investigated three elections over alleged corruption. In 1900, the election of Montana Senator William A. Clark was voided after the Senate concluded that he had “purchased” eight of his fifteen votes.

Electoral deadlocks became another issue. Occasionally a state couldn’t decide on one or more of their Senators. One of Delaware’s Senate seats went unfilled from 1899 until 1903.

Neither of these problems was serious, but they both provided fodder for those enamored with “democracy.” But bandwagons being what they are, some could not resist. Some states began holding non-binding primaries for their Senate candidates.

Under mounting pressure from Progressives, by 1910, thirty-one state legislatures were asking Congress for a constitutional amendment allowing direct election of senators by the people. In the same year several Republican senators who were opposed to such reform failed re-election. This served as a “wake-up call” to others who remained opposed. Twenty-seven of the thirty-one states requesting an amendment also called for a constitutional convention to meet on the issue, only four states shy of the threshold that would require Congress to act.

Finally, on May 13, 1912, Congress responded. A resolution to require direct elections of Senators by the citizens of each state was finally introduced and it quickly passed. In less than a year it had been ratified by three-quarters of the states and was declared part of the Constitution by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan on May 31, 1913, two months after President Woodrow Wilson took office.

The Seventeenth Amendment has been cheered by the Left as a victory for populism and democracy, and bemoaned by the Right as a loss for states’ rights or “The Death of Federalism!” Now, millions in corporate funding pours into Senate election campaigns. Senators no longer consult with their state legislatures regarding pending legislation. Why should they? They now represent their state’s citizens directly. The interests of the state governments need not be considered.

For the states to actually ask Congress for this change seems incredibly near-sighted. Much of the encroachment by the Federal Government on policy matters which were traditionally the purview of the states can, I believe, be traced to the Seventeenth Amendment.

We repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. What about repealing the Seventeenth?  Many organizations and individuals have called for it. Every year he was in office, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia repeatedly called for its repeal. A brief look at who supports repeal and who opposes it reveals much. In support of repeal are the various Tea Party organizations, National Review magazine and others on the Right. Opposed, predictably enough, sit the LA Times and other liberal organizations. Solon magazine called the repeal movement “The surprising Republican movement to strip voters of their right to elect senators.” Where this supposed right originates is not explained in the article.

The wisdom of America’s Founders continues to amaze us more than 200 years later. Unfortunately, the carefully balanced framework of government they devised has been slowly chipped away by Supreme Court decisions and structural changes, like the Seventeenth Amendment. Seeing that the states willingly threw away their direct voice in the federal government, my sympathy for them is limited, but repeal of this dreadful amendment is long overdue.

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.




[iv] See Federalist 51

[v] Bybee, Jay S. (1997). “Ulysses at the Mast: Democracy, Federalism, and the Sirens’ Song of the Seventeenth Amendment”. Northwestern University Law Review. Northwestern University School of Law. p. 515.

[vi] Alexander Hamilton, speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, 1788

[vii] James Madison, Federalist 62

[viii] Robert Livingston, New York Ratifying Convention, 24 Jun 1788.

[ix] Alexander Hamilton, speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, 1788

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

During the summer of 1896, twenty-five-year-old Orville Wright was recovering from typhoid fever in his Dayton, Ohio home. His brother, Wilbur Wright, was reading to Orville accounts of a German glider enthusiast named Otto Lilienthal who was killed in a crash flying his glider. The brothers started reading several books about bird flight and even applying the mechanics of it to powered human flight.

Despite the dreams of several visionaries who were studying human flight, the Washington Post proclaimed, “It is a fact that man can’t fly.” The Wright Brothers were amateurs who might just be able to prove the newspaper wrong. They had tinkered with mechanical inventions since they were boys. They had owned a printing press and now a bicycle shop and were highly skilled mechanics. They did not have the advantages of great wealth or a college education, but they had excellent good work habits and perseverance. They were enthusiastically dedicated and disciplined to achieve their goal.

On May 30, 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He stated, “I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since I [was] a boy.” He added, “My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable.” He requested any reading materials that the Smithsonian might be willing to send. He received a packet full of recent pamphlets and articles including those of Samuel Pierpont Langley who was the Secretary of the Smithsonian.

The Wright brothers voraciously read the Smithsonian materials and books about bird flight. Based upon their study, they first built a glider that allowed them to acquire vast knowledge about the mechanics necessary to fly. They knew that this was a necessary step toward powered flight.

The Wright brothers next found a suitable location to test out their glider flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because that site had the right combination of steady, strong winds and soft sand dunes on which to crash land. They even flew kites and studied the flight of different birds to measure the air flow in the test area.

On October 19, 1900, Wilbur climbed aboard a glider and flew nearly 30 miles per hour for about 400 feet. They made several more test flights and carefully recorded data about them. Armed with this knowledge and experience, they returned to Dayton and made alterations to the glider during the winter. They returned to Kitty Hawk the following summer for additional testing.

The Wright brothers spent the summer of 1901 acquiring mounds of new data, taking test flights, and tinkering constantly on the design. The brothers experienced their share of doubts that they would be successful. During one low moment, Wilbur lamented that “not in a thousand years would man ever fly.” However, they encouraged each other, and Orville stated that “there was some spirit that carried us through.” During that winter, they even built a homemade wind tunnel and continued to re-design the glider based upon their practical discoveries in Kitty Hawk and theoretical experiments in Dayton.

During the fall of 1902, they made their annual pilgrimage to their camp at Kitty Hawk where they worked day and night. During one sleepless night, Orville developed an idea for a movable rear rudder for better control. They installed a rudder, and the modification helped them achieve even greater success with the glider flights. They knew they were finally ready to test a motor and dared to believe that they might fly through the air in what would become an airplane.

The Wright brothers spent hundreds of hours over the next year testing motors, developing propellers, and finding solutions to countless problems. Orville admitted, “Our minds became so obsessed with it that we could do little other work.” In December 1903, they reached Kitty Hawk and unpacked their powered glider for reassembly at their camp.

On December 17, five curious locals braved the freezing cold to watch Orville and Wilbur Wright as they prepared their flying machine. Wilbur set up their camera on its wooden tripod a short distance from the plane. Dressed in a suit and tie, Orville climbed aboard the bottom wing of the bi-plane and strapped himself in while the motor was warming up.

At precisely 10:35 a.m., Orville launched down the short track while Wilbur ran beside, helping to steady the plane. Suddenly, the plane lifted into the air, and Orville became the first person to pilot a machine that flew under its own power. He flew about 120 feet for nearly twelve seconds. It was a humble yet historic flight.

When Orville was later asked if he was scared, he joked, “Scared?  There wasn’t time.” They readied the plane for another flight and a half-hour later, Wilbur joined his brother in history by flying “like a bird” for approximately 175 feet. They flew farther and farther that day, and Wilbur went nearly half a mile in 59 seconds. They sent their father a telegram sharing the news of their success, and as he read it, he turned to their sister and said, “Well, they’ve made a flight.”

One witness of the Wright Brothers’ first flight noted the character that made them successful. “It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea, and they had faith.” President William Howard Taft also praised the hard work that went into the Wright Brothers’ achievement. “You made this discovery,” he told them at an award ceremony “by keeping your noses right at the job until you had accomplished what you had determined to.” The Wright brothers’ flight was part of a long train of technological innovations that resulted from American ingenuity and spirit.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In late January 1898, President William McKinley dispatched the U.S.S. Maine to Cuban waters to protect American citizens and business investments during ongoing tensions between Spain and its colony, Cuba. The event eventually sparked a war that dramatically culminated a century of expansion and led Americans to debate the purposes of American foreign policy at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Events only ninety miles from American shores were increasingly involving the United States in Cuban affairs during the late 1890s.

Cuban revolutionaries had fought a guerrilla war against imperialist Spain starting in 1895, and Spain had responded by brutally suppressing the insurgency. General Valeriano Weyler, nicknamed “the butcher,” forced Cubans into relocation camps to deny the countryside to the rebels. Tens of thousands perished, and Cuba became a cause célèbre for many Americans.

Moreover, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and other newspaper moguls publicized the atrocities committed by Spain’s military and encouraged sympathy for the Cuban people. Hearst knew the power he held over public opinion, telling one of his photographers, “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.”

During the evening of February 15, all was quiet as the Maine sat at anchor in Havana harbor. At 9:40 p.m., an explosion shattered the silence and tore the ship open, killing 266 sailors and Marines aboard. Giant gouts of flames and smoke flew hundreds of feet into the air. The press immediately blamed Spain and called for war with the sensationalist style of reporting called “yellow journalism.” The shocked public clamored for war with the popular cry, “Remember the Maine!” Hearst had also recently printed an insulting private letter from the Spanish ambassador to the United States, Don Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, that called McKinley “weak.”

President McKinley had sought alternatives to war for years and continued to seek a diplomatic solution despite the war fervor. However, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt repositioned naval warships close to Cuba and ordered Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the Philippines. Roosevelt thought McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” Despite McKinley’s best efforts, Congress declared war on April 25. Roosevelt quickly resigned and received approval to raise a cavalry regiment, nicknamed the “Rough Riders.”

Roosevelt felt it was his patriotic duty to serve his country. “It does not seem to me that it would be honorable for a man who has consistently advocated a warlike policy not to be willing himself to bear the brunt of carrying out that policy.” Moreover, Roosevelt praised “the soldierly virtues” and sought the strenuous life for himself and the country, which he believed had gone soft with the decadence of the Gilded Age. He wanted to test himself in battle and win glory.

Roosevelt went to Texas to train the eclectic First Volunteer Cavalry regiment of tough western cowboys and American Indians and Patriotic Ivy League athletes. Commander Roosevelt felt comfortable with both groups of men because he had attended Harvard and owned a North Dakota ranch. His regiment trained in the dusty heat of San Antonio, in the shadow of the Alamo, under him and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Colonel Leonard Wood.

The regiment loaded their horses and boarded trains bound for the embarkation point at Tampa, Florida. On June 22, the Rough Riders and thousands of other American troops landed unopposed at Daiquirí on the southern coast of Cuba. Many Rough Riders were without their horses and started marching toward the Spanish army at the capital of Santiago.

The Rough Riders and other U.S. troops were suffering from the tropical heat and forbidding jungle terrain. On June 24, hidden Spanish troops ambushed the Americans near Las Guasimas village. After a brief exchange resulting in some casualties on both sides, the Spanish withdrew to their fortified positions on the hills in front of Santiago. By June 30 the Americans had made it to the base of Kettle Hill, where the Spanish were entrenched and had their guns sighted on the surrounding plains.

American artillery was brought forward to bombard Kettle Hill, and Spanish guns answered. Several Rough Riders and men from other units were cut down by flying shrapnel. Roosevelt himself was wounded slightly in the arm. He and the entire army grew impatient as they awaited orders to attack.

When the order finally came, a mounted Roosevelt led the assault. The Rough Riders were flanked on either side by the African American “Buffalo Soldiers” of the regular Ninth and Tenth cavalry regiments, commanded by white officer John “Black Jack” Pershing. The American troops charged up the incline while firing at the enemy. Roosevelt had dismounted and led the charge on foot. The Spanish fired into American ranks and killed and wounded dozens. Soon, they were driven off. When Spaniards atop adjacent San Juan Hill fired on the Rough Riders, Roosevelt prepared his men to attack that hill as well.

After much confusion in the initial charge, Roosevelt rallied his troops. Finally, he jumped over a fence and again led the charge with the support of rattling American Gatling guns. The Rough Riders and other regiments successfully drove the Spaniards off the hill and gave a great cheer. They dug into their positions and collapsed, exhausted after a day of strenuous fighting. The Americans took Santiago relatively easily, forcing the Spanish fleet to take to sea where it was destroyed by U.S. warships. The Spanish capitulated on August 12.

Roosevelt became a national hero and used the fame to catapult his way to become governor of New York, vice-president, and president after McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Although the 1898 Teller Amendment guaranteed Cuban sovereignty and independence, the United States gained significant control over Cuban affairs with the Platt Amendment in 1901 and Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904. The United States also built the Panama Canal for trade and national security.

In the Philippines, Admiral Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and wiped out the Spanish fleet there on May 1, 1898. However, the Filipinos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, rebelled against the American control just as they had against the Spanish. The insurrection resulted in the loss of thousands of American and Filipino lives. Americans established control there after suppressing the revolt in 1902.

The Spanish-American War was a turning point in history because the nation assumed global responsibilities for a growing empire that included Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam (as well as Hawaii separately). The Spanish-American War sparked a sharp debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists in the United States over the course of American foreign policy and global power. The debate continued throughout the twentieth century known as the “American Century” due to its power and influence around the world.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

On February 15, 1898, an American warship, U.S.S. Maine, blew up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. A naval board of inquiry reported the following month that the explosion had been caused by a submerged mine. That conclusion was confirmed in 1911, after a more exhaustive investigation and careful examination of the wreck. What was unclear, and remains so, is who set the mine. During the decade, tensions with Spain had been rising over that country’s handling of a Cuban insurgency against Spanish rule. The newspaper chains of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer had long competed for circulation by sensationalist reporting. The deteriorating political conditions in Cuba and the harshness of Spanish attempts to suppress the rebels provided fodder for the newspapers’ “yellow” journalism. Congress had pressured the American government to do something to resolve the crisis, but neither President Grover Cleveland nor President William McKinley had taken the bait thus far.

With the heavy loss of life that accompanied the sinking, “Remember the Maine” became a national obsession. Although Spain had very little to gain from sinking an American warship, whereas Cuban rebels had much to gain in order to bring the United States actively to their cause, the public outcry was directed against Spain. The Spanish government previously had offered to change its military tactics in Cuba and to allow Cubans limited home rule. The offer now was to grant an armistice to the insurgents. The American ambassador in Spain believed that the Spanish government would even be willing to grant independence to Cuba, if there were no political or military attempt to humiliate Spain.

Neither the Spanish government nor McKinley wanted war. However, the latter proved unable to resist the new martial mood and the aroused jingoism in the press and Congress. On April 11, 1898, McKinley sent a message to Congress that did not directly call for war, but declared that he had “exhausted every effort” to resolve the matter and was awaiting Congress’s action. Congress declared war. A year later, McKinley observed, “But for the inflamed state of public opinion, and the fact that Congress could no longer be held in check, a peaceful solution might have been had.” He might have added that, had he been possessed of a stiffer political spine, that peaceful solution might have been had, as well.

The “splendid little war,” in the words of the soon-to-be Secretary of State, John Hay, was exceedingly popular and resulted in an overwhelming and relatively easy American victory. Only 289 were killed in action, although, due to poor hygienic conditions, many more died from disease. Psychologically, it proved cathartic for Americans after the national trauma of the Civil War. One symbolic example of the new unity forged by the war with Spain was that Joe Wheeler and Fitzhugh Lee, former Confederate generals, were generals in the U.S. Army.

Spain signed a preliminary peace treaty in August. The treaty called for the surrender of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The status of the Philippines was left for final negotiations. The ultimate treaty was signed in Paris on December 10, 1898. The Philippines, wracked by insurrection, were ceded to the United States for $2 million. The administration believed that it would be militarily advantageous to have a base in the Far East to protect American interests.

The war may have been popular, but the peace was less so. The two-thirds vote needed for Senate approval of the peace treaty was a close-run matter. There was a militant group of “anti-imperialists” in the Senate who considered it a betrayal of American republicanism to engage in the same colonial expansion as the European powers. Americans had long imagined themselves to be unsullied by the corrupt motives and brutal tactics that such colonial ventures represented in their minds. McKinley, who had reluctantly agreed to the treaty, reassured himself and Americans, “No imperial designs lurk in the American mind. They are alien to American sentiment, thought, and purpose.” But, with a nod to Rudyard Kipling’s urging that Americans take on the “white man’s burden,” McKinley cast the decision in republican missionary garb, “If we can benefit those remote peoples, who will object? If in the years of the future they are established in government under law and liberty, who will regret our perils and sacrifices?”

The controversy around an “American Empire” was not new. Early American republicans like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall, among many others, had described the United States in that manner and without sarcasm. The government might be a republic in form, but the United States would be an empire in expanse, wealth, and glory. Why else acquire the vast Louisiana territory in 1803? Why else demand from Mexico that huge sparsely-settled territory west of Texas in 1846? “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” painted Emanuel Leutze in 1861. Manifest Destiny became the aspirational slogan.

While most Americans cheered those developments, a portion of the political elite had misgivings. The Whigs opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. To many Whigs, the latter especially was merely a war of conquest and the imposition of American rule against the inhabitants’ wishes. Behind the republican facade lay a more fundamental political concern. The Whigs’ main political power was in the North, but the new territory likely would be settled by Southerners and increase the power of the Democrats. That movement of settlers would also give slavery a new lease on life, something much reviled by most Whigs, among them a novice Congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

Yet, by the 1890s, the expansion across the continent was completed. Would it stop there or move across the water to distant shores? One omen was the national debate over Hawaii that culminated in the annexation of the islands in 1898. Some opponents drew on the earlier Whig arguments and urged that, if the goal of the continental expansion was to secure enough land for two centuries to realize Jefferson’s ideal of a large American agrarian republic, the goal had been achieved. Going off-shore had no such republican fig leaf to cover its blatant colonialism.

Other opponents emphasized the folly of nation-building and trying to graft Western values and American republicanism onto alien cultures who neither wanted them nor were sufficiently politically sophisticated to make them work. They took their cue from John C. Calhoun, who, in 1848, had opposed the fanciful proposal to annex all of Mexico, “We make a great mistake in supposing that all people are capable of self-government. Acting under that impression, many are anxious to force free Governments on all the people of this continent, and over the world, if they had the power…. It is a sad delusion. None but a people advanced to a high state of moral and intellectual excellence are capable in a civilized condition, of forming and maintaining free Governments ….”

With peace at hand, the focus shifted to political and legal concerns. The question became whether or not the Constitution applied to these new territories ex proprio vigore: “Does the Constitution follow the flag?” Neither President McKinley nor Congress had a concrete policy. The Constitution, having been formed by thirteen states, along the eastern slice of a vast continent, was unclear. The Articles of Confederation had provided for the admission of Canada and other British colonies, such as the West Indies, but that document was moot. The matter was left to the judiciary, and the Supreme Court provided a settlement of sorts in a series of cases over two decades called the Insular Cases.

Cuba was easy. Congress’s declaration of war against Spain had been clear: “The United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.” In Neely v. Henkel (1901), the Court unanimously held that the Constitution did not apply to Cuba. Effectively, Cuba was already a foreign country outside the Constitution. Cuba became formally independent in 1902. In similar manner, the United States promised independence to the Philippine people, a process that took several decades due to various military exigencies. Thus, again, the Constitution did not apply there, at least not tout court, as the Court affirmed beginning in Dorr v. U.S. in 1904. That took care of the largest overseas dominions, and Americans could tentatively congratulate themselves that they were not genuine colonialists.

More muddled was the status of Puerto Rico and Guam. In Puerto Rico, social, political, and economic conditions did not promise an easy path to independence, and no such assurance was given. The territory was not deemed capable of surviving on its own. Rather, the peace treaty expressly provided that Congress would determine the political status of the inhabitants. In 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act, which set up a civil government patterned on the old British imperial system with which Americans were familiar. The locals would elect an assembly, but the President would appoint a governor and executive council. Guam was in a similar state of dependency.

In Downes v. Bidwell (1901), the Court established the new status of Puerto Rico as neither outside nor entirely inside the United States. Unlike Hawaii or the territories that were part of Manifest Destiny, there was no clear determination that Puerto Rico was on a path to become a state and, thus, was already incorporated into the entity called the United States. It belonged to the United States, but was not part of the United States. The Constitution, on its own, applied only to states and to territory that was expected to become part of the United States. Puerto Rico was more like, but not entirely like, temporarily administered foreign territory. Congress determined the governance of that territory by statute or treaty, and, with the exception of certain “natural rights” reflected in particular provisions of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution applied only to the extent to which Congress specified.

These cases adjusted constitutional doctrine to a new political reality inaugurated by the sinking of the Maine and the war that event set in motion. The United States no longer looked inward to settle its own large territory and to resolve domestic political issues relating to the nature of the union. Rather, the country was looking beyond its shores and was emerging as a world power. That metamorphosis would take a couple of generations and two world wars to complete, the last of which triggered by another surprise attack on American warships.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

The Massacre at Wounded Knee, part of the Ghost Dance War, marked the last of the Indian Wars and the end of one of the bloodiest eras in American History, the systematic and deliberate slaughter of Native American peoples and their way of life. It was an American Holocaust. During a 500 year period, approximately 100,000,000 Native Americans were killed as citizens of the United States pushed West in the name of manifest destiny and destroyed the Native American territories that had been their home for thousands of years. These events will never take a place on the front of our history books, but they must never lose their place in our national memory.

Armed conflict was still prevalent in the American West in the 1880s between the U.S. Army and the Native American population, even after most of the tribes there had been displaced or had their populations reduced in great numbers. The Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 had been the most fierce of the wars with the Sioux, which had started in the mid-1850s, when Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had gone to war to defend the Black Hills after the U.S. violated the treaty that they had signed stating the land was the property of the Sioux. After the Battle of Little Bighorn, a gradual depletion of Sioux forces occurred and Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877.

The remaining Sioux were spread out in their reservations and eventually were placed onto a central reservation in the Dakota territory and were practicing a ritual known as the Ghost Dance. The dance was supposed to drive the white men from Native American territory and restore peace and tranquility to the region. Settlers were frightened by the dance and they said it had a “ghostly aura” to it, thus giving it its name.

In response to the settlers’ fears, U.S. commanders arrested several leaders of the Sioux, including Chief Kicking Bear and Chief Sitting Bull, who was later killed.

Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, U.S. troops demanded that all the Sioux immediately turn over their weapons. As they were peacefully doing so, one deaf Sioux warrior did not understand the command to turn over his rifle. As his rifle was being taken from him, a shot went off in the crowd. The soldiers panicked and open fired on everyone in the area.

As the smoke cleared, 300 dead Lakota and 25 dead U.S. soldiers were laying on the ground. Many more Lakota were later killed by U.S. troops as they fled the reservation. The massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was the last of the Indian Wars. Twenty U.S. soldiers were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during this campaign. The National Congress of American Indians has called on the U.S. government to rescind some or all of these medals, but they have not yet taken action to do so.

The American public’s reaction to the massacre was positive at first but over time as the scale and gravity of the massacre was revealed, the American people began to understand the brutal injustice that occurred during this encounter. Today, we need to remember the Massacre at Wounded Knee for the human cost and to make sure that events like this never happen again in our nation. We also need to make sure to honor and remember all Americans and their histories, even when it is not easy to read or take responsibility. For how can we truly be a nation where all are created equal if the treatment of our histories are not?

Val Crofts is a Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin, and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Paul Israel

By the time Thomas Edison began his effort to develop an incandescent electric light in September 1878, researchers had been working on the problem for forty years. While many of them developed lamps that worked in the laboratory and for short-term demonstrations, none had been able to devise a lamp that would last in long-term commercial use.  Edison was able to succeed where others had failed because he understood that developing a successful commercial lamp also required him to develop an entire electrical system. With the resources of his laboratory, he and his staff were able to design not only a commercially successful lamp but the system that made it possible.

At the time, Edison’s work on telegraphs and telephones largely defined the limits of his knowledge of electrical technology. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he did not even have experience with arc lights and dynamos. Yet he confidently predicted that he could solve the problem and after only a few days of experiment during the second week of September 1878 he announced that he had “struck a bonanza.”  He believed he had solved the problem of creating a long-lasting lamp by designing regulators that would prevent the lamp filament (he was then using platinum and related metals) from melting. Edison reached this solution by thinking of electric lights as analogous to telegraph instruments and lamp regulators as a form of electromechanical switch similar to those he used in telegraphy. Edison’s regulators used the expansion of metals or air heated by the electric current to divert current from the incandescing element in order to prevent it from destruction by overheating. Edison was soon designing lamp regulators in the same fertile manner that he had previously varied the relays and circuits of his telegraph designs.

Edison was also confident that his insights regarding high-resistance lamps and parallel circuits would be key to designing a commercial electric lighting system. Because the regulator temporarily removed the lamp from the circuit, he realized that he had to place the lamps in parallel circuits so that each individual lamp could be turned on and off without affecting any others in the circuit. This was also desirable for customers used to independently operated gas lamps. Even more important was Edison’s grasp of basic electrical laws. He was virtually alone in understanding how to produce an economical distribution system. Other researchers had been stymied by the cost of the copper conductors, which would require a very large cross section to reduce energy lost as excess heat in the system. However, large copper conductors would make the system too expensive. Edison realized that by using high-resistance lamps he could increase the voltage proportionately to the current and thus reduce the size and cost of the conductors.

Edison initially focused his work on the lamp because he saw it as the critical problem and thought that standard arc-lighting dynamos could easily meet the requirements of an incandescent lighting system.  However, after experimenting with one of these dynamos, Edison began to doubt their suitability for his purposes. With the expectation of funds from the newly formed Edison Electric Light Company, he ordered other machines and began to design his own generators as well. By January 1879, Edison’s understanding of generators had advanced sufficiently “after a few weeks hard study on magneto electric principles,” for him to start his machinists building a new design. Edison’s ability to experiment with generators was greatly enhanced by his new financial resources that enabled him to build a large machine shop that could produce not only fine instruments like telegraphs and lamps, but also generators—”in short all the means to set up & test most deliberately every point of the Electric Light.” With the new facilities, machinery, and assistants made possible by his financial backers, Edison could pursue research on a broad front. In fact, by the end of May, he had developed his standard generator design. It would take much longer to develop a commercial lamp.

Just as the dynamo experiments marked a new effort to build up a base of fundamental knowledge, so too did lamp experiments in early 1879 begin to reflect this new spirit of investigation. Instead of continuing to construct numerous prototypes, Edison began observing the behavior of platinum and other metals under the conditions required for incandescence. By studying his filaments under a microscope, he soon discovered that the metal seemed to absorb gases during heating, suggesting that the problem lay less in the composition of the metal than in the environment in which it was heated. The most obvious way to change the environment was to use a vacuum. By improving the existing vacuum-pump technology with the assistance of an experienced German glassblower, Edison was able to better protect his filaments and by the end of the summer he had done away with his complicated electromechanical regulators. The improved vacuum pumps developed by the laboratory staff helped to produce a major breakthrough in the development of a commercial lamp.

Although Edison no longer required a regulator for his platinum filaments and the lamps lasted longer, they were too expensive for commercial use. Not only was platinum a rare and expensive metal, but platinum filaments did not produce the high resistance he needed for his distribution system. With much better vacuum technology capable of preventing the oxidation of carbon filaments, Edison decided to try experimenting with a material that was not only much cheaper and more abundant, but which also produced high-resistance filaments.

The shift to carbon was a product of Edison’s propensity for working on several projects at once. During the spring and summer of 1879, telephone research at times overshadowed the light as Edison sought to improve his instrument for the British market. A crucial element of Edison’s telephone was the carbon button used in his transmitter. These buttons were produced in a little shed at the laboratory complex where day and night kerosene lamps were burned and the resulting carbon, known as lampblack, was collected and formed into buttons. The reason for turning to this familiar material lies in another analogy. Almost from the beginning of the light research, Edison had determined that the most efficient form for his incandescing element would be a thin wire spiral which would allow him to decrease radiating surface so as to reduce the energy lost through radiation of heat rather than light. The spiral form also increased resistance. It was his recognition that the lampblack could be rolled like a wire and then coiled into a spiral like platinum that led Edison to try carbon as a filament material.

Although Edison’s basic carbon-filament lamp patent, filed on November 4, 1879, still retained the spiral form, the laboratory staff had great difficulty in actually winding a carbon spiral. Instead, Edison turned to another form of carbon “wire”–a thread. During the night of October 21–22, the laboratory staff watched as a cotton-thread filament burned for 14 1/2 hours with a resistance of around 100 ohms. This date of this experiment would later be later be associated with the invention of the electric light, but at the time Edison treated it not as a finished invention but rather as the beginning of a new experimental path. The commercial lamp would require another year of research.

Nonetheless, by New Year’s Day 1880, Edison was able to demonstrate his system to the public. Over the course of the next year, he and his staff worked feverishly to bring his system to a state of commercial introduction. In the process, he turned the Menlo Park laboratory into an R&D center, with an emphasis on development. By spring, the staff which previously consisted of some twelve or fifteen experimenters and machinists, was greatly expanded, at times reaching as many as sixty men. Work on the various component was delegated to new members of the staff and over the course of the year, work progressed on each element of the system, including the generator, meter, underground conductors, safety fuses, lamp fixtures and sockets, and the commercial bamboo-carbon filament. By the time all these ancillary components were developed and manufacturing underway in the spring of 1881, Edison had spent over $200,000 on research and development.  Commercial introduction required several thousand additional dollars of research as well as $500,000 to install the first central station system in downtown New York City, which opened on September 4, 1882, four years after Edison first began his research. Though he claimed merely to “have accomplished all I promised,” Edison had done even more by starting a new industry and reorganizing the process of invention.

Historian, Dr. Paul Israel, a former Californian, moved East to NJ over 30 years ago to do research for a book on Thomas Edison & the electric light. Today he is the Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University, the New Jersey State University. 

The Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, a research center at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, is one of the most ambitious editing projects ever undertaken by an American university.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Paul Israel

In mid-July 1877, while working to develop an improved telephone for the Western Union Telegraph Company, Thomas Edison conceived the idea of recording and reproducing telephone messages. Edison came up with this extraordinary idea because he thought about the telephone as a form of telegraph, even referring to it as a “speaking telegraph.” Thus, on July 18, he tried an experiment with a telephone “diaphragm having an embossing point & held against paraffin paper moving rapidly.” Finding that sound “vibrations are indented nicely” he concluded, “there’s no doubt that I shall be able to store up & reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice perfectly.”

At the time Edison was also working on his repeating telegraph known as the translating embosser. This device recorded an outgoing message as the operator sent it, enabling automatic, rapid retransmission of the same message on other lines. This would be particularly desirable for long press-wire articles that required very skilled operators to transmit and receive. The incoming, high-speed message recorded by the embosser at each receiving station could be transcribed at a slower speed by an operator using a standard sounder. Edison thought his telephone recorder could be used in a similar fashion by allowing the voice message to be “reproduced slow or fast by a copyist & written down.”

Busy with telephone and translating embosser experiments, Edison put this idea aside until August 12, when he drew a device he labeled “Phonograph,”  which looked very much like an automatic telegraph recorder he had developed a few years earlier. For many years, researchers were fooled by another drawing containing the inscription “Kreuzi Make This Edison August 12/77.” However, the text for this drawing, which was published twice in the mid-1890s without the inscription, was added during the 40th anniversary of the invention to represent the drawing from which machinist John Kruesi constructed the first phonograph.

Over the next few months, Edison periodically experimented with “apparatus for recording & reproducing the human voice,” using various methods to record on paper tape. The first design for a cylinder recorder, apparently still using paper to record on, appeared in a notebook entry of September 21. However, it was not until November 5, that he first described the design that John Kruesi would beginning making at the end of the month. “I propose having a cylinder 10 threads or embossing grooves to the inch cylinder 1 foot long on this tin foil of proper thickness.” As Edison noted, he had discovered after “various experiments with wax, chalk, etc.” that “tin foil over a groove is the easiest of all= this cylinder will indent about 200 spoken words & reproduce them from same cylinder.” On November 10, he drew a rough sketch of this new tinfoil cylinder design. This drawing looks very similar to the more careful sketch he later inscribed “Kreuzi Make This Edison August 12/77.”  It also resembles the large drawing Edison made on November 29, which may have been used by Kruesi while he was making the first phonograph during the first six days of December.

These drawings of the tinfoil cylinder phonograph looked very much like those for the cylinder version of Edison’s translating embosser while a disc design was based on another version of his translating embosser. The disc translating embosser can be found today at the reconstructed Menlo Park Laboratory at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  This device also became part of the creation myth for the phonograph when it appeared in the 1940 Spencer Tracy movie Edison the Man. In the movie an assistant accidentally starts the embosser with a recording on it, resulting in a high-pitched sound that leads Edison to the idea of recording sound.

Although Edison did not have a working phonograph until December, he had drafted his first press release to announce the new invention on September 7. Writing in the third person he claimed that

“Mr. Edison the Electrician has not only succeeded in producing a perfectly articulating telephone.…far superior and much more ingenious than the telephone off Bell…but has gone into a new and entirely unexplored field of acoustics which is nothing less than an attempt to record automatically the speech of a very rapid speaker upon paper; from which he reproduces the same Speech immediately or year’s afterwards or preserving the characteristics of the speakers voice so that persons familiar with it would at once recognize it.

This text and its drawings of a paper-tape phonograph would become the basis for a letter to the editor by Edison’s associate Edward Johnson that appeared in the November 17 issue of Scientific American. Not surprisingly, when this was republished in the newspapers it was met with skepticism.

On December 7, the day after Kruesi finished making the first tinfoil cylinder phonograph, Edison took the machine to Scientific American’s offices in New York City, accompanied by Johnson and laboratory assistant Charles Batchelor. He amazed the staff when he placed the little machine on the editor’s desk and turned the handle to reproduce a recording he had already made. As described in an article in the December 22 issue, “the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.”

By the New Year, Edison had an improved phonograph that he exhibited at Western Union headquarters, where it attracted the attention of the New York newspapers. These first public demonstrations produced a trickle of articles that soon turned into a steady stream and by the end of March had become a veritable flood. Edison soon became as famous as his astounding invention. Reports soon began calling Edison “Inventor of the Age,” the “Napoleon of Invention,” and most famously “The Wizard of Menlo Park.”

Edison had grand expectations for his invention as did the investors in the newly formed Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. However, Edison and his associates were unable to turn the tinfoil phonograph from a curiosity suitable for exhibitions and lectures into a consumer product. The phonograph’s real drawback was not the mechanical design on which they focused their efforts but the tinfoil recording surface.  Compared to later wax recording surfaces developed in the 1880s, tinfoil recordings had very poor fidelity and also deteriorated rapidly after a single playback. As a result, for the next decade the phonograph remained little more than a scientific curiosity.

Historian, Dr. Paul Israel, a former Californian, moved East to NJ over 30 years ago to do research for a book on Thomas Edison & the electric light. Today he is the Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University, the New Jersey State University. 

The Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, a research center at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, is one of the most ambitious editing projects ever undertaken by an American university.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Dan Morenoff

Usually, breaking down history into chapters requires imposing arbitrary separations. Every once in a while, though, the divisions are clear and real, providing a hard-stop in the action that only makes sense against the backdrop of what it concludes, even if it explains what follows.

For reasons having next-to-nothing to do with the actual candidates,[1] the Presidential election of 1876 provided that kind of page-break in American history. It came on the heels of the Grant Presidency, during which the victor of Vicksburg and Appomattox sought to fulfill the Union’s commitments from the war (including those embodied in the post-war Constitutional Amendments) and encountered unprecedented resistance. It saw that resistance taken to a whole new level, which threw the election results into chaos and created a Constitutional crisis. And by the time Congress had extricated itself from that, they had fixed the immediate mess only by creating a much larger, much more costly, much longer lasting one.

Promises Made

To understand the transition, we need to start with the backdrop.

Jump back to April 1865. General Ulysses S. Grant takes Richmond, the Confederate capitol. The Confederate government collapses in retreat, with its Cabinet going its separate ways.[2] Before it does, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issues his final order to General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia: keep fighting! He tells Lee to take his troops into the countryside, fade into a guerrilla force, and fight on, making governance impossible. Lee, of course, refuses and surrenders at Appomattox Courthouse. A celebrating Abraham Lincoln takes a night off for a play, where a Southern sympathizer from Maryland murders him.[3] Before his passing, Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves and won the war (in part, thanks to the help of the freedmen who had joined the North’s army), so saving the Union. His assassination signified a major theme of the next decade: some’s refusal to accept the war’s results left them willing to cast aside the rule of law and employ political violence to resist the establishment of new norms.

Leaving our flashback: Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln in office, but in nothing else. Super-majorities in both the House and Senate hated him and his policies and established a series of precedents enhancing Congressional power, even while failing to establish the one they wanted most.[4] Before his exit from the White House, despite Johnson’s opposition: (a) the States had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment (banning slavery); (b) Congress had passed the first Civil Rights Act (in 1866, over his veto); (c) Congress had proposed and the States had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment (“constitutionalizing” the Civil Rights Act of 1866 by: (i) creating federal citizenship for all born in our territory; (ii) barring states from “abridg[ing] the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States[;]” (iii) altering the representation formula for states in Congress and the electoral college, and (iv) guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws); and (d) in the final days of his term, Congress formally proposed the Fifteenth Amendment (barring states from denying or abridging the right to vote of citizens of the United States “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”).

Notice how that progression, at each stage, was made necessary by the resistance of some Southerners to what preceded it. Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery? Bedford Forrest, a low-ranking Confederate General, responded by reversing Lee’s April decision: in December 1865, he founded the Ku Klux Klan (effectively, Confederate forces reborn) to wage the clandestine war against the U.S. government and the former slaves it had freed, which Lee refused to fight.  Their efforts (and, after Johnson recognized them as governments, the efforts of the Southern states to recreate slavery under another name) triggered passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment. Southern states nonetheless continued to disenfranchise black Americans. So, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to stop them. Each step required the next.

And the next step saw America, at its first chance, turn to its greatest hero, Ulysses S. Grant, to replace Johnson with someone who would put the White House on the side of fulfilling Lincoln’s promises. Grant tried to do so. He (convinced Congress to authorize and then) created the Department of Justice; he backed, signed into law, and had DOJ vigorously prosecute violations of the Enforcement Act of 1870 (banning the Klan and, more generally, the domestic terrorism it pioneered using to prevent black people from voting), the Enforcement Act of 1871 (allowing federal oversight of elections, where requested), and the Ku Klux Klan Act (criminalizing the Klan’s favorite tactics and making state officials who denied Americans either their civil rights or the equal protection of law personally liable for damages). He readmitted to the Union the last states of the old Confederacy still under military government, while conditioning readmission on their recognition of the equality before the law of all U.S. citizens. Eventually, he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875, guarantying all Americans access to all public accommodations.

And over the course of Grant’s Presidency, these policies bore fruit.  Historically black colleges and universities sprang up. America’s newly enfranchised freedmen and their white coalition partners elected governments in ten (10) states of the former Confederacy. These governments ratified new state constitutions and created their states’ first public schools. They saw black Americans serve in office in significant numbers for the first time (including America’s first black Congressmen and Senators and, in P.B.S. Pinchback, its first black Governor).

Gathering Clouds

But that wasn’t the whole story.

While the Grant Administration succeeded in breaking the back of the Klan, the grind of entering a second decade of military tours in the South shifted enough political power in the North to slowly sap support for continued, vigorous, federal action defending the rights of black Southerners. And less centralized terrorist forces functioned with increasing effectiveness. In 1872, in conjunction with a state election marred by thuggery and fraud, one such “militia” massacred an untold number of victims in Colfax, Louisiana. Federal prosecution of the perpetrators foundered when the Supreme Court gutted the Enforcement Acts as beyond Congress’s power to enact.

That led to more such “militias” often openly referring to themselves as “the military arm of the Democratic Party” flowering across the country.  And their increasingly brazen attacks on black voters and their white allies allowed those styling themselves “Redeemers” of the region to replace, one by one, the freely elected governments of Reconstruction first in Louisiana, then in Mississippi, then in South Carolina… with governments expressly dedicated to restoring the racial caste system.  “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the leader of a parallel massacre of black Union army veterans living in Hamburg, South Carolina, used his resulting notoriety to launch a political career spanning decades. Eventually, he reached both the governor’s mansion and the U.S. Senate, along the way, becoming the father of America’s gun-control laws, because it was easier to terrorize and disenfranchise the disarmed.

By 1876, with such “militias” enjoying a clear playbook and, in places, support from their state governments, the stage was set for massive fraud and duress trying to swing a presidential election. Attacks on black voters, and their allies, intended to prevent a substantial percentage of the electorate from voting, unfolded on a regional scale. South Carolina, while pursuing such illegal terror, simultaneously claimed to have counted more ballots than it had registered voters. The electoral vote count it eventually sent to the Senate was certified by no one – that for Louisiana was certified by a gubernatorial candidate holding no office. Meanwhile, Oregon sent two different sets of electoral votes: one certified by the Secretary of State, the other certified by the Governor, cast for two different Presidential candidates.

The Mess

The Twelfth Amendment requires states’ electors to: (a) meet; (b) cast their votes for the President and Vice President; (c) compile a list of vote-recipients for each (to be signed by the electors and certified); and (d) send the sealed list to the U.S. Senate (to the attention of the President of the Senate). It then requires the President of the Senate to open the sealed lists in the presence of the House and Senate to count the votes.

Normally, the President of the Senate is the Vice President. But Grant’s Vice President, Henry Wilson, had died in 1875 and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment’s mechanism to fill a Vice Presidential vacancy was still almost a century away. That left, in 1876, the Senate’s President Pro Tempore, Thomas W. Ferry (R-MI) to serve as the acting President of the Senate. But given the muddled state of the records sent to the Senate, Senate Democrats did not trust Ferry to play this role. Since the filibuster was well established by the 1870s, the Senate could do nothing without their acquiescence. More, they could point to Johnson-Administration precedents enhancing Congressional authority to demand that resolution of disputed electoral votes be reached jointly by both chambers of Congress, which they preferred, because Democrats had taken a majority of the lower House in 1874.

No one agreed which votes to count. No one agreed who could count them. And the difference between sets was enough to deliver the majority of the electoral college to either major party’s nominees for the Presidency and Vice Presidency. And all of this came at the conclusion of an election already marred by large-scale, partisan violence.

Swapping Messes

It took the Congress months to find its way out of this morass. Eventually, it did so through an unwritten deal. On March 2, 1877, Congress declared Ohio Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States over Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Hayes, in turn, embraced so-called “Home Rule,” removing all troops from the old Confederacy and halting the federal government’s efforts to either enforce the Civil Rights Acts or make real the promises of the post-war Constitutional Amendments.

With the commitments of Reconstruction abandoned, the “Redeemers” promptly completed their “Redemption” of the South from freely, lawfully elected governments. They rewrote state constitutions, broadly disenfranchised those promised the vote by the Fifteenth Amendment, and established the whole Jim-Crow structure that ignored (really, made a mockery of) the Fourteenth Amendment’s guaranties.

Congress solved the short-term problem by creating a larger, structural one that would linger for a century.

Dan Morenoff is Executive Director of The Equal Voting Rights Institute.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, was the Governor of Ohio at the time who had served in the Union army as a Brigadier General; Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic nominee, was the Governor of New York at the time, and earlier had been among the most prominent anti-slavery, pro-union Democrats to remain in the party in 1860.  Indeed, in 1848, Tilden was a founder of Martin Van Buren’s Free Soil Party, who attacked the Whigs (which Hayes then supported) as too supportive of slave-power.

[2] CSA President Jefferson Davis broke West, with the intention of reaching Texas and Arkansas (both unoccupied by the Union and continuing to claim authority from that rump-Confederacy).  His French-speaking Louisianan Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin broke South, pretending to be a lost immigrant peddler as he wound his way to Florida, then took a raft to Cuba as a refugee.  He won asylum, there, with the British embassy and eventually rode to London with the protection of the British Navy – alone among leading Confederates, Benjamin had a successful Second Act, in which he became a leading British lawyer and author of the world’s leading treatise on international taxation.

[3] To this day, it is unclear to what degree John Wilkes Booth was a Confederate operative.  He certainly spied for the CSA.  No correspondence survives to answer whether his assassination of Lincoln was a pre-planned CSA operation or freelancing after Richmond’s fall.

[4] He survived impeachment by a single vote.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In the mid-nineteenth century, the providential idea of Manifest Destiny drove Americans to move west. They traveled along various overland trails and railroads to Oregon, California, Colorado, and the Dakota Territory in search of land and gold. Native Americans who lived and hunted in the West were alarmed at white encroachment on their lands, which were usually protected by treaties. The conflict led to several violent clashes throughout the West.

Tensions with Native Americans simmered in the early 1870s. The Transcontinental Railroad contributed to western development and the integration of national markets, but it also intruded on Native American lands. Two military expeditions were dispatched to Montana to protect the railroad and its workers in 1872. In 1874, gold was reportedly discovered in the Black Hills in modern-day South Dakota within the Great Sioux Reservation. By the end of 1875, 15,000 prospectors and miners were in the Black Hills searching for gold.

Some Indians resisted. Sitting Bull was an elite Lakota Sioux war leader who had visions and dreams. Moreover, Oglala Lakota supreme war chief Crazy Horse had a reputation as a fierce warrior. They resisted the reservations and American encroachment on their lands and were willing to unite and fight against it.

In early November 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant met with General Philip Sheridan and others on Indian policy at the White House. They issued an ultimatum for all Sioux outside the reservation to go there by January 31, 1876 or be considered hostile. The Sioux ignored it. Sitting Bull said, “I will not go to the reservation. I have no land to sell. There is plenty of game for us. We have enough ammunition. We don’t want any white men here.”

That spring, the Cheyenne, Oglala, and Sioux tribes in the area decided to unite through the summer and fight the Americans. In the spring, Sitting Bull called for warriors to assemble at his village for war. Nearly two thousand warriors assembled, many were armed with the latest repeating Springfield rifles.

That spring, Sitting Bull had visions of victory over the white man. In mid-May, he fasted and purified himself in a ritual called the Sun Dance. After 50 small strips of flesh had been cut from each arm, he had a vision of whites coming into their camp and suffering a great defeat.

After discovering the approximate location of Sitting Bull’s village, General Alfred Terry met with Colonel George Custer and Colonel John Gibbon on the Yellowstone River to formulate a plan. They agreed upon a classic hammer and anvil attack in which Custer would proceed down the Rosebud River and attack the village, while Terry and Gibbon went down the Yellowstone and Little Bighorn Rivers to block any escape. Custer had 40 Arikara scouts with him to find the enemy.

On June 23 and 24, the Arikara scouts found evidence that Sitting Bull’s village had recently occupied the area. The exhausted Seventh Cavalry stopped for the night at 2 a.m. on June 25. The scouts meanwhile sighted a massive herd of ponies and sent a message to wake Custer. When a frightened scout, Bloody Knife, warned they would “find enough Sioux to keep us fighting two or three days,” Custer arrogantly replied, “I guess we’ll get through them in one day.” His greater fear was that the village would escape his clutches. He ordered his men to form up for battle.

Around noon, Custer led the Seventh into the valley and divided his men as he had during the Battle of Washita. He sent Captain Frederick Benteen to the left with 120 men to block any escape, while Custer and Major Marcus Reno advanced on the right along the Sun Dance Creek.

Custer and Reno spotted 40 to 50 warriors fleeing toward the main village. Custer further divided his army, sending Reno in pursuit and himself continuing along the right flank. Prodding his men with some bluster, Custer told them, “Boys, hold your horses. There are plenty of them down there for all of us.”

Reno’s men crossed the Little Bighorn and fired at noncombatants. Hundreds of Indian warriors started arriving to face Reno. Reno downed a great deal of whiskey and ordered his soldiers to dismount and form a skirmish line. They were outnumbered and were quickly overwhelmed by the Native Americans’ onslaught and running low on ammunition.

Reno’s men retreated to some woods along the bank of the river to find cover but were soon flushed out, though fifteen men remained there, hidden and frightened. The warriors routed Reno’s troops and killed several during their retreat back across the river. Reno finally organized eighty men on a hill and fought off several charges.

Benteen soon reinforced Reno as did the fifteen men from the thicket who also made it to what is now called Reno Hill, and the pack train with ammunition and supplies arrived as well. No one knew where Custer was. The men built entrenchments made of ammunition and hardtack boxes, saddles, and even dead horses. For more than three hours in the 100-degree heat, they fought off a continuous stream of attacking warriors by the hundreds and were saved only by the arrival of darkness. Reno’s exhausted and thirsty men continued to dig in and fortify their barricades.

The attacks resumed around that night and lasted all morning. Benteen and Reno organized charges that momentarily pushed back the Sioux and Cheyenne, and a few men sneaked down to the Little Bighorn for water. The fighting lasted until mid-afternoon when the warriors broke off to follow the large dust cloud of the departing village. The soldiers on the hill feared a trick and kept watch all night for the enemy’s return.

General Terry’s army was camped to the north when his Crow scouts reported to him at sunrise on June 26 that they had found the battlefield where two hundred men of the Seventh Regiment had been overwhelmed and killed making a last stand on a hill. The next day, Terry arrived at Last Stand Hill and morosely confirmed that Custer and his men were dead. The bad news sobered the celebration of the United States’ centennial when it arrived in the East.

Despite the destruction of Custer and his men at Little Bighorn, the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century were devastating for Native American tribes and their cultures. Their populations suffered heavy losses, and they lost their tribal grounds for hunting and agriculture. In the early twentieth century, the U.S. government restricted most Indians to reservations as Americans settled the West. Many Americans saw the reservation system as a more humane alternative to war, but it wrought continued damage to Native American cultures.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

An attorney representing Alexander Graham Bell and his business partner, Gardiner Hubbard, filed a patent application for an invention entitled an “Improvement in Telegraphy” on February 14, 1876. That same day, Elisha Gray, a prominent inventor from Highland Park, Illinois, had applied for a patent caveat for a similar invention from the same office. On March 7, Bell’s patent was approved by the patent office and the battle over the rights to the invention that we now know as the telephone began. The eventual outcome would shape the development of a major industry and the opportunities for communication and social interaction for the entire country.

The invention came from an unlikely source. Alexander Graham Bell was a Scottish-born teacher of elocution and tutor to the deaf whose family had migrated to Ontario, Canada, after the death of two of Bell’s siblings. Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s father, believed that their new home in Ontario offered them a better, more healthful climate. The elder Bell was a student of phonetics who had developed a system of “Visible Speech” to allow deaf people the chance to speak intelligibly. Melville Bell lectured periodically at the Lowell Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, and his son Alexander moved to Boston permanently to assume a teaching position at the Boston University.[1]

Though trained in acoustics and the science behind the sounds of the human voice, Bell did not have a strong understanding of electrical currents or electromagnetism. But early on he realized that the magnetic field of an electrical current was capable of vibrating objects, such as a tuning fork, which could create audible sounds. As he was learning of how electrical currents could be used for sound production, other researchers such as Joseph Stearns and Thomas Edison were developing a system of telegraph transmission in which multiple signals could be sent over the same wire at the same time. These systems relied upon sending the series of dots and dashes at different frequencies. Bell joined that research to find a better “multiplex” telegraph. In order to develop what Bell called a “harmonic telegraph,” Bell needed more funds for his lab. Much of his funding came from a notable Boston attorney, Gardiner Hubbard, who hired Bell as a teacher of his daughter, Mabel, who had become deaf after a bout with scarlet fever. Hubbard, who had a dislike for Western Union’s dominance in long-distance telegraph service, encouraged and subsidized Bell’s research on telegraphy. Hubbard and another financial backer, Thomas Sanders, formed a partnership with Bell, with an agreement that all three hold joint ownership of the patent rights for Bell’s inventions. Bell made significant progress on his research, and had more success in his private life. Mabel Hubbard, who was his student, became his betrothed. Despite the initial objections of her father, Mabel married Bell shortly after her eighteenth birthday.[2]

Other inventers were hard at work on similar lines of research. Daniel Drawbaugh, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, and especially Elisha Gray all were developing alternative versions of what would soon be known as the telephone while Bell was hard at work on his project.  Most of these models involved a variable resistance method of modifying the electrical current by dipping wires into a container of liquid, often mercury or sulfuric acid, to alter the current flowing to a set of reeds or diaphragm that would emit various sounds. Most of these researchers knew more about electrical currents and devices than Bell did. But Bell had a solid understanding of the human voice. Even though his research began as an effort to improve telegraphy, Bell realized that the devices that he created could be designed to replicate speech. His patent application in February of 1876 was for a telephone transmitter that employed a magnetized reed attached to a membrane diaphragm when activated by an undulating current. The device described in the patent application could transmit sounds but not actual speech. Months later, however, Bell’s instrument was improved sufficiently to allow him to convey a brief, audible message to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, who was in another part of his laboratory. In the summer of 1876, Bell demonstrated the transmission of audible speech to an amazed crowd at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Elisha Gray attempted to demonstrate his version of the telephone at the same exhibition, but was unable to convey the sound of human voices. The following year, Bell filed and received a patent for his telephone receiver, assuring his claim to devices that would both transmit and receive voice communications.[3]

In 1877, Bell and his partners formed the American Bell Telephone Company, a corporation that would later be known as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). The corporation and Bell personally were soon involved in a number of lawsuits alleging patent infringement and, in one case, patent cancellation. There were many litigants over the years, but the primary early adversary was Western Union, which had purchased the rights to Elisha Gray’s telephone patent. The United States federal government also was involved in a suit for patent cancellation, alleging that Bell gained his patents fraudulently by stealing the inventions of others. The lawsuit with Western Union was settled in 1879 when the corporation forfeited claims on the invention of the telephone in return for twenty percent of Bell’s company’s earnings for the duration of the patent.[4] The other lawsuits meandered through multiple courts over several years until several were consolidated before the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, a divided court ruled in favor of Bell’s position in each case. The various opinions and appendices were so voluminous that when compiled they made up the entire volume of United States Reports, the official publication of Supreme Court opinions.[5]

The court decisions ultimately granted vast scope to the Bell patent and assigned an enormously profitable asset to Bell’s corporation. The firm that became AT&T grew into one of the largest corporations in the world.[6] Years earlier, the telegraph had transformed communication, with huge impacts on the operation of industry and government. But although the telegraph had enormous impact upon the lives of ordinary Americans, it was not widely used by private individuals for their personal communications. Almost all messages were sent by businesses and government agencies. Initially, this was the common practice for telephone usage. But with the dawn of the twentieth century, telephones became widely used by private individuals. More phones were available in homes rather than just in offices. Unlike telegrams, which were charged by the word, telephone service for local calls were priced with a flat monthly rate. As a result, telephone service was enjoyed as a means of communication for social purposes, not just commercial activities.    Within a hundred years of Bell’s initial patent, telephones could be found in almost every American home.[7]

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Billington, David P. “Bell and the Telephone.” In Power, Speed, and Form: Engineers and the Making of the Twentieth Century, 35-56. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[2] Billington, op cit.

[3] Stone, Alan. “Protection of the Newborn.” In Public Service Liberalism: Telecommunications and Transitions in Public Policy, 51-83. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[4] MacDougall, Robert. “Unnatural Monopoly.” In The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 92-131. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

[5] The Telephone Cases.  126 US 1.

[6] Beauchamp, Christopher. “Who Invented the Telephone? Lawyers, Patents, and the Judgments of History.” Technology and Culture 51, no. 4 (2010): 854-78.

[7] MacDougall, Robert. “Visions of Telephony.” In The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 61-91. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.


Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner

Our National Parks are the most visible manifestation of why America is exceptional.

America’s Parks are the physical touchstones that affirm our national identity. These historical Parks preserve our collective memory of events that shaped our nation and the natural Parks preserve the environment that shaped us.

National Parks are open for all to enjoy, learn, and contemplate. This concept of preserving a physical space for the sole purpose of public access is a uniquely American invention. It further affirms why America remains an inspiration to the world.

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law creating Yellowstone as the world’s first National Park.

AN ACT to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate, or settle upon, or occupy the same or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed there from …

The Yellowstone legislation launched a system that now encompasses 419 National Parks with over 84 million acres. Inspired by Grant’s act, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand established their own National Parks during the following years.

Yellowstone was not predestined to be the first National Park.

In 1806, John Colter, a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, joined fur trappers to explore several Missouri River tributaries. Colter entered the Yellowstone area in 1807 and later reported on a dramatic landscape of “fire and brimstone.”  His description was rejected as too fanciful and labeled “Colter’s Hell.”

Over the years, other trappers and “mountain men” shared stories of fantastic landscapes of water gushing out of the ground and rainbow-colored hot springs. They were all dismissed as fantasy.

After America’s Civil War, formal expeditions were launched to explore the upper Yellowstone River system. Settlers and miners were interested in the economic potential of the region.

In 1869, Charles Cook, David Folsom, and William Peterson led a privately financed survey of the region. Their journals and personal accounts provided the first believable descriptions of Yellowstone’s natural wonders.

Reports from the Cook-Folsom Expedition encouraged the first official government survey in 1870. Henry Washburn, the Surveyor General of the Montana Territory, led a large team known as the Washburn-Langford-Doan Expedition to the Yellowstone area. Nathaniel P. Langford, who co-led the team, was a friend of Jay Cook, a major investor in the Northern Pacific Railway. Washburn was escorted by a U.S. Cavalry Unit commanded by Lt. Gustavus Doane. Their team, including Folsom, followed a similar course as the Cook-Folsom 1869 excursion, extensively documenting their observations of the Yellowstone area. They explored numerous lakes, mountains, and observed wildlife. The Expedition chronicled the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins. They named one geyser Old Faithful, as it erupted once every 74 minutes.

Upon their return, Cook combined Washburn’s and Folsom’s journals into a single version. He submitted it to the New York Tribune and Scribner’s for publication. Both rejected the manuscript as “unreliable and improbable” even with the military’s corroboration. Fortunately, another member of Washburn’s Expedition, Cornelius Hedges, submitted several articles about Yellowstone to the Helena Herald newspaper from 1870 to 1871. Hedges would become one of the original advocates for setting aside the Yellowstone area as a National Park.

Langford, who would become Yellowstone’s first park superintendent, reported to Cooke about his observations. While Cooke was primarily interested in how Yellowstone’s wonders and resources could attract railroad business, he supported Langford’s vision of establishing a National Park. Cooke financed Langford’s Yellowstone lectures in Virginia City, Helena, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

On January 19, 1871, geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden attended Langford’s speech in Washington, D.C. He was motivated to conduct his next geological survey in the Yellowstone region.

In 1871, Hayden organized the first federally funded survey of the Yellowstone region. His team included photographer William Henry Jackson, and landscape artist Thomas Moran. Hayden’s reports on the geysers, sulfur springs, waterfalls, canyons, lakes and streams of Yellowstone verified earlier reports. Jackson’s and Moran’s images provided the first visual proof of Yellowstone’s unique natural features.

The various expeditions and reports built the case for preservation instead of exploitation.

In October 1865, acting Montana Territorial Governor Thomas Francis Meagher, was the first public official recommending that the Yellowstone region should be protected. In an 1871 letter from Jay Cooke to Hayden, Cooke wrote that his friend, Congressman William D. Kelley was suggesting “Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever.”

Hayden became another leader for establishing Yellowstone as a National Park. He was concerned the area could face the same fate as the overly developed and commercialized Niagara Falls area. Yellowstone should, “be as free as the air or water.” In his report to the Committee on Public Lands, Hayden declared that if Yellowstone was not preserved, “the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.”

Langford, and a growing number of park advocates, promoted the Yellowstone bill in late 1871 and early 1872.  They raised the alarm that “there were those who would come and make merchandise of these beautiful specimen.”

Their proposed legislation drew upon the precedent of the Yosemite Act of 1864, which barred settlement and entrusted preservation of the Yosemite Valley to the state of California.

Park advocates faced spirited opposition from mining and development interests who asserted that permanently banning settlement of a public domain the size of Yellowstone would depart from the established policy of transferring public lands to private ownership (in the 1980s, $1 billion of exploitable deposits of gold and silver were discovered within miles of the Park).  Developers feared that the regional economy would be unable to thrive if there remained strict federal prohibitions against resource development or settlement within park boundaries. Some tried to reduce the proposed size of the park so that mining, hunting, and logging activities could be developed.

Fortunately, Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s paintings captured the imagination of Congress. These compelling images, and the credibility of the Hayden report, persuaded the United States Congress to withdraw the Yellowstone region from public auction. The Establishment legislation quickly passed both chambers and was sent to President Grant for his signature.

Grant, an early advocate of preserving America’s unique natural features, enthusiastically signed the bill into law.

On September 8, 1978, Yellowstone and Mesa Verde were the first U.S. National Parks designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Yellowstone was deemed a “resource of universal value to the world community.”

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Brian Pawlowski

The stories of our history connect generations across time in remarkable ways. The same giddy fascination Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant held for the potential of the railroad in the nineteenth century is present in countless children today. They tear through books like Locomotive by Brian Floca until the pages are nearly torn from constant re-reading. It is a wonderful book that conveys both the magnitude and the majesty of the transcontinental railroad in an accessible way. A more thorough treatment of the railroad, Nothing in the World Like It: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, written by historian Stephen Ambrose perhaps summarized it best by noting that, “Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the 19th century.”[1] Making this achievement all the more remarkable is the fact that it was hatched as the Civil War was raging: a project to connect a continent that was at war with itself.

In 1862, only a few months after the Union victory at Shiloh and just a month before the battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into law. It called for the construction of a railway from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. It appropriated government lands and bonds to corporations that would do the work, the first time government dollars were granted to any entity other than states. The companies, the Union Pacific starting in Omaha, and the Central Pacific begun in Sacramento, were in direct competition to lay as much track as possible and complete the nearly 2,000 miles that would be necessary for the railroad.

Construction technically began in 1863 but the war demanded men and material in such large proportion that no real progress was made until 1865. After the war, the railroads became engines of economic development that attracted union veterans and Irish immigrants in droves to the Union Pacific’s efforts. The Central Pacific sought a similar workforce, but the population of Irish immigrants in California at the time was not a sustainable source of labor. Instead, thousands of Chinese immigrants sought employment with the railroad. Initially there was resistance to Chinese workers. Fears of racial inferiority pervaded much of California at that time and many felt the Chinese were listless and lazy. These fears dissipated quickly, however, as the Chinese worked diligently, with skill and ingenuity that allowed them to push through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Before it was done, nearly 20,000 Chinese laborers took part building the railroad, employing new techniques and utilizing new materials like nitroglycerin to carve a path for the tracks in areas where no one thought it could be done.

In the summer of 1867, the Central Pacific finally made it through the mountains. While the entire effort represented a new level of engineering brilliance and innovation for its time, the Central Pacific’s thrust through the mountains surpassed expectations. To chart a course for rail through granite, an impediment no one in history to that time had crossed on anything other than horse or foot, ushered in a new era of more rapid continental movement. Before the railroad era, it took nearly four or five months to get from the east coast to the west. Upon completion, however, the trip could take as little as three and a half days.[2] Absent the ability to go through the mountains, this would not have been possible.

Throughout 1867 and 1868, both rail companies worked feverishly to lay more track than their counterpart. Government subsidies for the work increased and more track laid meant more money earned. The amounts were different and were measured by the mile, thus reflecting the difficulty the Central Pacific faced in conquering the mountains. By not having mountainous terrain to contend with, the Union Pacific made incredible progress and reached Wyoming by 1867. But the Union Pacific had challenges of a different sort. Rather than conquering nature, they had to conquer humans.

Native American plains tribes, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, knew the railroad would be a permanent feature on land that was prime hunting ground for the buffalo. They saw the construction as an existential threat. As the railroad continued on into the plains, new settlements sprang up in its shadow, on territory the tribes claimed as their own.[3] There was bound to be a fight. The railway companies called on the government to send the army to pacify the territory and threatened that construction could not continue without this aid. The government complied and as work resumed, army soldiers protected them along the construction route.

As the summer of 1869 approached, a standoff occurred between the companies on the location where they would join the railroad together. Ulysses S. Grant, by then the President, threatened to cut off federal funding until a meeting place was agreed to and ultimately, with the help of a congressional committee and the cold, hard reality of needing cash, they agreed on Promontory Summit, Utah. On May 10, 1869, a 17.6 karat golden spike was hammered home, finishing the railway and connecting the coasts.

The completion of the transcontinental railway brought about an era of unprecedented western expansion, economic development, and population migration. At the same time, it caused more intense conflict between those moving and developing the west and the Native American Indian tribes. Years of conflict would follow, but the settlement of the west continued. And with the new railroad in place, it continued at a rapid pace as more and more people boarded mighty locomotives to head west toward new lands and new lives. As Daniel Webster, a titan of the era remarked nearly twenty years earlier, the railway “towers above all other inventions of this or the preceding age” and it now had continental reach and power.[4] America endured the scourge of Civil War and achieved the most magnificent engineering effort of the era only five years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox.

Brian Pawlowski holds an MA in American History, is a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s state leadership network, and served as an intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps. 

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing in the World Like It: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 17.

[2], Transcontinental Railroad, September 11, 2019,

[3] H.W. Brands, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 295.

[4] Ambrose, 357.

Guest Essayist: Kyle A. Scott

The Seventeenth Amendment was passed by Congress May 13, 1912 and ratified on April 8, 1913. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan certified the ratification on May 31, 1913. Once the Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, citizens had the right to directly cast ballots for their state’s two senators. The Amendment changed Article I, Section 3, clauses 1 and 3 of the Constitution that had previously stipulated senators were to be elected by state legislatures. By allowing for the direct election of senators, a barrier was removed between the people and the government that moved the U.S. closer to democracy and away from a republican form of government.

At the time the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, there was a clear apprehension toward monarchy but also an aversion toward democracy. The founders were suspicious of the capricious tendencies of the majority and considered democracy to be mob rule. With direct elections of members in the House of Representatives every two years, representatives could be swept into and out of office with great efficiency and would therefore bow to the will of the majority. If some interest that ran counter to the common good, but nonetheless gained the favor of the majority, the House would be ill-incentivized to look after the common good. The Senate, as it was not directly elected by the people, could be a check on the passions of the majority. In Federalist Paper #63 Publius wrote, “an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”

Prior to the formation of the United States it was assumed that republics could only be small in scale. James Madison refuted such luminaries as Baron de Montesquieu in offering a solution to the problem of scale by introducing multiple layers of checks and balances into a federal regime that included a check on democratic rule at the national level. With the senate serving as a bulwark against the threat of tyranny by the majority, every viable interest could be given representation in the national debate. Now that this bulwark has been replaced with democratic elections, the president is now the only elected official at the national level shielded—at least somewhat—from public opinion as the president is elected not by the people but through the Electoral College.

At the time the Constitution was being drafted, some in Philadelphia believed there was a strong push for states’ rights. The Articles of Confederation provided a weak central government and the new states were reluctant to give up their power to a central body as they had just thrown off the yoke of tyranny hoisted upon them by a centralized governing body. The election of senators by state legislatures was one way to assuage those concerns. In Federalist Paper #62, Publius writes, “Among the various modes which might have been devised for constituting this branch of the government, that which has been proposed by the convention is probably the most congenial to public opinion. It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government.” It was thought that the state’s interests would be represented in the Senate and popular interests would be represented in the House. With these sets of interests competing, the popular good would be represented in any bill that would be able to make its way through both chambers of congress. This was the very core of the theory of our constitutional government as envisioned and understood by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Both Madison and Hamilton argued that ambition should be made to counteract ambition and through the competition of ambitions the common good would be realized. It is only in republican government that the negative effects of faction can be mitigated and the positive aspects funneled into the realization of the common good. “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater the number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.” (Federalist Paper #10).

The risks associated with democratization threaten the balance and principles republican regimes aspire to. Democracy aspires to nothing but its own will. Direct democracy offers too few safeguards against whimsy and caprice. In democracies, individuals are left to put their interests above all others and be guided by little more than immediate need as long-term planning is disincentivized.

Understanding the ramifications of further democratization is a timely topic as it is likely to be widely discussed in popular media in the upcoming presidential election. We see in every election a push for eliminating the Electoral College. With every passing election the cries for reform grow louder. Those who value republican principles should equip themselves to defend republican principles and institutions with evidence and theory and not rely on self-interest, cliché, or partisan allegiance. If interested, reread the Federalist Papers, but also, go back and read the press clippings from 1912-1913 and look for parallels to today. What you will find is a sense of connectedness with previous eras that will let the reader know these are permanent questions worth taking seriously.

Kyle Scott, PhD, MBA, currently works in higher education administration and has taught American politics, Constitutional Law, and political theory for more than a decade at the university level. He is the author of five books and more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles. His most recent book is The Federalist Papers: A Reader’s Guide. Kyle can be contacted at

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: David Shestokas


It’s difficult to determine a precise moment when Russia came to dominate recent American news and politics. The events that may have spun Russia into part of America’s daily discussions may have been accusations of Russia’s involvement in the 216 elections.

Since then, Russia and the villainous Vladimir Putin have been a daily part of our political discourse. Even as the novel coronavirus raged, mentions of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Lt. General Michael Flynn broke through coverage of the pandemic.


Russia has not always been a mortal enemy in the American story. America’s Founders reached out to Russia in our earliest days. In December, 1780, the United States sent its first envoy to St. Petersburg, then Russia’s capital. The envoy, Francis Dana, brought a secretary with him.

The secretary was fourteen-year-old John Quincy Adams. Dana could speak no word of French, the language of the Russian court, and so John Adams[1] had lent Dana his son, who was fluent in French. Young John Quincy thus became a diplomatic interpreter.

Dana’s mission was to secure aid and support from Tsarina Catherine I for the American Revolution against England. The mission was unsuccessful, but for three years John Quincy became familiar with the workings of Russia’s ruling class. Catherine’s grandson was about the royal court during John Quincy’s tenure in St. Petersburg. In 1801, the grandson would become Tsar Alexander I.

Twenty-six years later, after John Quincy’s father had been President of the United States and Alexander’s father had preceded him as tsar, John Quincy returned to St. Petersburg. In November, 1809, Tsar Alexander I received John Quincy Adams as the first official United States Ambassador to Russia.

The Tsar greeted Adams warmly: “Monsieur, je suis charmé d’avoir le plaisir de vous voir ici.”[2] After this warm welcome, Ambassador Adams and Tsar Alexander spoke at length of trade, European politics, wars and Napoleon, the sometime ally, sometime adversary of both Russia and the United States.

The Tsar became ever more comfortable with his American guest, ultimately confiding the difficulties of managing his empire. Alexander revealed to John Quincy: “Its size is one of its greatest evils,” the Czar mused of his own country. “It is difficult to hold together so great a body as this empire.”

Ambassador Adams included the Tsar’s comment in his diplomatic dispatch to the State Department and President Monroe. It became part of the institutional memory of the United States, a country that only six years before had bought Louisiana from Napoleon.[3]


In July, 1741, Vitus Bering, a Russian naval officer culminated years of Russian eastward exploration with the sighting of Mount Saint Elias (a.k.a. Boundary Peak) on the North America mainland. The coming years would see periodic trips by Russian hunters and trappers.

In 1781 the Northeastern Company was established to organize and administer Russian colonies in North America. Company operations were directed from Kithtak (now Kodiak Island) and later from Novo-Arkhangelsk (now Sitka, Alaska).

For the next 70 years, Russian traders and trappers inhabited coastal Alaska. The Russian colonists regularly had violent confrontations with Native Alaskans. The Russian colonies grew in dependence upon both American and British traders for supplies. Alaska was not a profitable undertaking for Russia.


Then came the Crimean War (1854-1856) with Russia facing off against France, England and Turkey. The war did not end well for Russia; the loss was great in both blood and treasure. The monarchy needed to replenish its coffers, and the possible sale of Alaska seemed to hold an answer. Beyond the tsar’s need for cash, the Russians felt unable to defend Alaska should either the British or Americans move to take it.[4]

Even after the Crimean War, England remained a Russian adversary.  England was undesirable as an Alaskan neighbor, so the best scenario would be a sale to the United States.

In 1855, Tsar Alexander II had become emperor of Russia. He was the nephew of Alexander I who had confided to John Quincy Adams the difficulties of managing his distant empire. Given post Crimean War realities and aware of his uncle’s wisdom, a sale of Alaska to the United States appeared to be the best Russian course of action.

Russian Ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl was directed to actively pursue a sale in 1859. Stoeckl’s overtures included discussions with, among others, then New York Senator, William H. Seward. In 1861, the United States Civil War erupted. Discussions of Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States fell silent.


The United States Civil War was not only of interest to the Union and the Confederacy. Both parties were actively involved in seeking either international support or neutrality. The Confederacy had courted both the British and French. The Rebels had a fair chance of receiving aid from either.

In Europe, relations remained tense between the Crimean War foes.  Although, Russia had lost that war, it had taken a devastating toll on all participants. In the short three-year span of the war, Britain had lost 22,000 soldiers. Against this background, the French and English entertained Confederate overtures.

The Russians viewed a strong unified United States as a counterweight to its European foes and a Union victory to be in Russia’s interests. In the summer of 1863, the Russian Baltic Fleet set sail for New York. The Russian Far East Fleet journeyed to San Francisco. President Abraham Lincoln sent the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, to greet the Russians in New York in September, 1863.

Overt assistance for the Confederacy by England or France disappeared. The Russians had tilted the playing field in favor of the Union. In 1865, the Civil War ended with a Union victory and no active participation by the French, English or Russians.


After the Civil War, Alexander II resumed pursuit of an Alaskan sale. Stoeckl began negotiating with William Seward who became Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. Over the next two years, issues of reconstruction, Lincoln’s assassination and mid-19th Century communications hampered U.S./Russia negotiations.

Things changed the evening of March 29, 1867, while Secretary Seward was at his Washington, D.C. home, playing whist with his family. The whist game was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, Minister Plenipotentiary and Ambassador of the Russian Tsar.

Stoeckl advised Seward: “I have a dispatch from my government. The Emperor gives his consent to the cession. Tomorrow if you like. I will come to the department and we can enter upon the treaty.”

Seward, with a smile of satisfaction responded: “Why wait until tomorrow? Let us make the treaty tonight.”

Stoeckl demurred: “But your department is closed, you have no clerks and my secretaries are scattered about the town!”

“Never mind that,” responded Seward, “if you can muster your legation together before midnight you will find me awaiting you there at the department, which will be open and ready for business.”

Carriages were dispatched around Washington and by 4 AM, March 30, 1867 the treaty was signed, engrossed and ready for presidential transmittal to the United States Senate for ratification.


President Andrew Johnson submitted the treaty to the Senate that same Saturday.

Seward had known that Congress was scheduled to adjourn for two months. Due to receipt of the treaty, the Senate set a special session for Monday, April 1, 1867. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings that entire week, then reported the treaty favorably.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke in favor of the purchase for three hours. On April 9, 1867, just ten days after Stoeckl interrupted Seward’s whist game, the Senate ratified the treaty 37-2.

Though drafting and ratification took only ten days, it was nearly 68 years after Alexander I mentioned problems managing his empire to John Quincy Adams.

There remained appropriation of the $7.2 million for the purchase by the full Congress, which took place on July 27, 1867.

On October 18, 1867, in a formal ceremony, the United States took possession of Alaska. For the nearly 600,000 square miles, the United States paid about 2 cents an acre. Alaska was a better deal than Louisiana. October 18 is celebrated annually as a state holiday in Alaska.


The natural resources and strategic location of Alaska that came with the purchase cannot be understated. The gold rush that the Russians feared in 1855 came to pass in 1896. Alaska contributes to the American economy through its riches in oil, minerals, precious metals, seafood, timber, and tourism. Alaska is the second largest crude oil producer in the country and the salmon run in Alaska’s Bristol Bay basin is the largest in the world.

America’s Founders recognized the value of a cordial relationship with Russia and began working on it in 1780. The benefits of that effort came to fruition on October 18, 1867 with the peaceful acquisition of Alaska.

While the connotation of the mantra RUSSIA!!! RUSSIA!!! RUSSIA!!! differs greatly from 1780 to 2020, it has been part of the American lexicon through our entire history.

David Shestokas, J.D., is a former Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney and author of Constitutional Sound Bites and Creating the Declaration of Independence. Follow him on Twitter, @shestokas, and join his Facebook group, Dave Shestokas on the Constitution

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] The Second President and First Vice-President had been the fledgling country’s envoy to France from 1777 to 1779 and his son, John Quincy had been with him.

[2] “Sir, I am delighted to have the pleasure of seeing you here.”

[3] Napoleon needed money for war in Europe, France’s Louisiana territory was 828,000 square miles, and the $15 million purchase price was about 3 cents/acre.

[4] Alaska would prove to hold a wealth of natural resources, including gold.  Strangely, this was of actual concern to Russia. The 1848 gold discovery in California brought in more than 300,000 people in 7 years. The Russians had no ability to manage a similar event in Alaska. They would be better off to sell the land rather than have it taken.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On September 5, 1867, the first Texas cattle were shipped from the railhead in Abilene, Kansas, with most of the livestock ending their destination in a slaughterhouse in Chicago, Illinois. These cattle made a long, none too pleasant journey from south Texas to central Kansas.   Their hardships were shared by cowboys and cattlemen who drove their herds hundreds of miles to find a better market for their livestock. For almost two decades, cattle drives from Texas were undertaken by beef producers who found that the northern markets were much more lucrative than those they had been dealing with back home. These drives ended after a combination of economic, legal, and technological changes made the long drives impractical or infeasible.

After the end of the civil war, much of the economy of the old Confederacy was in shambles. In Texas, the rebels returning home often found their livestock scattered and their ranches and farms unkempt and overgrown. Once the Texas ranchers reassembled their herds, they found that the local market for beef was very limited. The ranchers’ potential customers in the region had little money with which to buy beef and there was no way to transport livestock to distant markets except by ships that sailed off the Gulf coast. The major railroad lines did not reach Texas until the 1870s. Many of the cattlemen were “cattle rich but cash poor,” and it did not appear that there was any easy way to remedy their situation.[1]

Several cattlemen, cattle traders, and cattle buyers developed a solution.   Rather than sell locally, or attempt to transport cattle by water at high costs, cattle were to be driven along trails to railheads up north. Among the first of these was Abilene, Kansas, but other “cow towns,” such as Ellsworth and Dodge City, quickly grew from small villages to booming cities. This trek required very special men, horses, and cattle.   The men who drove the cattle were mostly young, adventurous, hardened cowhands who were willing to work for about $30 per month in making a trek of two months or more. Several Texas-bred horses were supplied for each cowhand to ride, for it was common for the exertions of each day to wear out several horses. The cattle themselves differed significantly from their bovine brethren in other parts of the continent.   These were Texas Longhorns, mostly steers, which were adorned with massive horns and a thick hide. The meat of the Longhorns was not considered choice by most connoisseurs, but these cattle could travel long distances, go without water for days, and resist many infectious diseases that would lay low cattle of other breeds.

Most cattle drives followed along the path of a number of trails from Texas through the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) into Kansas.   The most famous of the trails was the Chisholm Trail, named after Jesse Chisholm, a trader of cattle and other goods with outposts along the North Canadian River in northern Texas and along the Little Arkansas in southern Kansas. The drives ended in a variety of Kansas towns, notably Abilene, after some entrepreneurial cattle buyers, such as Joseph McCoy and his brothers, promoted the obscure train stop as a place where Texas cattle could be shipped by rail to market.[2] The cattle drives had emerged as an entrepreneurial solution to desperate circumstances where economic gains were blocked by geographic, technological, and legal obstacles.

The cow towns grew rapidly in size and prosperity, although many faltered after the cattle drives ended. The cattle and cowboys were not always welcomed. Many Kansas farmers and homesteaders believed that the Longhorns brought diseases such as “Texas Fever” that would infect and kill their own cattle. The disease known today as Babesiosis was caused by parasites carried by ticks that attached themselves to Texas steers. The Longhorn cattle had developed an immunity to the disease, but the northern cattle had not. The ticks on the hides of the Texas cattle often traveled to the hides of the livestock in Kansas, with lethal results.[3]   The Kansas farmers demanded and gained a number of state laws prohibiting the entry of Texas cattle. These laws were circumvented or simply weakly enforced until the 1880s. At first glance, these laws might appear to conflict with the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 3, which authorized Congress, not the states, to regulate commerce among states. Yet, the federal Supreme Court ruled in 1886 in the case of Morgan’s Steamship Company v. Louisiana Board of Health that quarantine laws and general regulation of public health were permissible exercises of their police powers, although they could be preempted by an act of Congress.[4]

The cattle drives faced many hazards on their long treks to the north.   Harsh terrain, inclement weather, hostile Indians, rustlers, and unwelcoming Kansas farmers often made the journey difficult.   Nevertheless, for about twenty years the trail drives continued and were mostly profitable. Even after the railroads reached Fort Worth, Texas, many cattlemen still found it more profitable to make the long journey to Kansas to ship their beef. Cattle prices were higher in Abilene, and the costs of rail shipment from Fort Worth were, at least in the 1870s, too high to justify ending the trips to Kansas.[5] Eventually the drives did end, although there is some dispute among historians about when and why the cattle drives ceased. By the 1880s, barbed wire fencing blocked the cattle trails at some points. The new railheads in Texas offered alternative routes to livestock markets. Finally, Kansas enacted a strict quarantine law to keep out Texas cattle in 1885. Of course, past quarantine laws had been weakly enforced. State officials seemed to take the 1885 law more seriously. Perhaps economic incentives encouraged stricter quarantine enforcement. The cattle herds of the northern plains had been growing gradually over the years. After the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the United States Army largely pacified hostile tribes in the Rocky Mountain states, with the result that the cattle industry thrived in Wyoming and Montana. With bigger and more carefully bred livestock available to the Kansas cattle buyers, the need to buy Texas cattle diminished. Enforcing the quarantine laws became less costly to the cattle traders and certainly pleased many of the Kansas farmers who voted in state elections. The end came relatively abruptly. In 1885, approximately 350,000 cattle were driven from Texas to Kansas. The following year, in 1886, there were no drives at all.[6] The cattle drives had emerged in the 1860s as an entrepreneurial solution to desperate circumstances where economic gains were blocked by geographic, technological, and legal obstacles. In the 1880s, the marketplace had been transformed. New barriers to the cattle drive had appeared, but by then the cattlemen in Texas had safer and more cost-effective  means to bring their livestock to market.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Specht, Joshua. “Market.” In Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America, 119-73. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.

[2] Gard, Wayne. “Retracing the Chisholm Trail.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 60, no. 1 (1956): 53-68.

[3] Hutson, Cecil Kirk. “Texas Fever in Kansas, 1866-1930.” Agricultural History 68, no. 1 (1994): 74-104.

[4] 118 U.S. 455

[5] Galenson, David. “The Profitability of the Long Drive.” Agricultural History 51, no. 4 (1977): 737-58.

[6] Galenson, David. “The End of the Chisholm Trail.” The Journal of Economic History 34, no. 2 (1974): 350-64.


Guest Essayist: Kyle A. Scott

Notwithstanding the controversy over the causes of the U.S. Civil War, we do know that one of the outcomes was ending slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment. Congress passed the proposed Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865 and it was subsequently ratified on December 6, 1865 by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Upon its ratification, the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery unconstitutional.

Unlike amendments before it, this amendment deserves special consideration due to the unconventional proposal and ratification process.

The proposed amendment passed the Senate on April 8, 1864 and the House on January 31, 1865 with President Abraham Lincoln approving the Joint Resolution to submit the proposed amendment to the states on February 1, 1865. But, it was not until April 9, 1865 that the U.S. Civil War officially ended on the steps of the Appomattox Courthouse when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant. This means that all congressional action up to this point took place without the consent of any state in the Confederacy taking part as those states were not represented in congress.

However, once the war ended, the success of the amendment required that some of the former Confederate states ratify the amendment in order to meet the constitutionally mandated minimum proportion of states. Article V of the Constitution requires three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify a proposed amendment before it can become part of the Constitution. There were only twenty-five Union and border states which meant at least two states from the eleven that comprised the Confederacy had to ratify.

The effort to get states to ratify was led by Andrew Johnson who assumed the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865. There was a total of thirty-six states which meant at least twenty-seven of the state legislatures had to ratify. It was not guaranteed that all the states that remained in the Union would ratify. For instance, New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky all initially rejected the amendment.

This is where things get complicated. When Johnson assumed the presidency in April, he ordered his generals to summon new conventions in the Southern states that would be forced to revise constitutions and elect new state legislators before being admitted back into the Union. This was essentially reform through military injunction thus casting doubt on the sovereignty of the states and the free will of the people.

Further complicating the issue of ratification was the Thirty-ninth Congress which refused the inclusion of all the Southern states except Tennessee. So, while the Congress did not recognize the former Confederate states as states—except Tennessee—all the states were considered legal for purposes of ratification as determined by Secretary of State William Seward. Thus, we are presented with a constitutional predicament in which an amendment is ratified by states recognized by the executive branch but not by the legislative branch.

No resolution was formerly adopted, nor reconciliation made, that could bring clarity to this constitutional crisis. Reconstruction continued, and the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution along with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments.

The ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments is most aptly characterized as a Second Founding. How the Amendments were ratified occurred outside any reasonable interpretation of Article V or republican principles of representation. Imagine the following scenario. Armed guards move into 51% of American voters’ homes and force them to vote for Candidate A in the next presidential election. If the homeowners do not agree, the armed guards stay. If homeowners agree, and vote for Candidate A, the armed guards leave. This is what occurred during Reconstruction in the South as a state’s inclusion in Congress, and the removal of Union troops, was predicated upon that state’s acquiescence to the demands of the Union which included ratifying the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Because the amendments were passed in an extra-constitutional manner, we cannot say that they were a continuation of what was laid out in Philadelphia several decades before. This creates an ethical dilemma for historians and legal scholars to consider. Do the ends justify the means or should the letter of the law be subservient to the higher good? To state it more simply: Is ending slavery worth violating the Constitution? Or, should have slavery remained legal until an amendment could be ratified in a manner consistent with Article V and generally accepted principles of representation?

These questions are meant to be hard and they will not be resolved here. What I do propose is that in 1865 the United States decided that the pursuit of the higher good justified a violation of accepted procedures and those who accept the validity of the Reconstruction Amendments today must, at least tacitly, endorse the same.

Kyle Scott, PhD, MBA, currently works in higher education administration and has taught American politics, Constitutional Law, and political theory for more than a decade at the university level. He is the author of five books and more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles. His most recent book is The Federalist Papers: A Reader’s Guide. Kyle can be contacted at

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

Only five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, ending the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a theater in Washington, D.C. John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate supporter, shot the president who succumbed to his wounds the next day. President Andrew Johnson took Lincoln’s place, and was less supportive of Lincoln’s anti-slavery policies, diluting the abolition of slavery Lincoln envisioned. Johnson was in favor of policies that further disenfranchised free blacks, setting political policies that would weaken the nation’s unity.

Imagine if President Donald Trump were to choose Senator Bernie Sanders as his running mate in November 2020. Would that shock you?

Americans of 1864 must have been shocked to see President Abraham Lincoln, leader of the Republican Party, choose Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as his running mate.

Nothing in the Constitution prohibited it, of course, and once before, America had witnessed a President and Vice from different parties. In 1796 it was accidental; this time it was on purpose.

Andrew Johnson was probably the most politically-qualified VP Lincoln could have chosen. Though totally unschooled, Johnson was the consummate politician. He started political life at age 21 as a Greenville, Tennessee alderman in 1829 and would hold elective office almost continuously for the next thirty-five years, serving as a state legislator, Congressman, two-term Governor of Tennessee and finally Senator from Tennessee.[1] When the Civil War began and Tennessee left the Union, Johnson chose to leave his state rather than break with the Union. Lincoln promptly appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee.

Heading into the 1864 election, the Democratic Party was bitterly split between War Democrats and Peace Democrats. Wars tend to do that. They tend to force people into one camp or the other. To bridge the gap and hopefully unify the party, Democrats found a compromise:  nominate pro-war General George B. McClellan for president and anti-war Representative George H. Pendleton for Vice President. The ticket gathered early support.

Lincoln thought a similar “compromise ticket” was needed. Running once again with Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was out. Hamlin was nice enough, a perfect gentleman who even volunteered for a brief stint in his Maine militia unit during the war, but Hamlin had not played a very prominent role in Lincoln’s administration during the first term. Hamlin had to go. Johnson was in.

To complicate electoral matters further, a group of disenchanted “Radical Republicans” who thought Lincoln too moderate formed the Radical Democracy Party a month before the Republican Convention and nominated their own candidates. They nominated Senator John C. Fremont from California for President and General John Cochrane from New York for Vice President. Two Johns on one ticket, two Georges on another and two men on a third whose first names began with “A.” Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

Choosing, finally, to not play the spoiler, Fremont withdrew his nomination barely two months before the election. Under the slogan “Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream,” Republicans were able to sweep the Lincoln/Johnson ticket to victory. The two men easily defeated “the two Georges” by a wide margin of 212 to 21 electoral votes.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln uttered some of his most memorable lines ever:

the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

And then disaster hit. A little over a month after he delivered these memorable lines, Lincoln was shot in the head by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on the night of April 14 while enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the following day.  Booth’s conspiracy had planned to take out not only Lincoln, but his Vice President, and Secretary of State William Seward as well.  Seward was critically injured, but survived. Johnson also survived when assassin George Atzerodt got drunk and had a change of heart. The following day, two and a half hours after Lincoln drew his last breath, Johnson was installed as the seventeenth President of the United States.

Booth was quickly tracked down by Union troops and killed while attempting to escape. The rest of the conspirators were soon captured and the ringleaders hanged, including Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government.

Faced with the unenviable task of Reconstruction after a devastating war, Johnson’s administration started well, but quickly went downhill. The Radical Republicans were out for southern blood and Johnson did not share their thirst.

Although Lincoln is well-known for his wartime violations of the U.S. Constitution, Johnson is best known for sticking to it.

To show Johnson’s affinity for strict constructionism, there is this story: As a U.S. Representative, Johnson had voted against a bill to give federal aid to Ireland in the midst of a famine. In a debate during his subsequent run for Governor of Tennessee, his opponent criticized this vote. Johnson responded that people, not government, had the responsibility of helping their fellow men in need. He then pulled from his pocket a receipt for the $50 he had sent to the hungry Irish. “How much did you give, sir?” His opponent had to confess he had given nothing. The audience went wild. Johnson later credited this exchange with helping him win the election.

Johnson recognized the legitimacy of the Thirteenth Amendment, but he did not believe blacks deserved the right to vote. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which would give citizenship and extend civil rights to all regardless of race, but Congress overrode the veto. When the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act was challenged, the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed and Johnson opposed that as well. The Radical Republicans then passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Johnson vetoed it and the Republicans overrode his veto. Republicans then threatened reluctant southern states with a continuance of their military governance unless they ratified the Amendment. An unnamed Republican at the time called this “ratification at the point of a bayonet.” Johnson’s reluctance to support the Radical Republican agenda did not endear him to them.

The “straw that broke the camel’s back” came when Johnson tried to remove Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War despite the Tenure of Office Act which ostensibly, and unconstitutionally in Johnson’s view, prevented such action. Johnson fired Stanton. Threatened with impeachment, Johnson replied, “Let them impeach and be damned.” Congress promptly did just that – impeach, that is. After the House impeachment, the Senate trial resulted in acquittal. Johnson retained his office by a single vote, but still gained the notoriety of being the first United States President to be impeached.

The events surrounding President Lincoln’s assignation on April 15, 1865 changed the political landscape following the Civil War making it a significant date to learn about in America’s history.

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] After failing to be reelected President, Johnson was even elected Senator from Tennessee once again in 1875.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address that was a model of reconciliation and moderation for restoring the national Union. He ended with the appeal:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Later that month, Lincoln visited with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman during the siege of Petersburg in Virginia near the Confederate capital of Richmond. As they talked, the president reflected on his plan to treat the South with respect. “Treat them liberally all around,” he said. “We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.”

The Civil War was coming to an end as a heavily outnumbered Confederate General Robert E. Lee withdrew his army from Petersburg and abandoned Richmond to its fate. On April 5, 1865, Lee marched his starving, exhausted men across the swollen Appomattox River to Amelia Court House in central Virginia. Lee was disappointed to discover the boxcars on the railroad did not contain the expected rations of food. The Union cavalry under General Philip Sheridan were closing in and burning supply wagons. Lee ordered his men to continue their march to the west without food. Increasing numbers were deserting the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee realized that he would have to surrender soon.

On April 6, Union forces led by General George Custer cut off Lee’s army at Sayler’s Creek. The two sides skirmished for hours and then engaged each other fiercely. Lee lost a quarter of his army that became casualties and prisoners. He reportedly cried out, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?”

The next day, the Rebels retreated to Farmville where rations awaited but Union forces were close behind. The hungry Confederates barely had time to eat before fleeing again to expected supplies at Appomattox railroad station.

That day, Grant wrote to Lee asking for his surrender to prevent “any further effusion of blood.” Grant signed the letter, “Very respectfully, your obedient servant.”  Lee responded that while he did not think his position was as hopeless as Grant indicated, he asked what terms the Union Army would offer. When one of the generals suggested accepting the surrender, Lee informed him, “I trust it has not come to that! We certainly have too many brave men to think of laying down our arms.”  Nevertheless, Grant’s answer was unconditional surrender.

On April 8, Lee’s army straggled into the town of Appomattox Court House, but Sheridan had already seized his supply. He knew the end had come. He was hopelessly outnumbered six-to-one and had very little chance of resupply or reinforcements. Lee conferred with his generals to discuss surrender. When one of his officers suggested melting away and initiating a guerrilla war, Lee summarily rejected it out of hand. “You and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole.”

Lee composed a message to Grant asking for “an interview at such time and place as you may designate, to discuss the terms of the surrender of this army.”  Grant was suffering a migraine while awaiting word from Lee. He was greatly relieved to receive this letter. His headache and all the tension within him immediately dissipated. While puffing on his cigar, he wrote back to Lee and magnanimously offered to meet his defeated foe “where you wish the interview to take place.” The ceremony would take place at the home of Wilmer McLean, who had moved to Appomattox Court House to escape the war after a cannonball blasted into his kitchen during the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Now, the war’s final act would occur in his living room.

Lee cut a fine picture impeccably dressed in his new gray uniform, adorned with a red sash, shiny boots, and his sword in a golden scabbard as he awaited Grant. The Union general was shabbily dressed in a rough uniform with muddy boots and felt self-conscious. He thought that Lee was “a man of much dignity, with an impassible face.” Grant respectfully treated his worthy adversary as an equal, and felt admiration for him if not his cause. They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.

Grant sat down at a small table to compose the terms of surrender and personally stood and handed them to Lee rather than have a subordinate do it. Grant graciously allowed the Confederate officers to keep their side arms, horses, and baggage. Lee asked that all the soldiers be allowed to keep their horses since many were farmers, and Grant readily agreed. Grant also generously agreed to feed Lee’s hungry men. Their business completed, the two generals shook hands, and Lee departed with a bow to the assembled men.

As Lee slowly rode away, Grant stood on the porch and graciously lifted his hat in salute, which Lee solemnly returned. The other Union officers and soldiers followed their general’s example. Grant was so conscious of being respectful that when the Union camp broke out into a triumphal celebration, Grant rebuked his men and ordered them to stop. “We did not want to exult over their downfall,” he later explained. For his part, Lee tearfully rode back into his camp, telling his troops, “I have done the best I could for you.” He continued, “Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you.”

On April 12, the Union formally accepted the Confederate surrender in a solemn ceremony. Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, oversaw a parade of Confederate troops stacking their weapons. As the Army of Northern Virginia began the procession, Chamberlain ordered his men to raise their muskets to their shoulders as a salute of honor to their fellow Americans. Confederate Major General John Gordon returned the gesture by saluting with his sword. Chamberlain described his feelings at witnessing the dramatic, respectful ceremony: “How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all.”

At the end of the dreadful Civil War, in which 750,000 men died, the Americans on both sides of the war demonstrated remarkable respect for each other. Grant demonstrated great magnanimity toward his vanquished foe, following Lincoln’s vision in the Second Inaugural. That vision tragically did not survive the death of the martyred Lincoln a few days after the events at Appomattox.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

Abraham Lincoln is usually considered one of our nation’s greatest presidents. But, what many people may not know is that Lincoln was not a very popular president during his first term and he nearly was not reelected in 1864. For many months leading into the presidential election of that year, Lincoln resigned himself to a simple fact that he was not going to be reelected. He told a visitor to the White House in the fall of 1864, “I am going to be beaten…and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.”

Lincoln’s administration had presided over hundreds of thousands of young men killed and wounded in the then three-year-old struggle to give our nation, as Lincoln declared at Gettysburg, its “new birth of freedom” during the Civil War. The year 1864 had been the bloodiest of the war so far and Union armies were being decimated as Union General Ulysses S. Grant was making his final push to destroy the army of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and bring the war to an end. At the same time, General William T. Sherman was moving toward Georgia in the summer of 1864, hoping to destroy the Confederate armies in that region as well.

Lincoln was a tremendously unpopular president in 1864 inside and outside of his own political party. Democrats hated Lincoln and blamed him for the longevity of the war. Radical Republicans did not feel that he went far enough to extend equal rights to African-Americans. The war was unpopular and seemed unwinnable for the Union. Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation had also turned many Northern voters against Lincoln as they believed that equality for former slaves was something that would occur and they were not ready for it.

Between the Emancipation Proclamation and the casualty numbers of the Union army, Lincoln felt as though his administration would be leaving the White House in 1865. He urged his cabinet members to cooperate with the new president to make the transition of power easier, which would hopefully bring the nation back together quicker. A series of events were taking place in the Western theater of the war where one of Lincoln’s generals was about to present him with two gifts in 1864: the city of Atlanta and the reelection of his administration.

General Sherman met president Lincoln in 1861 at the beginning of the war and he was not overly impressed with him. He felt President Lincoln’s attitude toward the South was naive and could damage the Union’s early response to the war. Lincoln was not particularly impressed with Sherman at their first meeting either. But, those attitudes would change as the war progressed.

Sherman had achieved great success in fighting in the Western theater of the war from Shiloh to Chattanooga and was poised to strike a lethal blow into the heart of the Confederacy by marching his armies through the state of Georgia and capturing its capital city of  Atlanta. The capture of Atlanta would destroy a vital rail center and supply depot, as well as demoralize the Confederacy.

Sherman and his 100,000 troops left Chattanooga in May of 1864 and by July, Sherman and his army had reached the outskirts of Atlanta. On September 1, Confederate forces evacuated the city. The Northern reaction to the taking of Atlanta and victories in Virginia at the same time was jubilation. Instead of feeling the war was lost, the exact opposite opinion was now prevalent. It now seemed that the Lincoln administration would be the first reelected since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

President Lincoln won the 1864 election by receiving over 55 percent of the popular vote and winning the electoral vote 212 to 21 over his Democratic opponent, former general George B. McClellan. He was then able to manage the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning slavery in the United States forever. His presidency would be remembered as the reason why our nation is still one nation, under God, and dedicated to “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Washington created our nation, Jefferson and Madison gave it life and meaning with their ideas and  words, and Lincoln saved it. He may have not had the chance to do so without the military success of General Sherman and his armies in 1864.

Val Crofts is as Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.


Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

The Anaconda Plan of the Civil War, crafted by U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, was designed to split and defeat the Confederacy by closing in on the coasts east and south, control the Mississippi River, then attack from all sides. Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant pressed through to take Vicksburg, Mississippi, get the final Confederate strongholds and control the Mississippi River. President Abraham Lincoln believed taking Vicksburg was the key to victory. The Battle at Vicksburg would be the longest military campaign of the Civil War. Vicksburg was surrendered on July 4, 1863.

President Lincoln said of Vicksburg, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg.” Lincoln well summarized the importance of Vicksburg, Mississippi, with both the Union and Confederacy determined to control the city. Along the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was one of the main strongholds remaining for the Confederacy. If the Union could capture this stronghold, it would cut off Confederacy states west of the Mississippi from those east of the Mississippi.

The location was ideal for defending, protected on the north by swamps of the bayou and was located on high bluffs that were along the river, and was given the name, the “Gibraltar of the South.”

General Grant developed a plan. After assuming command of the Union forces near Vicksburg on January 30, 1863, the Union having waged a campaign to take Vicksburg since the spring of 1862, he had been part of an initial failed attempt to take the city in the winter. In the spring of 1863, he tried again. This time, given the location of Vicksburg, he took the bold approach of marching south on the west side of the Mississippi River, then crossing over south of the city. He led troops south 30 miles south of Vicksburg, crossing over at Bruinsburg via Union fleet.

Once landed east of the river, he began to head northeast. On May 2, his troops took Port Gibson, with his troops abandoning supply lines and sustaining themselves from the surrounding countryside. Grant arrived in Vicksburg on May 18, where Confederate General John Pemberton was waiting with his 30,000 troops. Upon arrival, two major assaults on May 19 and 22 by the Union forces failed. Grant regrouped and his troops dug trenches, enclosing Pemberton and his troops.

Pemberton was boxed in with little provisions and diminishing ammunition. Many Confederate soldiers became sick and were hospitalized. In late June, Union troops dug mines underneath the Confederate troops and, on June 25, detonated the explosives. On July 3, Pemberton sent a note to Grant suggesting peace. Grant responded that only unconditional surrender would suffice. Pemberton formally surrendered on July 4. The nearly 30,000 troops were paroled, Grant not wanting to have to address the soldiers. The Union won at Port Hudson five days later.

Lincoln, who had noted how important Vicksburg was to the Union and the war, upon hearing of the surrender, stated, “The father of the waters goes unvexed to the sea.”

With the Siege of Vicksburg, Scott’s Anaconda Plan, designed at the beginning of the Civil War with the goal to blockade the southern ports and to cut the South in two by advancing down the Mississippi River, was complete.

The Siege of Vicksburg was a  major victory for the Union, giving it control of the Mississippi River. With the Battle of Gettysburg victory around the same time, it presented a turning point for the Union in the Civil War. July 4, 1863, the surrender of Vicksburg by Pemberton, is an important date in our nation’s history.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.  

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

President Abraham Lincoln faced an important decision point in the summer of 1862. Lincoln was opposed to slavery and sought a way to end the immoral institution that was at odds with republican principles. However, he had a reverence for the constitutional rule of law and an obligation to follow the Constitution. He discovered a means of ending slavery, saving the Union, and preserving the Constitution.

President Lincoln had reversed previous attempts by his generals to free the slaves because of their dubious constitutionality and because they would drive border states such as Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland into the arms of the Confederacy. He reluctantly signed the First and Second Confiscation Acts but doubted their constitutionality as well and did little to enforce them. He offered compensated emancipation to the border states, but none took him up on his offer.

On July 22, Lincoln met with the members of his Cabinet and shared his idea with them. He presented a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on two pages of lined paper. It would free the slaves in the Confederate states as a “military necessity” by weakening the enemy under his constitutional presidential war powers.

The cabinet agreed with his reasoning even if some members were lukewarm. Some feared the effects on the upcoming congressional elections and that it would cause European states to recognize the Confederacy to protect their sources of cotton. Secretary of State William H. Seward counseled the president to issue the proclamation from a position of strength after a military victory.

The early victories of the year in the West by Grant at the Battle of Shiloh and the capture of New Orleans were dimmed by a more recent defeat in the eastern theater. Union General George McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign driving toward Richmond was thwarted by his defeat in the Seven Days’ Battles. Nor did Lincoln get the victory he needed the following month when Union armies under General John Pope were routed at the Second Battle of Bull Run.

In September, General Robert E. Lee invaded the North to defeat the Union army on northern soil and win European diplomatic recognition. He swept up into Maryland. Even though two Union troops discovered Lee’s plan of attack wrapped around a couple of cigars on the ground, McClellan did not capitalize on his advantage. The two armies converged at Sharpsburg near Antietam Creek.

At dawn on September 17, Union forces under General Joseph Hooker on the Union right attacked Confederates on the left side of their lines under Stonewall Jackson. The opposing armies clashed at West Woods, Dunker Church, and a cornfield. The attack faltered, and thousands were left dead and wounded.

Even that fighting could not compare to the carnage in the middle of the lines that occurred later in the morning. Union forces attacked several times and were repulsed. The battle shifted to a sunken road with horrific close-in fighting. Thousands more men became casualties at this “Bloody Lane.”

The final major stage of the day’s battle occurred further down the line when Union General Ambrose Burnside finally attacked. The Confederate forces here held a stone bridge across Antietam Creek that Burnside decided to cross rather than have his men ford the creek. The Confederates held a strong defensible position that pushed back several Union assaults. After the bridge was finally taken at great cost, the advancing tide of Union soldiers was definitively stopped by recently-arrived Confederate General A.P. Hill.

The battle resulted in the grim casualty figures of 12,400 for the Union armies and 10,300 for the Confederate armies. The losses were much heavier proportionately for the much smaller Confederate army. General McClellan failed to pursue the bloodied Lee the following day and thereby allowed him to escape and slip back down into the South. While Lincoln was furious with his general, he had the victory he needed to release the Emancipation Proclamation.

On September 22, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It read that as of January 1, 1863, “All persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” If the states ended their rebellion, then the proclamation would have no force there.

Since the proclamation only applied to the states who joined the Confederacy, the border states were exempt, and their slaves were not to be freed by it. Lincoln did this for two important reasons. One, the border states might have declared secession and joined with the Confederacy. Two, Lincoln had no constitutional authority under his presidential war powers to free the slaves in states in the Union.

None of the Confederate states accepted the offer. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as promised. The proclamation freed nearly 3.5 million slaves, though obviously the Union had to win the war to make it a reality. The document was arguably Lincoln’s least eloquent document and was, in the words of one historian, about as exciting as a bill of lading.

Lincoln understood that the document had to be an exacting legal document because of the legal and unofficial challenges it would face. Moreover, he knew that a constitutional amendment was necessary to end slavery everywhere. He knew the proclamation’s significance and called it “the central act of my administration,” and “my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war.”

One eloquent line in the Emancipation Proclamation aptly summed up the republican and moral principles that were the cornerstone of the document and Lincoln’s vision: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act, widely known today as the Morrill Act. The act was the culmination of work over many years by many legislators, notably the legislation’s author and chief sponsor, Justin Morrill of Vermont, who was one of the long-serving members of Congress during the 19th century. Congress had passed an earlier version of Morrill’s bill in 1857, but the bill was vetoed by President James Buchanan. An earlier bill sponsored by Henry Clay that would have used federal land revenues to support education and internal improvement was also vetoed by President Andrew Jackson. In each veto case, an argument was made that the federal government had no business involving itself in educational matters or other issues that were properly the province of state governments.[1]

The Morrill Act permitted participating states to make use of the sale, rent, and/or royalties derived from property granted to the states by the federal government. If a state did not have sufficient federal land situated within its borders, the state would be granted scrip representing proceeds from federal land in other states or territories. Somewhat similar land grants had been used by the federal government for a variety of purposes, but many of those programs did not attract a great deal of interest or cooperation from state governments. The Morrill Act required participating governments to produce annual reports regarding the use of funds from both the state governors and the recipient colleges and universities.[2]

Morrill pushed for a land grant program that would support education, a cause to which he was devoted for much of his career. Morrill had relatively little formal education himself, but he was dedicated to the effort to provide higher education to people of humble station. He also favored a very particular kind of higher education, one supporting agriculture and the “mechanic arts” (today generally known as engineering).[3] At the time, many colleges and universities in America and Europe largely emphasized the classics and humanities to the exclusion of more applied fields of study. Studies focusing on seemingly more practical and career-related topics were given little attention. The successful 1862 legislation, unlike the 1857 bill, also indicated that the funding would support the teaching of “military tactics.” In light of the on-going civil war, the emphasis on military training broadened the bill’s appeal.[4] The bill gained a co-sponsor in the Senate in the person of Ben Wade of Ohio, who later would serve as president pro tempore of the chamber. Wade is remembered today as the man who would have become acting president if the senate had voted to remove President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial in 1868.

Opponents of the legislation included those who believed that education matters were solely the responsibility of the states. But many who took this position in 1857 were no longer in Congress in the 1860s. In fact, many were southerners who left Congress when their states seceded from the union. Other legislators, particularly from the western states, objected to the fact that land situated in their states sometimes was used to provide revenue to states in the east that lacked substantial amounts of federal land. Some objected to the legislation because they feared that the new funding would support new institutions that would compete with existing colleges and universities. As various iterations of the Morrill bill moved through Congress between 1860 and 1862, various amendments were approved to appease the objections of some critics.   Notably, the bill was amended to exclude mineral lands and to limit the amount of federal land that could be sold within any given state. Final passage was also delayed so that settlers granted federal land under the recently enacted Homestead Act could have their first choice of land.[5]

After enactment, many states used the land grant funds to support existing colleges and universities, both public and private. While the land grant system overwhelmingly has favored public institutions, a few private schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell University, and Brown University, received land grant money for some considerable time, and some continue to operate as land-grant institutions to this day.[6] In most states, however, entirely new institutions were created, generally with some reference to agriculture in their titles. These institutions became what are now known as land-grant colleges, even though the total number of schools that receive land-grant support is far greater than most people realize.

The impact of the Morrill Act is hard to overestimate. It was not the first federal grant programs offering aid to state governments, but it was one of the most important and enduring programs. In comparison to categorical aid programs that became popular in the 1960s and later, the program attached few strings with which the recipient governments had to comply. However, in comparison to its predecessors, the land-grant act imposed significant requirements upon its benefactors, particularly regarding reporting obligations and the formal commitment of  resources to particular fields of study.

The act caused a great increase in the number of higher education institutions in the country, and greatly increased the accessibility of college for many Americans of limited income who often lived far removed from population centers or the locations of extant colleges and universities. The Morrill Act was amended in 1890 by new legislation that prohibited grants to states that excluded students from higher education on the basis of race. Recipient states were also required to create universities intended to serve African-Americans. Today these schools are generally called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).[7]

The land-grant program had a huge impact in agriculture, engineering, and military science. The land-grant institutions conducted agriculture research and trained agricultural students. These institutions became a part of the Department of Agriculture’s extension service, which has disseminated research findings throughout the country.[8] By the early twentieth century, the military tactics classes that were supported by the land-grants had evolved into the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.[9] The “mechanic arts” emphasis in the land-grant colleges built up the knowledge base and the professional identity of the engineering profession.[10] The economic implications of this support for both basic and applied science have been significant, although their exact magnitude is disputed. Research by Isaac Ehrlich, Adam Cook, and Yong Yin indicates that the returns from the land-grant schools had made the United States into an economic superpower by the early twentieth century, surpassing countries such as the United Kingdom that followed a much different higher education model.[11] In short, the Morrill Act and subsequent legislation regarding the land-grant colleges has had an astounding impact upon educational quality and access, economic growth and opportunity, and leadership in the nation’s military.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Duemer, Lee S. 2007. “The Agricultural Education Origins of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.” American Educational History Journal 34 (1): 135–46.

[2] Lieberman, Carl. “The Constitutional and Political Bases of Federal Aid to Higher Education, 1787-1862.” International Social Science Review 63, no. 1 (1988): 3-13.

[3] Key, Scott. 1996. “Economics or Education: The Establishment of American Land-Grant Universities.” Journal of Higher Education 67 (March): 196–220.

[4] Benson, Michael T., and Hal Robert Boyd. 2018.  College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

[5] Lieberman, Carl. “The Constitutional and Political Bases of Federal Aid to Higher Education, 1787-1862.” International Social Science Review 63, no. 1 (1988): 3-13.

[6] Carstensen, Victor. 1962. “Century of the Land-Grant Colleges.” Journal of Higher Education 33 (January): 30–37.

[7] Wheatle, Katherine I. E. 2019. “Neither Just nor Equitable.” American Educational History Journal 46 (1/2/2019): 1–20.

[8] Duemer, Lee S. 2007. “The Agricultural Education Origins of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.” American Educational History Journal 34 (1): 135–46.

[9] Benson, Michael T., and Hal Robert Boyd. 2018.  College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

[10]Nienkamp, Paul. 2010. “Land-Grant Colleges and American Engineers.” American Educational History Journal 37 (1/2): 313–30.

[11] Ehrlich, Isaac, Adam Cook, and Yong Yin. 2018. “What Accounts for the US Ascendancy to Economic Superpower by the Early Twentieth Century? The Morrill Act-Human Capital Hypothesis.” Journal of Human Capital 12 (2): 233–81.

Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged development of farming on land as homesteads for western expansion. Heads of households could receive up to 160 acres to farm for five years, or purchase the land after six months. If homesteaders were unable to farm successfully, the land would go back to the government to be offered again to another homesteader. Pro-slavery groups feared a homestead act would give more power to anti-slavery families moving to new territories of privatized land that could become free states, so they fought passage. 

The Civil War, by May 1862, was just over a year old, having begun with the Battle of Fort Sumter. The Homestead Act of 1862 was a way for the Union to expand westward, and in some ways fulfilled the promise contained in President Abraham Lincoln’s message to Congress on July 4, 1861, when he wrote in part:

On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.

According to the National Park Service website, the Act brought to life the “fair chance” to which Lincoln referred and the Act “was one of the most significant and enduring events in the westward expansion of the United States.”

The 1862 Act was not the first effort to expand westward, but prior efforts had been met with resistance from Southern Democrats, who feared European immigrants might inhabit the west. The Act was intended to make it easier for interested persons to move west, without the requirement of “squatters” on federal lands to pay per acre for retaining the property that was part of the Preemption Act of 1841.

The Act had minimal requirements to qualify. Any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the United States, could apply for the grant. The citizen was required to improve the land by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, they obtained the deed to the 160 acres. An inhabitant had the option of a six-month residency with minor improvements and paying $1.25 per acre, the same price as existed under the Preemption Act.

Many could not afford to effectively build a farm and cultivate the land, which included obtaining the necessary tools as well as crops and livestock. One of the first registered homesteaders was Daniel Freeman, whose claim is the site of the Homestead National Monument of America. Freeman is said to have filed his claim ten minutes after the Act became effective on January 1, 1863.

With the Homestead Act of 1862, the westward expansion truly commenced. Over its history, more than 2 million individuals filed claims, with approximately 780,000 obtaining title to the lands. More than 270 million acres were granted while the law was in effect.

Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862 was an important day in our nation’s history.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else. 

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

Abraham Lincoln traveled East in February of 1860. He was asked to deliver an address at the Cooper Institute in New York City on the momentous topic of the era, slavery. Lincoln had been a popular orator and politician in Illinois, but had yet to solidify himself as a national politician. His sense of humor, frontier charm and folksy wit appealed to his political and debate audiences in the West, but if he was going to attract a national following and possibly earn the nomination from the fledgling Republican Party as their presidential candidate, he needed to appeal to voters in different areas of the country.

Before he gave his Cooper Institute speech, Lincoln made his way to the New York studio of photographer, Matthew Brady. He was going to sit for a portrait that was going to introduce him to the American people. Brady’s portrait of Lincoln shows a confident, 51 year old Lincoln staring into the camera with his left hand resting on two books. He pulled his collar up in the portrait to partially obscure his long neck. He looks distinguished, but his hair is a bit disheveled as he stands ready to make arguably the most important speech of his life in a few hours.

A crowd of around 1,500 people crowded into the Cooper Institute on the night of February 27, 1860 to hear this Republican orator from the West deliver a carefully researched and crafted speech to explain to the nation why they should not fear a Republican president and why the views of the Republicans on slavery mirrored those of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln was about to reinvent himself as an orator and to establish himself as a national politician and serious contender for the presidency.

Some eyewitnesses claimed disappointment when Lincoln first stood to address the crowd. His tall (so tall as someone said) appearance with his arms and legs created an awkward appearance and some in the crowd expressed pity for how Lincoln looked that night. But then, he began to speak.

Lincoln began by informing his audience that 21 of 39 Founding Fathers felt that the federal government should be able to control slavery in territories of the United States and that the Constitution verifies this. The Republican Party had pledged to stop slavery from spreading into the Western territories and Lincoln felt that the basis for this decision came from the basis for our legal cornerstone, the Constitution of the United States.

He then denied that the Republicans were a Northern political party intent on inciting slave rebellions. He talked about how John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to start a slave rebellion in Virginia, was no Republican and he urged the South to understand the Republican Party was an American party and not a sectional one. He was attempting to explain to the South that Republicans were allies and not enemies. He further explained that for the South to threaten to secede if a Republican president was elected, was similar to an “armed robbery” of the Union.

He then addressed fellow Republicans to leave the South alone and to convince the South that they would continue to do so. Southern fears of Republican interference was fueling the flames of rebellion and Lincoln urged it to cease. Lincoln felt that if Republicans were not able to stop slavery where it existed, because the Constitution did not give them power to do so, then they must stop it from spreading into the Western territories. Then, he ended one of his longest public speeches by saying, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Lincoln laid out what he perceived to be the fears of the South and had done his best to calm them. He had also given his opinions on what Republicans could do to stop the further escalation of the division between the two regions. The speech was a huge success.

To capitalize on the speech and its success, Matthew Brady began to circulate the photo in several sizes for people to purchase. Harper’s Weekly converted the photo into a full page drawing of Lincoln which accompanied their story of the Cooper Institute speech and Lincoln’s success there. The image became the public’s first encounter with this rising star in the Republican Party.

Lincoln’s Cooper Institute speech was considered one of his greatest successes. If he had failed to engage and impress his New York audience, he may not have received the nomination as president in 1860. Had that not happened, he may have returned to Illinois to live out his days as a lawyer in Springfield and the history of our nation would have been very different. Lincoln credited Brady and the Cooper Institute speech with helping him to secure his nomination as the Republican candidate for president and ultimately putting him in the White House. Those two very important events in New York City in February of 1860 may have ultimately helped to preserve the Union.

Val Crofts is as Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Shortly after, South Carolina became the first state to secede, doing so on December 20, 1860. Mississippi and Florida followed, with Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas joining them.  On April 12, 1861, the Civil War officially began at the Battle of Fort Sumter.

The South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter, an island fortification near Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederate Army had not yet officially formed. The attack began in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, when Lieutenant Henry S. Farley fired a mortar round over Fort Sumter as a signal to the militia to begin firing on Fort Sumter. The militia, led by General P.G.T. Beauregard, had the upper hand. The Fort, led by Major Robert Anderson, had been designed and fortified to respond to, and defend against, naval attack, but over the ensuing battle proved to be no match for land bombardment.

Fort Sumter had a total of 60 guns but many of them were on top, where Anderson’s troops would be most vulnerable to being hit by incoming fire from the militia. The twenty-one guns on the lower level did not allow the trajectory needed to hit any of the artillery of the attackers.  Anderson and his troops did what they could, engaging in an exchange of fire that lasted for thirty-four hours. Because efforts by President Lincoln to resupply Fort Sumter had not been successful, and despite moving as many supplies to the fort as possible, Anderson and his troops were short on ammunition. They reduced the number of guns being deployed.

The militia began to fire heated shots at the fort, hitting some of the wooden structures within. Fires ensued, but on April 12th, a rain shower put those fires out. On April 13th, the heated shot barrage would resume and do substantial damage to the fort.

Early in the  morning of April 13, 1861, Gustavus V. Fox arrived, leading the supply relief expedition that President Lincoln had ordered.  But his arrival would do little to change the equation. Around 1 PM on April 13, the central flagpole was knocked down. Colonel Louis Wigfall, an aide to Beauregard, without authorization rowed a skiff to the island fort and met with Anderson. He is reported to have said, “You have defended your flag nobly, Sir. You have done all that it is possible to do, and General Beauregard wants to stop this fight. On what terms, Major Anderson, will you evacuate this fort?”

Anderson agreed to a truce, proud of his troops and not having lost any of his men to the bombardment. After Beauregard’s initial contingent disavowed Wigfall’s settlement terms, Beauregard saw the surrender handkerchief and sent a second contingent, which offered similar terms to what Wigfall had. With that, Anderson surrendered, and the South had won its first battle. Over the next almost four years, the Confederate troops would hold Fort Sumter, withstanding several Union army attacks.

The Battle of Fort Sumter caused many Northerners to strongly advocate for the assembly of volunteer troops to recapture the fort and to preserve our Union. The war would go on for four years, with approximately 750,000 casualties.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else. 

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner

America’s bloodiest day was also the most geopolitically significant battle of the Civil War.

On September 17, 1862, twelve hours of battle along the Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, resulted in 23,000 Union and Confederate dead or wounded. Its military outcome was General Robert E. Lee, and his Army of Northern Virginia, retreating back into Virginia. Its political outcome reshaped global politics and doomed the Southern cause.

The importance of Antietam begins with President Abraham Lincoln weighing how to characterize the Civil War to both domestic and international audiences. Lincoln chose to make “disunion” the issue instead of slavery. His priority was retaining the border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) within the Union. [1]

The first casualties of the Civil War occurred on April 19, 1861 on the streets of Baltimore. The 6th Massachusetts Regiment was attacked by pro-South demonstrators while they were changing trains. Sixteen dead soldiers and citizens validated Lincoln’s choice of making the Civil War about reunification. Eastern Maryland was heavily pro-slave. Had Maryland seceded, Washington, D.C. would have been an island within the Confederacy. This would have spelled disaster for the North.

To affirm the “war between the states” nature of the Civil War, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, issued strict instructions to American envoys to avoid referencing slavery when discussing the Civil War. [2]

Explaining to foreign governments that the conflict was simply a “war between the states” had a downside. England and France were dependent on Southern cotton for their textile mills. “Moral equivalency” of the combatants allowed political judgments to be based on economic concerns. [3]

On April 27, 1861, Lincoln and Seward further complicated matters by announcing a blockade of Southern ports. While this was vital to depriving the South of supplies, it forced European governments to determine whether to comply. There were well established international procedures for handling conflicts between nations and civil wars. Seward ignored these conventions, igniting fierce debate in foreign governments over what to do with America. [4]

England and France opted for neutrality, which officially recognized the blockade, but with no enforcement. Blockade runners gathered in Bermuda, and easily avoided the poorly organized Union naval forces, while conducting commerce with Southern ports. [5]

Matters got worse. On November 8, 1861, a Union naval warship stopped the Trent, a neutral British steamer travelling from Havana to London. Captain Charles Wilkes removed two Confederate Government Commissioners, James Mason and John Slidell, who were on their way for meetings with the British Government. [6]

The “Trent Affair” echoed the British stopping neutral American ships during the Napoleonic Wars. Those acts were the main reason for America initiating the War of 1812 with England.

British Prime Minister, Lord Henry Palmerston, issued an angry ultimatum to Lincoln demanding immediate release of the Commissioners. He also moved 11,000 British troops to Canada to reinforce its border with America. Lincoln backed down, releasing the Commissioners, stating “One war at a time.” [7]

While war with England was forestalled, economic issues were driving a wedge between the Lincoln Administration and Europe.

The 1861 harvest of Southern cotton had shipped just before war broke out. In 1862, the South’s cotton exports were disrupted by the war. Textile owners clamored for British intervention to force a negotiated peace.

In the early summer of 1862, bowing to political and economic pressure, Lord Palmerston drafted legislation to officially recognize the Confederate government and press for peace negotiations. [8]

During the Spring of 1862, Lincoln’s view of the Civil War was shifting. Union forces were attracting escaped slaves wherever they entered Southern territory. Union General’s welcomed the slaves as “contraband,” prizes of war similar to capturing the enemy’s weapons. This gave Lincoln a legal basis for establishing a policy for emancipating slaves in the areas of conflict.

Union victories had solidified the Border States into the North. Therefore, disunion was not as important a justification for military action. In fact, shedding blood solely for reunification seemed to be souring Northern support for the war.

Lincoln and Seward realized emancipating slaves could rekindle Northern support for the war, critical for winning the Congressional elections in November 1862. Emancipation would also place the conflict on firm moral grounds, ending European support for recognition and intervention. England had abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1833. It would not side with a slave nation, if the goal of war became emancipation. Lincoln embraced this geopolitical chess board, “Emancipation would weaken the rebels by drawing off their laborers, would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition.” [9]

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln called a Cabinet meeting to announce his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It was framed as an imperative of war, “by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” [10]

Seward raised concerns over the timing of the Proclamation. He felt recent Union defeats outside of the Confederate Capital of Richmond, Virginia might make its issuance look like an act of desperation, “our last shriek, on the retreat.” [11] It was decided to wait for a Northern victory so that the Emancipation could be issued from a position of strength.

Striving for a game-changing victory became the priority for both sides. The summer of 1862 witnessed a series of brilliant Confederate victories. British Prime Minister Palmerston agreed to finally hold a Cabinet meeting to formally decide on recognition and mediation. [12]

General Lee wished to tip the scales further by engineering a Confederate victory on northern soil. [13] Lee wanted a victory like the 1777 Battle of Saratoga that brought French recognition and aid to America. [14]

The race was on. General Stonewall Jackson annihilated General John Pope’s Army in the Second Battle of Manassas (August 28-30, 1862). Lee saw his opportunity, consolidated his forces, and invaded Maryland on September 4, 1862.

After entering Frederick, Maryland, Lee divided his forces to eliminate the large Union garrison in Harpers Ferry, which was astride his supply lines. Lee planned to draw General George McClellan and his “Army of the Potomac” deep into western Maryland. Far from Union logistical support, McClellan’s forces could be destroyed, delivering a devastating blow to the North. [15]

A copy of Special Order No. 191, which outlined Lee’s plans and troop movements, was lost by the Confederates, and found by a Union patrol outside of Frederick. [15] On reading the Order, McClellan, famous for his slow and ponderous actions in the field, sped his pursuit of Lee.

Now there was a deadly race for whether Lee and Jackson could neutralize Harpers Ferry and reunite before McClellan’s army pounced. This turned the siege of Harpers Ferry (September 12-15, 1862), the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862), and Antietam (September 17, 1862) into the Civil War’s most important series of battles.

While Antietam was tactically a draw, heavy losses forced Lee and his army back into Virginia. This was enough for Lincoln to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, five days after the battle, on September 22, 1862. When news of the Confederate retreat reached England, support for recognition collapsed, extinguishing, “the last prospect of European intervention.” [17] News of the Emancipation Proclamation launched “Emancipation Meetings” throughout England. Support for a Union victory rippled through even pacifist Anti-Slavery groups who asserted abolition, “was possible only in a united America.” [18]

There were many more battles to be fought, but Europe’s alignment against the Confederacy sealed its fate. European nations flocked to embrace Lincoln and his Emancipation crusade. One vivid example was Czar Alexander II, who had emancipated Russia’s serfs, becoming a friend of Lincoln. In the fall of 1863, he sent Russian fleets to New York City and San Francisco to support the Union cause. [19]

Unifying European nations against the Confederacy, and ending slavery in the South, makes America’s bloodiest day one of the world’s major events.

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.


[1] McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford University Press, New York, 1988) pp. 311-312.

[2] Foreman, Amanda, A World on Fire; Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random House, New York, 2010) p.107.

[3] Op. cit., McPherson, p. 384.

[4] Op. cit., Foreman, page 80.

[5] Op. cit., McPherson, pages 380-381.

[6] ibid., pages 389-391.

[7] ibid.[8] Op. cit., Foreman, page 293.

[9] Op. cit., McPherson, page 510.[10] Carpenter, Francis, How the Emancipation Proclamation was Drafted; Political Recollections; Anthology – America; Great Crises in Our History Told by its Makers; Vol. VIII (Veterans of Foreign Wars, Chicago, 1925) pages 160-161.[11] Op. cit., McPherson, page 505.

[12] Op. cit., Foreman, page 295.[13] Op. cit., McPherson, page 555.

[14] McPherson, James, The Saratoga That Wasn’t: The Impact of Antietam Abroad, in This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pages 65-77.

[15] Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red (Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1983) pages 66-67.

[16] Ibid., pages 112-113.

[17] Op. cit., Foreman, page 322.

[18] ibid., page 397.

[19] The Russian Navy Visits the United States (Naval Historical Foundation, Annapolis, 1969)

Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner

On the evening of Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown and his raiders unleashed 36 hours of terror on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).

Brown’s raid marked a cataclysmic moment of change for America and the world. It ranks up there with Sept. 11, the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and the shots fired on Lexington Common and Concord Bridge during the momentous day of April 19, 1775. Each of these days marked a point when there was no turning back. Contributing events may have been prologue, but once these fateful days took place, America was forever changed.

Americans at the time knew that the raid was not the isolated work of a madman. Brown was the well-financed and supported “point of the lance” for the abolition movement.

He was a major figure among the leading abolitionists and intellectuals of the time. This included Gerrit Smith, the second wealthiest man in America and business partner of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Among other ventures, Smith was a patron of Oberlin College, where Brown’s father served as a trustee. Thus was born a 20-year friendship.

Through Smith, Brown moved among America’s elite, conversing with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, journalists, religious leaders and politicians.

Early on, Brown deeply believed that the only way to end slavery was through armed rebellion. His vision was to create a southern portal for the Underground Railway in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The plan was to raise a small force and attack the armory in Harpers Ferry. There Brown would obtain additional weapons and then move into the Blue Ridge to establish his mountain sanctuary for escaping slaves.

Brown anticipated having escaped slaves swell his rebellious ranks and protect his sanctuary. He planned to acquire hundreds of metal tipped pikes as the weapon of choice.

The idea of openly rebelling against slavery was an extreme position in the 1850s. Abolitionist leaders felt slavery would either become economically obsolete or had faith that their editorials would shame the federal government to end the practice.

For years Brown remained the lone radical voice in the elite salons of New York and Boston. He looked destined to remain on the fringes of the anti-slavery movement when a series of events shook the activists’ trust in working within the system and shifted sentiment toward Brown’s solution.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced local public officials in free states to help recover escaped slaves. The federally sanctioned intrusion of slavery into the North began tipping the scales in favor of Brown’s agenda.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 destroyed decades of carefully crafted compromises that limited slavery’s westward expansion.  The Act ignited a regional civil war as pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers fought each other prior to a referendum on the state’s status – slave or free. Smith enlisted the help of several of the more active abolitionists to underwrite Brown’s guerilla war against slavery in Kansas in 1856-57. This group, including some of America’s leading intellectuals, went on to become the Secret Six, who pledged to help Brown with his raid.

The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857, and its striking down of Wisconsin’s opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in March 1859, set the Secret Six and Brown on their collision course with Harpers Ferry.

Today, Harpers Ferry is a scenic town of 300 people, but in 1859 it was one of the largest industrial complexes south of the Mason Dixon Line. The Federal Armory and Rifle Works were global centers of industrial innovation and invention. The mass production of interchangeable parts, the foundation of the modern industrial era, was perfected along the banks of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

Brown moved into the Harpers Ferry area on July 3, 1859, establishing his base at the Kennedy Farm a few miles north in Maryland. The broader abolitionist movement remained divided about an armed struggle. During August 19-21, 1859, a unique debate occurred. At a quarry outside Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Frederick Douglass and Brown spent hours debating whether anyone had a moral obligation to take up arms against slavery. Douglass refused to join Brown but remained silent about the raid. Douglass’ aide, Shields Green, was so moved by Brown’s argument, he joined Brown on the raid, was captured, tried, and executed.

The American Civil War began the moment Brown and his men walked across the B&O Railroad Bridge and entered Harpers Ferry late on the evening of October 16, 1859. Brown’s raiders secured the bridges and the armories as planned. Hostages were collected from surrounding plantations, including Col. Lewis W. Washington, great grandnephew of George Washington. A wagon filled with “slave pikes” was brought into town. Brown planned to arm freed slaves with the pikes assuming they had little experience with firearms.

As Brown and his small force waited for additional raiders with wagons to remove the federal weapons, local militia units arrived and blocked their escape. Militia soldiers and armed townspeople methodically killed Brown’s raiders, who were arrayed throughout the industrial complexes.

Eventually, the surviving raiders and their hostages retreated into the Armory’s Fire Engine House for their last stand. Robert E. Lee and a detachment of U.S. Marines from Washington, D.C. arrived on October 18. The Marines stormed the Engine House, killing or capturing Brown and his remaining men, and freeing the hostages. The raid was over.

Brown survived the raid. His trial became a national sensation as he chose to save his cause instead of himself. Brown rejected an insanity plea in favor of placing slavery on trial. His testimony, and subsequent newspaper interviews while awaiting execution on Dec. 2, 1859, created a fundamental emotional and political divide across America that made civil war inevitable.

Fearing that abolitionists were planning additional raids or slave revolts, communities across the South formed their own militias and readied for war. There was no going back to pre-October America.

Edmund Ruffin, one of Virginia’s most vocal pro-slavery and pro-secession leaders, acquired several of Brown’s “slave pikes.” He sent them to the governors of slave-holding states, each labeled “Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren.”  Many of the slave pikes were publicly displayed in southern state capitols, further inflaming regional emotions.

On April 12, 1861, Ruffin lit the fuse on the first cannon fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The real fuse had been lit months earlier by Brown at Harpers Ferry.

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In the 1850s, the United States was deeply divided over the issue of slavery and its expansion into the West. Northerners and southerners had been arguing over the expansion of slavery into the western territories for decades. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had divided the Louisiana Territory at 36’30° with new states north of the line free states and south of the lines slave states. The delicate compromise held until the Mexican War.

The territory acquired in the Mexican War of 1846 triggered the sectional debate again. In 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky engineered the Compromise of 1850 to settle the dispute with the help of Stephen Douglas. But, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act permitted settlers to decide whether the states would be free or slave according to the principle of “popular sovereignty.” Pro and anti-slavery settlers rushed to Kansas and violence and murder erupted in “Bleeding Kansas.” Meanwhile, southerners spoke of secession and observers warned of civil war.

The United States faced this combustible situation when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney sat down in late February 1857 to write the infamous opinion in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford that would go down as a travesty of constitutional interpretation and one of the greatest injustices by the Supreme Court.

Dred Scott was a slave who had been owned by different masters in the slave states of Virginia and Missouri. Dr. John Emerson was an Army surgeon who was one of those owners and brought Scott to the free state of Illinois for three years and then the free Wisconsin Territory. Scott even married another slave while on free soil. Emerson moved back to Missouri and brought his enslaved with him just before he died. Scott sued Emerson’s widow for his freedom because he had lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited.

Southern and Northern state laws and courts had long recognized the “right of transit” for slaveowners to bring their slaves while briefly traveling through free states/territories or remaining for short durations. However, they also recognized that residence in a free state or territory established freedom for slaves who moved there. In fact, Missouri’s long-standing judicial rule was “once free, always free.” Many former slaves who returned to Missouri after living in a free state or territory had successfully sued in Missouri courts to establish their freedom. The Dred Scott case made its way through the Missouri and federal courts, and finally reached the Supreme Court.

The attorneys presented oral arguments to Taney and the other justices in February 1856. The justices met in chambers but simply could not come to a consensus. They asked the lawyers to re-argue the case the following December, which coincidentally delayed the decision until after the contentious presidential election that allowed the Court to maintain the semblance of neutrality. But, Justice Taney sought to remove the issue from the messy arena of democratic politics and settle the sectional dispute over slavery in the Court.

After hearing the case argued for a second time, the justices met in mid-February 1857 to consider the case. They almost agreed to a narrow legal opinion that addressed Dred Scott’s status as a slave in a free state. However, they selected Chief Justice Taney to write the opinion. He used the opportunity to write an expansive opinion that would avert possible civil war.

On the morning of March 6, Taney read the shocking opinion to the Court for nearly two hours. Taney, speaking for seven members of the Court, declared that all African-Americans—slave or free—were not U.S. citizens at the time of the founding and could not become citizens. He asserted that the founders thought that blacks were an inferior class of humans and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” and no right to sue in federal court. This was not only a misreading of the history of the American founding but a gross act of injustice toward African Americans. Taney could have stopped there, but he believed this decision could end the sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery. He declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories despite Article IV, section 3 giving Congress the “power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” According to his reasoning, slavery could become legal throughout the nation. Finally, Taney pronounced that Dred Scott, despite his residence in the free state and territory that allowed other slaves to claim their freedom, was still a slave.

The Dred Scott decision was not unanimous; Justices Benjamin Curtis and John McLean wrote dissenting opinions. Curtis’s painstakingly detailed research in U.S. history demonstrated that Taney was wrong on several points. First, Curtis convincingly showed that free African-Americans had been citizens and even voters in several states at the time of the founding. He wrote that slavery was fundamentally “contrary to natural right.” Furthermore, Curtis pointed out that by settled practice and the Constitution, Congress did indeed have power to legislate regarding slavery. He provided evidence that Congress had legislated with respect to slavery more than a dozen times before the 1820 Missouri Compromise.

The Dred Scott decision was supposed to calm sectional tensions in the United States, but it worsened them. Northerners expressed great moral outrage, and southerners doubled down on the Court’s decision that African Americans had no rights and Congress could not regulate slavery’s expansion. Indeed, the Court’s decision greatly exacerbated tensions and contributed directly to events leading to the Civil War. Instead of leaving the issue to the people’s representatives who had successfully negotiated important compromises in Congress to preserve the Union, Taney and other justices arrogantly thought they could settle the issue.

Taney’s understanding of American republican government was that only the white race enjoyed natural rights and consensual self-government. Abraham Lincoln continually attacked the decision in his speeches and debates. Lincoln stood for a Union rooted upon natural rights for all humans. He did not believe that the country could survive indefinitely “half slave, half free.” He argued that the Declaration of Independence “set up a standard maxim for free society” of self-governing individuals. Lincoln also opposed the Dred Scott decision because of its impact on democracy. If the Court’s majority gained the final say on political decisions, Lincoln thought “the people will have ceased to be their own rulers.”

The different views of slavery, its expansion, and the principles of republican self-government were at the core of the Civil War that ensued three years later. During the war, President Lincoln freed the slaves in Confederate states with the Emancipation Proclamation and laid down the moral vision of the American republic in the Gettysburg Address. He wrote: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The bloody Civil War was fought so that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. He is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler et al.

Mr. President and fellow citizens of New York: –

The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them. If there shall be any novelty, it will be in the mode of presenting the facts, and the inferences and observations following that presentation.

In his speech last autumn, at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in “The New-York Times,” Senator Douglas said:

“Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

I fully indorse this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so adopt it because it furnishes a precise and an agreed starting point for a discussion between Republicans and that wing of the Democracy headed by Senator Douglas. It simply leaves the inquiry: “What was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?”

What is the frame of government under which we live?

The answer must be: “The Constitution of the United States.” That Constitution consists of the original, framed in 1787, (and under which the present government first went into operation,) and twelve subsequently framed amendments, the first ten of which were framed in 1789.

Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? I suppose the “thirty-nine” who signed the original instrument may be fairly called our fathers who framed that part of the present Government. It is almost exactly true to say they framed it, and it is altogether true to say they fairly represented the opinion and sentiment of the whole nation at that time. Their names, being familiar to nearly all, and accessible to quite all, need not now be repeated.

I take these “thirty-nine,” for the present, as being “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.”

What is the question which, according to the text, those fathers understood “just as well, and even better than we do now?”

It is this: Does the proper division of local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal Government to control as to slavery in our Federal Territories?

Upon this, Senator Douglas holds the affirmative, and Republicans the negative. This affirmation and denial form an issue; and this issue – this question – is precisely what the text declares our fathers understood “better than we.”

Let us now inquire whether the “thirty-nine,” or any of them, ever acted upon this question; and if they did, how they acted upon it – how they expressed that better understanding?

In 1784, three years before the Constitution – the United States then owning the Northwestern Territory, and no other, the Congress of the Confederation had before them the question of prohibiting slavery in that Territory; and four of the “thirty-nine” who afterward framed the Constitution, were in that Congress, and voted on that question. Of these, Roger Sherman, Thomas Mifflin, and Hugh Williamson voted for the prohibition, thus showing that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything else, properly forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in federal territory. The other of the four – James M’Henry – voted against the prohibition, showing that, for some cause, he thought it improper to vote for it.

In 1787, still before the Constitution, but while the Convention was in session framing it, and while the Northwestern Territory still was the only territory owned by the United States, the same question of prohibiting slavery in the territory again came before the Congress of the Confederation; and two more of the “thirty-nine” who afterward signed the Constitution, were in that Congress, and voted on the question. They were William Blount and William Few; and they both voted for the prohibition – thus showing that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything else, properly forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in Federal territory. This time the prohibition became a law, being part of what is now well known as the Ordinance of ’87.

The question of federal control of slavery in the territories, seems not to have been directly before the Convention which framed the original Constitution; and hence it is not recorded that the “thirty-nine,” or any of them, while engaged on that instrument, expressed any opinion on that precise question.

In 1789, by the first Congress which sat under the Constitution, an act was passed to enforce the Ordinance of ’87, including the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory. The bill for this act was reported by one of the “thirty-nine,” Thomas Fitzsimmons, then a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. It went through all its stages without a word of opposition, and finally passed both branches without yeas and nays, which is equivalent to a unanimous passage. In this Congress there were sixteen of the thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution. They were John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman, Wm. S. Johnson, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Thos. Fitzsimmons, William Few, Abraham Baldwin, Rufus King, William Paterson, George Clymer, Richard Bassett, George Read, Pierce Butler, Daniel Carroll, James Madison.

This shows that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything in the Constitution, properly forbade Congress to prohibit slavery in the federal territory; else both their fidelity to correct principle, and their oath to support the Constitution, would have constrained them to oppose the prohibition.

Again, George Washington, another of the “thirty-nine,” was then President of the United States, and, as such approved and signed the bill; thus completing its validity as a law, and thus showing that, in his understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything in the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government, to control as to slavery in federal territory.

No great while after the adoption of the original Constitution, North Carolina ceded to the Federal Government the country now constituting the State of Tennessee; and a few years later Georgia ceded that which now constitutes the States of Mississippi and Alabama. In both deeds of cession it was made a condition by the ceding States that the Federal Government should not prohibit slavery in the ceded territory. Besides this, slavery was then actually in the ceded country. Under these circumstances, Congress, on taking charge of these countries, did not absolutely prohibit slavery within them. But they did interfere with it – take control of it – even there, to a certain extent. In 1798, Congress organized the Territory of Mississippi. In the act of organization, they prohibited the bringing of slaves into the Territory, from any place without the United States, by fine, and giving freedom to slaves so bought. This act passed both branches of Congress without yeas and nays. In that Congress were three of the “thirty-nine” who framed the original Constitution. They were John Langdon, George Read and Abraham Baldwin. They all, probably, voted for it. Certainly they would have placed their opposition to it upon record, if, in their understanding, any line dividing local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, properly forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in federal territory.

In 1803, the Federal Government purchased the Louisiana country. Our former territorial acquisitions came from certain of our own States; but this Louisiana country was acquired from a foreign nation. In 1804, Congress gave a territorial organization to that part of it which now constitutes the State of Louisiana. New Orleans, lying within that part, was an old and comparatively large city. There were other considerable towns and settlements, and slavery was extensively and thoroughly intermingled with the people. Congress did not, in the Territorial Act, prohibit slavery; but they did interfere with it – take control of it – in a more marked and extensive way than they did in the case of Mississippi. The substance of the provision therein made, in relation to slaves, was:

First. That no slave should be imported into the territory from foreign parts.

Second. That no slave should be carried into it who had been imported into the United States since the first day of May, 1798.

Third. That no slave should be carried into it, except by the owner, and for his own use as a settler; the penalty in all the cases being a fine upon the violator of the law, and freedom to the slave.

This act also was passed without yeas and nays. In the Congress which passed it, there were two of the “thirty-nine.” They were Abraham Baldwin and Jonathan Dayton. As stated in the case of Mississippi, it is probable they both voted for it. They would not have allowed it to pass without recording their opposition to it, if, in their understanding, it violated either the line properly dividing local from federal authority, or any provision of the Constitution.

In 1819-20, came and passed the Missouri question. Many votes were taken, by yeas and nays, in both branches of Congress, upon the various phases of the general question. Two of the “thirty-nine” – Rufus King and Charles Pinckney – were members of that Congress. Mr. King steadily voted for slavery prohibition and against all compromises, while Mr. Pinckney as steadily voted against slavery prohibition and against all compromises. By this, Mr. King showed that, in his understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything in the Constitution, was violated by Congress prohibiting slavery in federal territory; while Mr. Pinckney, by his votes, showed that, in his understanding, there was some sufficient reason for opposing such prohibition in that case.

The cases I have mentioned are the only acts of the “thirty-nine,” or of any of them, upon the direct issue, which I have been able to discover.

To enumerate the persons who thus acted, as being four in 1784, two in 1787, seventeen in 1789, three in 1798, two in 1804, and two in 1819-20 – there would be thirty of them. But this would be counting John Langdon, Roger Sherman, William Few, Rufus King, and George Read each twice, and Abraham Baldwin, three times. The true number of those of the “thirty-nine” whom I have shown to have acted upon the question, which, by the text, they understood better than we, is twenty-three, leaving sixteen not shown to have acted upon it in any way.

Here, then, we have twenty-three out of our thirty-nine fathers “who framed the government under which we live,” who have, upon their official responsibility and their corporal oaths, acted upon the very question which the text affirms they “understood just as well, and even better than we do now;” and twenty-one of them – a clear majority of the whole “thirty-nine” – so acting upon it as to make them guilty of gross political impropriety and willful perjury, if, in their understanding, any proper division between local and federal authority, or anything in the Constitution they had made themselves, and sworn to support, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. Thus the twenty-one acted; and, as actions speak louder than words, so actions, under such responsibility, speak still louder.

Two of the twenty-three voted against Congressional prohibition of slavery in the federal territories, in the instances in which they acted upon the question. But for what reasons they so voted is not known. They may have done so because they thought a proper division of local from federal authority, or some provision or principle of the Constitution, stood in the way; or they may, without any such question, have voted against the prohibition, on what appeared to them to be sufficient grounds of expediency. No one who has sworn to support the Constitution can conscientiously vote for what he understands to be an unconstitutional measure, however expedient he may think it; but one may and ought to vote against a measure which he deems constitutional, if, at the same time, he deems it inexpedient. It, therefore, would be unsafe to set down even the two who voted against the prohibition, as having done so because, in their understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in federal territory.

The remaining sixteen of the “thirty-nine,” so far as I have discovered, have left no record of their understanding upon the direct question of federal control of slavery in the federal territories. But there is much reason to believe that their understanding upon that question would not have appeared different from that of their twenty-three compeers, had it been manifested at all.

For the purpose of adhering rigidly to the text, I have purposely omitted whatever understanding may have been manifested by any person, however distinguished, other than the thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution; and, for the same reason, I have also omitted whatever understanding may have been manifested by any of the “thirty-nine” even, on any other phase of the general question of slavery. If we should look into their acts and declarations on those other phases, as the foreign slave trade, and the morality and policy of slavery generally, it would appear to us that on the direct question of federal control of slavery in federal territories, the sixteen, if they had acted at all, would probably have acted just as the twenty-three did. Among that sixteen were several of the most noted anti-slavery men of those times – as Dr. Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris – while there was not one now known to have been otherwise, unless it may be John Rutledge, of South Carolina.

The sum of the whole is, that of our thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution, twenty-one – a clear majority of the whole – certainly understood that no proper division of local from federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories; while all the rest probably had the same understanding. Such, unquestionably, was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution; and the text affirms that they understood the question “better than we.”

But, so far, I have been considering the understanding of the question manifested by the framers of the original Constitution. In and by the original instrument, a mode was provided for amending it; and, as I have already stated, the present frame of “the Government under which we live” consists of that original, and twelve amendatory articles framed and adopted since. Those who now insist that federal control of slavery in federal territories violates the Constitution, point us to the provisions which they suppose it thus violates; and, as I understand, that all fix upon provisions in these amendatory articles, and not in the original instrument. The Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott case, plant themselves upon the fifth amendment, which provides that no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law;” while Senator Douglas and his peculiar adherents plant themselves upon the tenth amendment, providing that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution” “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Now, it so happens that these amendments were framed by the first Congress which sat under the Constitution – the identical Congress which passed the act already mentioned, enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory. Not only was it the same Congress, but they were the identical, same individual men who, at the same session, and at the same time within the session, had under consideration, and in progress toward maturity, these Constitutional amendments, and this act prohibiting slavery in all the territory the nation then owned. The Constitutional amendments were introduced before, and passed after the act enforcing the Ordinance of ’87; so that, during the whole pendency of the act to enforce the Ordinance, the Constitutional amendments were also pending.

The seventy-six members of that Congress, including sixteen of the framers of the original Constitution, as before stated, were pre- eminently our fathers who framed that part of “the Government under which we live,” which is now claimed as forbidding the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories.

Is it not a little presumptuous in any one at this day to affirm that the two things which that Congress deliberately framed, and carried to maturity at the same time, are absolutely inconsistent with each other? And does not such affirmation become impudently absurd when coupled with the other affirmation from the same mouth, that those who did the two things, alleged to be inconsistent, understood whether they really were inconsistent better than we – better than he who affirms that they are inconsistent?

It is surely safe to assume that the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century,) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,” but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them.

Now, and here, let me guard a little against being misunderstood. I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience – to reject all progress – all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.

If any man at this day sincerely believes that a proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories, he is right to say so, and to enforce his position by all truthful evidence and fair argument which he can. But he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live” were of the same opinion – thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument. If any man at this day sincerely believes “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,” used and applied principles, in other cases, which ought to have led them to understand that a proper division of local from federal authority or some part of the Constitution, forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories, he is right to say so. But he should, at the same time, brave the responsibility of declaring that, in his opinion, he understands their principles better than they did themselves; and especially should he not shirk that responsibility by asserting that they “understood the question just as well, and even better, than we do now.”

But enough! Let all who believe that “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now,” speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask – all Republicans desire – in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity. Let all the guarantees those fathers gave it, be, not grudgingly, but fully and fairly, maintained. For this Republicans contend, and with this, so far as I know or believe, they will be content.

And now, if they would listen – as I suppose they will not – I would address a few words to the Southern people.

I would say to them: – You consider yourselves a reasonable and a just people; and I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any other people. Still, when you speak of us Republicans, you do so only to denounce us a reptiles, or, at the best, as no better than outlaws. You will grant a hearing to pirates or murderers, but nothing like it to “Black Republicans.” In all your contentions with one another, each of you deems an unconditional condemnation of “Black Republicanism” as the first thing to be attended to. Indeed, such condemnation of us seems to be an indispensable prerequisite – license, so to speak – among you to be admitted or permitted to speak at all. Now, can you, or not, be prevailed upon to pause and to consider whether this is quite just to us, or even to yourselves? Bring forward your charges and specifications, and then be patient long enough to hear us deny or justify.

You say we are sectional. We deny it. That makes an issue; and the burden of proof is upon you. You produce your proof; and what is it? Why, that our party has no existence in your section – gets no votes in your section. The fact is substantially true; but does it prove the issue? If it does, then in case we should, without change of principle, begin to get votes in your section, we should thereby cease to be sectional. You cannot escape this conclusion; and yet, are you willing to abide by it? If you are, you will probably soon find that we have ceased to be sectional, for we shall get votes in your section this very year. You will then begin to discover, as the truth plainly is, that your proof does not touch the issue. The fact that we get no votes in your section, is a fact of your making, and not of ours. And if there be fault in that fact, that fault is primarily yours, and remains until you show that we repel you by some wrong principle or practice. If we do repel you by any wrong principle or practice, the fault is ours; but this brings you to where you ought to have started – to a discussion of the right or wrong of our principle. If our principle, put in practice, would wrong your section for the benefit of ours, or for any other object, then our principle, and we with it, are sectional, and are justly opposed and denounced as such. Meet us, then, on the question of whether our principle, put in practice, would wrong your section; and so meet it as if it were possible that something may be said on our side. Do you accept the challenge? No! Then you really believe that the principle which “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live” thought so clearly right as to adopt it, and indorse it again and again, upon their official oaths, is in fact so clearly wrong as to demand your condemnation without a moment’s consideration.

Some of you delight to flaunt in our faces the warning against sectional parties given by Washington in his Farewell Address. Less than eight years before Washington gave that warning, he had, as President of the United States, approved and signed an act of Congress, enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory, which act embodied the policy of the Government upon that subject up to and at the very moment he penned that warning; and about one year after he penned it, he wrote LaFayette that he considered that prohibition a wise measure, expressing in the same connection his hope that we should at some time have a confederacy of free States.

Bearing this in mind, and seeing that sectionalism has since arisen upon this same subject, is that warning a weapon in your hands against us, or in our hands against you? Could Washington himself speak, would he cast the blame of that sectionalism upon us, who sustain his policy, or upon you who repudiate it? We respect that warning of Washington, and we commend it to you, together with his example pointing to the right application of it.

But you say you are conservative – eminently conservative – while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live;” while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new. True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be. You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers. Some of you are for reviving the foreign slave trade; some for a Congressional Slave-Code for the Territories; some for Congress forbidding the Territories to prohibit Slavery within their limits; some for maintaining Slavery in the Territories through the judiciary; some for the “gur-reat pur-rinciple” that “if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,” fantastically called “Popular Sovereignty;” but never a man among you is in favor of federal prohibition of slavery in federal territories, according to the practice of “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our Government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge or destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations.

Again, you say we have made the slavery question more prominent than it formerly was. We deny it. We admit that it is more prominent, but we deny that we made it so. It was not we, but you, who discarded the old policy of the fathers. We resisted, and still resist, your innovation; and thence comes the greater prominence of the question. Would you have that question reduced to its former proportions? Go back to that old policy. What has been will be again, under the same conditions. If you would have the peace of the old times, readopt the precepts and policy of the old times.

You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.

Some of you admit that no Republican designedly aided or encouraged the Harper’s Ferry affair, but still insist that our doctrines and declarations necessarily lead to such results. We do not believe it. We know we hold to no doctrine, and make no declaration, which were not held to and made by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” You never dealt fairly by us in relation to this affair. When it occurred, some important State elections were near at hand, and you were in evident glee with the belief that, by charging the blame upon us, you could get an advantage of us in those elections. The elections came, and your expectations were not quite fulfilled. Every Republican man knew that, as to himself at least, your charge was a slander, and he was not much inclined by it to cast his vote in your favor. Republican doctrines and declarations are accompanied with a continual protest against any interference whatever with your slaves, or with you about your slaves. Surely, this does not encourage them to revolt. True, we do, in common with “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live,” declare our belief that slavery is wrong; but the slaves do not hear us declare even this. For anything we say or do, the slaves would scarcely know there is a Republican party. I believe they would not, in fact, generally know it but for your misrepresentations of us, in their hearing. In your political contests among yourselves, each faction charges the other with sympathy with Black Republicanism; and then, to give point to the charge, defines Black Republicanism to simply be insurrection, blood and thunder among the slaves.

Slave insurrections are no more common now than they were before the Republican party was organized. What induced the Southampton insurrection, twenty-eight years ago, in which, at least three times as many lives were lost as at Harper’s Ferry? You can scarcely stretch your very elastic fancy to the conclusion that Southampton was “got up by Black Republicanism.” In the present state of things in the United States, I do not think a general, or even a very extensive slave insurrection is possible. The indispensable concert of action cannot be attained. The slaves have no means of rapid communication; nor can incendiary freemen, black or white, supply it. The explosive materials are everywhere in parcels; but there neither are, nor can be supplied, the indispensable connecting trains.

Much is said by Southern people about the affection of slaves for their masters and mistresses; and a part of it, at least, is true. A plot for an uprising could scarcely be devised and communicated to twenty individuals before some one of them, to save the life of a favorite master or mistress, would divulge it. This is the rule; and the slave revolution in Hayti was not an exception to it, but a case occurring under peculiar circumstances. The gunpowder plot of British history, though not connected with slaves, was more in point. In that case, only about twenty were admitted to the secret; and yet one of them, in his anxiety to save a friend, betrayed the plot to that friend, and, by consequence, averted the calamity. Occasional poisonings from the kitchen, and open or stealthy assassinations in the field, and local revolts extending to a score or so, will continue to occur as the natural results of slavery; but no general insurrection of slaves, as I think, can happen in this country for a long time. Whoever much fears, or much hopes for such an event, will be alike disappointed.

In the language of Mr. Jefferson, uttered many years ago, “It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation, and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degrees, as that the evil will wear off insensibly; and their places be, pari passu, filled up by free white laborers. If, on the contrary, it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.”

Mr. Jefferson did not mean to say, nor do I, that the power of emancipation is in the Federal Government. He spoke of Virginia; and, as to the power of emancipation, I speak of the slaveholding States only. The Federal Government, however, as we insist, has the power of restraining the extension of the institution – the power to insure that a slave insurrection shall never occur on any American soil which is now free from slavery.

John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution. Orsini’s attempt on Louis Napoleon, and John Brown’s attempt at Harper’s Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the same. The eagerness to cast blame on old England in the one case, and on New England in the other, does not disprove the sameness of the two things.

And how much would it avail you, if you could, by the use of John Brown, Helper’s Book, and the like, break up the Republican organization? Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed. There is a judgment and a feeling against slavery in this nation, which cast at least a million and a half of votes. You cannot destroy that judgment and feeling – that sentiment – by breaking up the political organization which rallies around it. You can scarcely scatter and disperse an army which has been formed into order in the face of your heaviest fire; but if you could, how much would you gain by forcing the sentiment which created it out of the peaceful channel of the ballot-box, into some other channel? What would that other channel probably be? Would the number of John Browns be lessened or enlarged by the operation?

But you will break up the Union rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound; but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right, plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours, to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such a right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

This, plainly stated, is your language. Perhaps you will say the Supreme Court has decided the disputed Constitutional question in your favor. Not quite so. But waiving the lawyer’s distinction between dictum and decision, the Court have decided the question for you in a sort of way. The Court have substantially said, it is your Constitutional right to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. When I say the decision was made in a sort of way, I mean it was made in a divided Court, by a bare majority of the Judges, and they not quite agreeing with one another in the reasons for making it; that it is so made as that its avowed supporters disagree with one another about its meaning, and that it was mainly based upon a mistaken statement of fact – the statement in the opinion that “the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.”

An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of property in a slave is not “distinctly and expressly affirmed” in it. Bear in mind, the Judges do not pledge their judicial opinion that such right is impliedly affirmed in the Constitution; but they pledge their veracity that it is “distinctly and expressly” affirmed there – “distinctly,” that is, not mingled with anything else – “expressly,” that is, in words meaning just that, without the aid of any inference, and susceptible of no other meaning.

If they had only pledged their judicial opinion that such right is affirmed in the instrument by implication, it would be open to others to show that neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word “property” even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery; and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a “person;” – and wherever his master’s legal right in relation to him is alluded to, it is spoken of as “service or labor which may be due,” – as a debt payable in service or labor. Also, it would be open to show, by contemporaneous history, that this mode of alluding to slaves and slavery, instead of speaking of them, was employed on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.

To show all this, is easy and certain.

When this obvious mistake of the Judges shall be brought to their notice, is it not reasonable to expect that they will withdraw the mistaken statement, and reconsider the conclusion based upon it?

And then it is to be remembered that “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live” – the men who made the Constitution – decided this same Constitutional question in our favor, long ago – decided it without division among themselves, when making the decision; without division among themselves about the meaning of it after it was made, and, so far as any evidence is left, without basing it upon any mistaken statement of facts.

Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

To be sure, what the robber demanded of me – my money – was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.

A few words now to Republicans. It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.

Will they be satisfied if the Territories be unconditionally surrendered to them? We know they will not. In all their present complaints against us, the Territories are scarcely mentioned. Invasions and insurrections are the rage now. Will it satisfy them, if, in the future, we have nothing to do with invasions and insurrections? We know it will not. We so know, because we know we never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections; and yet this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the denunciation.

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone – have never disturbed them – so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.

I am also aware they have not, as yet, in terms, demanded the overthrow of our Free-State Constitutions. Yet those Constitutions declare the wrong of slavery, with more solemn emphasis, than do all other sayings against it; and when all these other sayings shall have been silenced, the overthrow of these Constitutions will be demanded, and nothing be left to resist the demand. It is nothing to the contrary, that they do not demand the whole of this just now. Demanding what they do, and for the reason they do, they can voluntarily stop nowhere short of this consummation. Holding, as they do, that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating, they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right, and a social blessing.

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension – its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.

Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler et al.


Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

In 1834, Dr. Emerson, an Army surgeon, took his slave Dred Scott from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state, and then, in 1836, to Fort Snelling in Wisconsin Territory. The latter was north of the geographic line at latitude 36°30′ established under the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as the division between free territory and that potentially open to slavery. In addition, the law that organized Wisconsin Territory in 1836 made the domain free. Emerson, his wife, and Scott and his family eventually returned to Missouri by 1840. Emerson died in Iowa in 1843. Ownership of Scott and his family ultimately passed to Emerson’s brother-in-law, John Sanford, of New York.

With financial assistance from the family of his former owner, the late Peter Blow, Scott sued for his freedom in Missouri state court, beginning in 1846. He argued that he was free due to having resided in both a free state and a free territory. After some procedural delays, the lower court jury eventually agreed with him in 1850, but the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852 overturned the verdict. The judges rejected Scott’s argument, on the basis that the laws of Illinois and Wisconsin Territory had no extraterritorial effect in Missouri once he returned there.

It has long been speculated that the case was contrived. Records were murky, and it was not clear that Sanford actually owned Scott. Moreover, Sanford’s sister Irene, the late Dr. Emerson’s widow, had remarried an abolitionist Congressman. Finally, the suit was brought in the court of Judge Alexander Hamilton, known to be sympathetic to such “freedom suits.”

Having lost in the state courts, in 1853 Scott tried again, in the United States Circuit Court for Missouri, which at that time was a federal trial court. The basic thrust of the case at that level was procedural sufficiency. Federal courts, as courts of limited and defined jurisdiction under Article III of the Constitution, generally can hear only cases between citizens of different states or if a claim is based on a federal statute or treaty, or on the Constitution. There being no federal law of any sort involved, Scott’s claim rested on diversity of citizenship. Scott claimed that he was a free citizen of Missouri and Sanford a citizen of New York. On the substance, Scott reiterated the position from his state court claim. Sanford sought a dismissal on the basis of lack of subject matter jurisdiction because, being black, Scott could not be a citizen of Missouri.

When Missouri sought admission to statehood in 1820, its constitution excluded free blacks from living in the state. The compromise law passed by Congress prohibited the state constitution from being interpreted to authorize a law that would exclude citizens of any state from enjoying the constitutional privileges and immunities of citizenship the state recognized for its own citizens. That prohibition was toothless, and Sanford’s argument rested on Missouri’s negation of citizenship for all blacks. Thus, Scott’s continued status as a slave was not crucial to resolve the case. Rather, his racial status, free or slave, meant that he was not a citizen of Missouri. Thus, the federal court lacked jurisdiction over the suit and could not hear Scott’s substantive claim. Instead, the appropriate forum to determine Scott’s status was the Missouri state court. As already noted, that was a dry well and could not water the fountain of justice.

In a confusing action, the Circuit Court appeared to reject Sanford’s jurisdictional argument, but the jury nevertheless ruled for Sanford on the merits, based on Missouri law. Scott appealed to the United States Supreme Court by writ of error, a broad corrective tool to review decisions of lower courts. The Court heard argument in Dred Scott v. Sandford (the “d” is a clerical error) at its February, 1856, term. The justices were divided on the preliminary jurisdictional issue. They bound the case over to the December, 1856, term, after the contentious 1856 election. There seemed to be a way out of the ticklish matter. In Strader v. Graham in 1850, the unanimous Supreme Court had held that a slave’s status rested finally on the decision of the relevant state court. The justices also had refused to consider independently the claim that a slave became free simply through residence in a free state. Seven of the justices in Dred Scott believed Strader to be on point, and Justice Samuel Nelson drafted an opinion on that basis. Such a narrow resolution would have steered clear of the hot political issue of extension of slavery into new territories that was roiling the political waters and threatening to tear apart the Union.

It was not to be. Several of the Southern justices were sufficiently alarmed by the public debate and affected by sectional loyalty to prepare concurring opinions to address the lurking issue of Scott’s status. Justice James Wayne of Georgia then persuaded his fellows to take up all issues raised by Scott’s suit. Chief Justice Roger Taney would write the opinion.

Writing for himself and six associate justices, Taney delivered the Court’s opinion on March 6, 1857, just a couple of days after the inauguration of President James Buchanan. In his inaugural address, Buchanan hinted at the coming decision through which the slavery question would “be speedily and finally settled.” Apparently having received advance word of the decision, Buchanan declared that he would support the decision, adding coyly, “whatever this may be.” Some historians have wondered if Buchanan actually appreciated the breadth of the Court’s imminent opinion or misunderstood what was about to happen. Of the seven justices that joined the decision that Scott lacked standing to sue and was still a slave, five were Southerners (Taney of Maryland, Wayne, John Catron of Tennessee, Peter Daniel of Virginia, and John Campbell of Georgia). Two were from the North (Samuel Nelson of New York and Robert Grier of Pennsylvania). Two Northerners (Benjamin Curtis of Massachusetts and John McLean of Ohio) dissented.

Taney’s ruling concluded that Scott was not a citizen of the United States, because he was black, and because he was a slave. Thus, the federal courts lacked jurisdiction, and by virtue of the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision, Scott was still a slave. Taney’s argument rested primarily on a complex analysis of citizenship. When the Constitution was adopted, neither slaves nor free blacks were part of the community of citizens in the several states. Thereafter, some states made citizens of free blacks, as they were entitled to do. But that did not affect the status of such individuals in other states, as state laws could not act extraterritorially. Only United States citizenship or state citizenship conferred directly under the Constitution could be the same in all states. Neither slaves nor free blacks were understood to be part of the community of citizens in the states in 1788 when the Constitution was adopted, the only time that state citizenship could have also conferred national citizenship. Thereafter, only Congress could extend national citizenship to free blacks, but had never done so. States could not now confer U.S. citizenship, because the two were distinct, which reflected basic tenets of dual sovereignty.

Taney rejected the common law principle of birthright citizenship based on jus soli, that citizenship arose from where the person was born. This was not traditionally the only source of citizenship, the other being the jus sanguinis, by which citizenship arose through the parents’ citizenship, unless a person was an alien and became naturalized under federal law. Since blacks were not naturalized aliens, and their parental lineage could not confer citizenship on them under Taney’s reasoning, the rejection of citizenship derived from birth in the United States meant that even free blacks were merely subordinate American nationals owing obligations and allegiance to the United States but not enjoying the inherent political, legal, and civil rights of full citizenship. This was a novel status, but one that became significant several decades later when the United States acquired overseas dominions.

After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was adopted. The very first sentence defines one basis of citizenship. National citizenship and state citizenship are divided, but the division is not identical to Taney’s version. To counter the Dred Scott Case and to affirm the citizenship of the newly-freed slaves, and, by extension, all blacks, national citizenship became rooted in jus soli. If one was born (or naturalized) in the United States and was subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, that is, one owed no loyalty to a foreign government, national citizenship applied. State citizenship was derivative of national citizenship, not independent of it, as Taney had held, and was based on domicile in that state.

The Chief Justice also rejected the idea that blacks were entitled to the same privileges and immunities of citizenship as whites. Although Taney viewed the Constitution’s privileges and immunities clause in Article IV broadly, if blacks were regarded as full state citizens under the Constitution, then Southern states could not enforce their laws that restricted the rights of blacks regarding free speech, assembly, and the keeping and bearing of arms. That, in turn, would threaten the social order and the stability of the slave system.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

Dred Scott lost his appeal for a second reason, his status as a slave. The Court’s original, since-abandoned, plan had been to decide the whole suit on the basis of the Strader precedent that Scott was a slave because the Missouri Supreme Court had so found. That approach still could have been used to deal summarily with this issue in the eventual opinion. But Taney struck a bolder theme. He analyzed the effect of Scott’s residence in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory on his status. This allowed Taney to challenge more broadly the prevailing idea that the federal government could interfere with the movement of slavery throughout the nation.

Taney opined that the federal government’s power to regulate directly the status of slavery in the territories, including its abolition, was derived from Article IV, Section 3, of the Constitution, which authorized Congress to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory … belonging to the United States” and to admit new states. However, Taney claimed, this provision applied only to the land that had been ceded to the United States by the several states under the Articles of Confederation. Thus, Congress could abolish slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, reenacted in 1789, because it applied to such ceded land. Any territory acquired by the United States thereafter, such as through the Louisiana Purchase or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo after the Mexican War, was held by the United States in trust for the whole people of the United States. Thus, white citizens who settled in those territories did not lose the rights they had acquired residing within their previous states. They were not “mere colonists, … to be governed by any laws [the general government] may think proper.” These rights would include that to property and extended to the property in slaves.

Lastly, Taney explained, the Fifth Amendment expressly protected against federal laws that sought to deprive a person of his life, liberty, or property without due process. Due process guaranteed not only a fair trial, but protected generally against arbitrary laws. A law that deprived a person of property, including slaves, simply because he moved into a territory controlled by the federal government, “could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.” This was a founding example of the doctrine of substantive due process that has been invoked by the courts in more recent cases to strike down laws against abortion and same-sex marriage. Taney’s distinction between the constitutional rights of citizens and colonists and his postulate that the Constitution limited Congress’s power of administering the territories settled by Americans reappeared in modified form a half century later in cases dealing with Congress’s control over overseas territory acquired after the Spanish-American War.

Scott did not become free by residing in free territory, because the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which excluded slavery from Wisconsin Territory, was unconstitutional. That decision was radical because it upset a long constitutional custom of geographically dividing free from (potentially) slave territory, beginning with the Northwest Ordinance, but which had been undermined in the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Nor could Wisconsin’s territorial legislature abolish slavery, in Taney’s analysis, through the newly-minted doctrine of “popular sovereignty.” That legislature was merely an agent of Congress, and had no more power to destroy constitutional rights than did its principal.

“Popular sovereignty” lay at the core of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas- Nebraska Act. That doctrine, championed by Senators Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, allowed slave holders to bring their property into all parts of the politically unorganized territorial area. Under the Northern view, once organized as a territory, the people acting through a convention or through their territorial legislature might authorize or prohibit slavery. Under the Southern view, only states could abolish slavery, and any such prohibition had to await a decision of the people when seeking statehood or thereafter. The Court thus endorsed the Southern perspective, further inflaming sectional tensions because the two federal compromise laws had always been a bitter pill to swallow for many in the North.

Four of the concurring justices wrote opinions that reached the same result via various other doctrinal paths. Two dissented. The main dissent, by Benjamin Curtis—whose brother George Ticknor Curtis was one of Scott’s attorneys—relied on the theory that state citizenship was the source of national citizenship. Therefore, once someone resided in a state, and was not merely a sojourner, he acquired the rights of citizenship in that state. Scott, having resided in a free state, had shed his status as a slave and could not be reduced to that status merely by returning to Missouri. Once free, he was also entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens, which included the right to travel freely to other states. Curtis’s theory, by focusing on states as the source of all citizenship, was even more inconsistent than Taney’s with the eventual language of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embodied a national supremacy approach.

From the beginning, the Dred Scott Case was received poorly by the public. Its controversial, and to us odious, result also tarnished the legacy of Roger Taney. Viewed from our more distant historical perspective, perhaps a more nuanced evaluation is possible. Judged by intellectual standards, Taney’s opinion showed considerable judicial craftsmanship. Taney himself was an accomplished and influential Chief Justice, whose Court addressed legal and constitutional matters significant for the country’s development.

Why then did Taney opt for an approach that destroyed the delicate balances worked out politically in the Congress, and would have nationalized the spread of slavery? After all, the narrower route of Strader lay open to the Court for the same result. Part of it was sympathy for the Southern cause, although Taney by then was not himself a slave owner. Indeed, while in law practice, Taney had vigorously denounced slavery when defending an abolitionist minister accused of inciting slave rebellions. Mostly, it was the perception that the political process was becoming unable to negotiate the hardening positions of both sides on the various facets of the slavery controversy. Those facets included protection of the “peculiar institution” in the existing slave states, expansion of slavery into new territory, and recapture of fugitive slaves from states hostile to such efforts.

The relatively successful compromises of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with their attendant comity among the states were in the distant past. Congressional efforts were increasingly strained and laborious, as experience with the convoluted process that led to the Compromise of 1850 had shown. Southerners’ paranoia about their section’s diminished political power and comparative industrial inadequacy, as well as Northerners’ moral self-righteousness and sense of political ascendancy eroded the mutual good will needed for compromise. Presidential leadership had proved counterproductive to sectional accommodation, as with James Polk and the controversy over potential expansion of slavery into territory from the Mexican War. Or, such executive efforts were ineffective, as with Franklin Pierce’s failed attempt to act while President like the compromise candidate that he had been at the Democratic convention. Worse yet, eventually such leadership was non-existent, as with James Buchanan.

There remained only the judicial solution to prevent the rupture of the political order that was looming. Legal decisions, unlike political ones, are binary and generally produce a basic clarity. One side wins, the other loses. Constitutional cases add to that the veneer of moral superiority. If the Constitution is seen as a collection of moral principles, not just a pragmatic collection of political compromises, the winner in a constitutional dispute has a moral legitimacy that the loser lacks. Hence, Taney decided to cut the Gordian knot and hope that the Court’s decision would be accepted even by those who opposed slavery. Certainly, President Buchanan, having received advance word of the impending decision, announced in his inaugural address that he would accept the Court’s decision and expected all good citizens to do likewise.

Unfortunately, matters turned out differently. At best, the decision had no impact on the country’s lurch toward violence. At worst, the decision hastened secession and war. Abraham Lincoln presented the moderate opposition to the decision. In a challenge to the Court, he defended the President’s independent powers to interpret the Constitution. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln disavowed any intention to overturn the decision and free Dred Scott. He then declared, “At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, … the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”

Scott and his family were freed by manumission in May, 1837, two months after the decision in his case. Scott died a year later.

In the eyes of many, the Court’s institutional legitimacy suffered from its attempt to solve undemocratically such a deep public controversy about a fundamental moral issue. A more recent analogue springs to mind readily. Many years after Dred Scott, partially dissenting in the influential abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, Justice Antonin Scalia described a portrait of Taney painted in 1859: “There seems to be on his face, and in his deep-set eyes, an expression of profound sadness and disillusionment. Perhaps he always looked that way, even when dwelling upon the happiest of thoughts. But those of us who know how the lustre of his great Chief Justiceship came to be eclipsed by Dred Scott cannot help believing that he had that case—its already apparent consequences for the Court and its soon-to-be-played-out consequences for the Nation—burning on his mind.” Scalia’s linkage of Taney’s ill-fated undemocratic attempt to settle definitively the slavery question by judicial decree to the similar attempt by his own fellow justices to settle the equally morally fraught abortion issue was none- too-subtle. Lest someone miss the point, Scalia concluded: “[B]y foreclosing all democratic outlet for the deep passions this issue arouses, by banishing the issue from the political forum that gives all participants, even the losers, the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight, by continuing the imposition of a rigid national rule instead of allowing for regional differences, the Court merely prolongs and intensifies the anguish.”

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner

The cascade of events leading to John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, and 700,000 dead on countless Civil War battlefields, began with a cynical ploy by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas to help land speculators and political donors.

America’s founding was an intricately crafted series of compromises and rules of engagement to balance regional interests. One of the fundamental points of conflict was slavery.

Slavery was integral to the economic vitality and culture of southern states. As America expanded westward, increasingly complex arrangements maintained the North/South regional political balance.  Western settlers quickly became a third regional interest.

For decades, three titans of the U.S. Senate: Daniel Webster representing Northern interests, John C. Calhoun representing Southern interests, and Henry Clay representing the West debated and compromised to keep America united. Their agreements were tested as the Louisiana Purchase, and then the Mexican War, created vast land masses for settlement, economic development, and political power.

Slavery became the epicenter of regional rivalries. The South wanted to maintain parity in the Senate, balancing adding a new free state with a slave state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 maintained the political balance while avoiding confronting slavery. Most Americans, even Southerners, hated the institution. They hoped that slavery, if left alone, would somehow fade away over decades to come.

In the minority were Northern abolitionists, who wanted to end slavery in their lifetime. There were also Southern slavery advocates, who hoped to expand slavery westward and even southward by annexing Caribbean and Central American lands to bolster their power. The moderates held off both factions until the lure of land speculation, government contracts, and quick profits were added into the mix.

It began with the proposed trans-continental railroad to California. Southerners wanted the rail line to take a southern route. James Gadsden, President Franklin Pierce’s Ambassador to Mexico, negotiated the purchase of Mexican lands in what is now the southern border of Arizona and New Mexico on December 30, 1853 to assure sufficient railroad rights-of-way through less mountainous terrain.

The North wanted a northern route that began at St. Louis, Missouri and linked to Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. Most northern business leaders favored the northern route and felt that organization of the Nebraska Territory would facilitate this decision. However, rival business factions within Missouri wanted control of the route and the potential fortunes to be made from land speculation. Pro-slave forces threatened to block any efforts to organize Nebraska because Missouri would then be surrounded on its west, east, and north by free states.

Senator Stephen Douglas was a key architect of the Compromise of 1850 and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories. Douglas already had presidential aspirations, having lost the 1852 Democratic Party nomination to Franklin Pierce. He was preparing for another run in 1856. He wanted to help his Missouri-based political and financial allies, while avoiding a confrontation with Southerners. [1]

On January 4, 1854, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. It opened the entire territory to popular or “squatter” sovereignty for determining whether the territories would be free or slave. At this time the Nebraska Territory encompassed the entire Louisiana Purchase from the Missouri Compromise line to the Canadian Border. Indiana Representative George Washington Julian, who would serve as the Chairman of the Committee on Organization for the 1856 Republican Convention, commented, “The whole question of slavery was thus re-opened.” [2]

The Congressional debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act was tumultuous. Ohio Senator, Salmon Chase, published, “The Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States,” in the New York Times on January 24, 1854. He declared the abandonment of the Missouri Compromise a “gross violation of a sacred pledge” and an “atrocious plot” to convert free territory into a “dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” [3]

Northerners, and many Westerners, felt Southern politicians were dealing in bad faith. The “Nebraska Act” was viewed as a bold Southern power grab that threatened the nation’s future. Protests against the “Nebraska Act” spread throughout the North. Highly charged emotions fractured the Democratic Party, destroyed the Whig Party, and launched the Republican Party. Sixty-seven-years of America’s civic culture was falling apart.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Senate in March and the House of Representatives in early May. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854.

New York Senator William H. Seward responded to victorious Southern Senators by stating, “Since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it in behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in a competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.” [4]

Both pro-slavery and anti-slave forces moved into the Kansas territory engaging in brutal guerilla warfare over the next five years. This sporadic civil war became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” It even spilled into the U.S. Senate Chamber. On May 22, 1856, South Carolina pro-slavery Democrat Representative Preston Brooks assaulted Massachusetts anti-slavery Republican Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber, bludgeoning him into unconsciousness. [5]

The regional civil war that erupted among Kansas settlers attracted the attention of John Brown, a key leader within the abolitionist movement.  Wealthy and politically connected abolitionists funded and armed Brown, his many sons, and a growing number of paramilitary units, to enter the Kansas maelstrom.

Kansas became a killing ground, and a proving ground for Brown’s violent approach to ending slavery. The nation had embarked on a path leading to the most cataclysmic event in American history.

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Mayer, George H., The Republican Party 1854-1966 Second Edition (Oxford University Press, New York, 1966) page 25.

[2] Julian, George Washington, Political Recollections; Anthology – America; Great Crises in Our History Told by its Makers; Vol. VII (Veterans of Foreign Wars, Chicago, 1925) page 212.

[3] McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford University Press, New York, 1988) page 124.

[4] Ibid., page 145.

[5] Ibid., page 150.

Guest Essayist: James D. Best

On the evening of February 27, 1860, New Yorkers paid an exorbitant twenty-five cents to listen to a commonplace politician from some prairie state. The man had a reputation as a storyteller extraordinaire. Everyone expected to be entertained; few took the speaker seriously as a presidential candidate. Abraham Lincoln had earned a modicum of fame due to his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas two years previously, but he had lost that race and most believed the fledgling Republican Party would never nominate a loser. In fact, many wondered how this roughhewn storyteller wangled an invitation to a lecture series meant to expose serious candidates to the New York elite? Homespun yarns might draw crowds in the bucolic West, but New York City demanded a more elevated style of speechmaking.

The Republican Party was new and had failed in running John C. Frémont, a national hero, for president in 1856. Lincoln’s chances of ascending to the presidency under the Republican banner were slight. Lincoln, of course, had other plans. That afternoon, he had his photograph taken by Mathew Brady, and he intended his evening speech to be historic. It was. Lincoln often said that the Brady’s photograph and his Cooper Union address propelled him to the presidency.

What was so great about his speech at the Cooper Union? It was earth-moving because it was highly unusual. It was a call for his party to stand on principle—God’s principles, the Founders’ principles, and the founding principle of the Republican Party—the abolition of slavery.

Lincoln wanted to debunk the Democrats’ claim that the Founders would have supported the extension of slavery into the territories, so he presented a scholarly review of the voting records of the Constitution’s thirty-nine signers, showing that twenty-one of them had voted for bills restricting slavery in territories, and sixteen had left no record. Only two had made votes that supported the Democrats’ contention.

His speech had started slow, but as it picked up momentum, the energy in the hall lifted until the excited audience waited on the edge of their seats for the next opportunity to clap, yell, and bang out a rhythm with their shoes. Lincoln gave them plenty of opportunities. Below is a highly abridged selection from his speech.

We hear that you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that event, you say you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us!

That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you and then you will be a murderer!’

What the robber demands of me—my money—is my own; and I have a clear right to keep it; but my vote is also my own; and the threat of death to me to extort my money and the threat to destroy the Union to extort my vote can scarcely be distinguished.

What will convince slaveholders that we do not threaten their property? This and this only: cease to call slavery wrong and join them in calling it right. Silence alone will not be tolerated—we must place ourselves avowedly with them. We must suppress all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

All they ask, we can grant, if we think slavery right. All we ask, they can grant if they think it wrong.

Right and wrong is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy.

Thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield? Can we cast our votes with their view and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?”

Let us not grope for some middle ground between right and wrong. Let us not search in vain for a policy of don’t care on a question about which we do care. Nor let us be frightened by threats of destruction to the government.”

Prolonged applause kept Lincoln silent for several minutes before delivering his final sentence.

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it!”

When Lincoln stepped back from the podium, the Cooper Union Great Hall exploded with noise and motion. Everybody stood. The staid New York audience cheered, clapped, and stomped their feet. Many waved handkerchiefs and hats.

Great leaders speak and act on principle. People will not only follow a principled leader; they will labor mightily in a principled cause.

Abraham Lincoln went on to win the Republican nomination, the presidency, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery.

Click here to read the text of Abraham Lincoln’s Address At Cooper Union.

(To learn more, I recommend Lincoln at Cooper Union by Harold Holzer.)

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, Lessons From the Origins of the American Republic, and the Steve Dancy Tales.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner

In the 1850s, America’s civic culture was crumbling. Decades of political compromise and avoidance on the issue of slavery had maintained an uneasy peace. The Mexican-American War (1846-47) added over 500,000 square miles to the U.S. and rekindled sectional competition. Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” [1]

The carefully orchestrated balance between Northern/Free states and Southern/Slave states in the U.S. Senate had only been maintained by tightly controlling the admission of new states to the Union. In 1820, Missouri was ready to be admitted as a “slave” state. Their Senate votes were to be off-set by separating the northern part of Massachusetts into the new “free” state of Maine. A key part of this Missouri Compromise of 1820 was to limit expansion of “slave states” to below a line, parallel 36°30′ north. However, after the Mexican War, Texas, California, and many other potential states, clamored for admission into the Union, reawakening the slumbering sectional strife and the “free” versus “slave” state controversy.

In 1850, a new Compromise was approved. This was a package of five separate bills that maintained the North/South balance in the Senate by allowing California to join the Union as a free state, even though its southern border dipped below the 1820 slave demarcation line. This was balanced by admitting Texas as a slave state. Other provisions balanced ending the slave trade in Washington, D.C. with establishing the Fugitive Slave Act, which required local officials in the North to aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves.

The Compromise of 1850 was the last great moment for the Whig Party. This party rose as a counter to the Jacksonian Democrats in the late 1830s. It thrived by broadly promoting westward expansion without a conflict with Mexico, supporting transportation infrastructure projects, and protecting fledgling American businesses with tariffs. The Whigs also benefited from having stellar leaders in the U.S. Senate, like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and attracting popular war heroes to run as their presidential candidates. The reawakening of sectional competition ended their brief moment of political ascendancy.

In 1848, the Whig Party split on slavery with pro-freedom/anti-Mexican War “Conscience Whigs” and pro-slavery “Cotton Whigs” (“lords of the lash” allied with “lords of the loom”). [2] They still stumbled across the 1848 Presidential finish line with Mexican War hero Zachery Taylor. Unfortunately, food poisoning led to Taylor’s death on July 9, 1850 ushering in the Presidency of anti-immigrant Millard Filmore and his “No-nothing” nativist movement. In 1852, the highly divided Whig Party needed 53 roll call votes to nominate another war hero, Winfield Scott, only to lose in a landslide to Pro-slavery Democrat Franklin Pierce. Rep. Alexander Stephens, a “Cotton Whig” pronounced, “the Whig Party is dead.” [3]

The implosion of the Whigs, and the new sectional rivalry, launched new parties, and factions within parties. These reflected the wide range of opinions on slavery from zealous support of slavery everywhere possible to immediate abolition everywhere possible. In the middle were factions that wanted to maintain the Union through various forms of compromise, allowing slavery some places, but not others.

This cauldron of factionalism came to a boil in 1854 with consideration of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was intended to void the carefully crafted Compromises of 1820 and 1850.

Anti-slavery “Free Soil” party activists along with anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs” and “Barn Burner” Democrats held anti-Nebraska meetings and rallies across the north. One of the organizers of these anti-Nebraska protests was Alvan E. Bovay.

Bovay (July 12, 1818 – January 13, 1903) was a successful New York lawyer and an early abolitionist. He and his wife moved to Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1850, where he helped establish Ripon College. [7]

Bovay was an active Whig, but was disappointed in the Party’s disarray over slavery. He felt Party leaders had lost their way. Only a new party, uniting anti-slavery factions across the political spectrum would resolve the divisiveness facing America. In 1852, Bovay visited his friend, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, to discuss a new party. They agreed a new party deserved a new name – Republican. [8] Launching this new party would have to wait until the Nebraska bill ignited wide-spread calls for strategic political change.

On March 1, 1854, Bovay announced an anti-Nebraska protest meeting in the local Ripon newspaper:

NEBRASKA. A meeting will be held at 6:30 o’clock this Wednesday evening at the Congregational church in the village of Ripon to remonstrate against the Nebraska swindle. [9]

After the meeting, Bovay posted in newspapers:

THE NEBRASKA BILL. A bill expressly intended to extend slavery will be the call to arms of a Great Northern Party, such as the country has not hitherto seen, composed of Whigs, Democrats, and Freesoilers; every man with a heart in him united under the single banner dry of “Repeal!” “Repeal!” [10]

Wisconsin anti-slavery activists became further inflamed when, March 9, 1854, protesters, led by abolitionist Sherman Booth, stormed a Milwaukee, Wisconsin jail to rescue Joshua Glover. Glover was an escaped slave awaiting extradition under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  A federal judge had refused to hear his appeal. [11]

Bovay then organized a second protest meeting:

The Nebraska bill. A bill expressly intended to extend and strengthen the institution of slavery has passed the Senate by a very large majority, many northern Senators voting for it and many more sitting in their seats and not voting at all. It is evidently destined to pass the House and become law, unless its progress is arrested by a general uprising of the north against it.

Therefore, We, the undersigned, believing the community to be nearly quite unanimous in opposition to the nefarious scheme, would call upon the public meeting of citizens of all parties to be held at the school house in Ripon on Monday evening, March 20, at 6:30 o’clock, to resolve, to petition, and to organize against it. [12]

Bovay and sixteen others met at the schoolhouse and decided to organize a Wisconsin state convention to endorse candidates for state and federal office. Bovay worked with anti-slavery Democrat, Edwin Hurlbut, to develop a platform for the “Republican Party.” They organized and managed a state convention in Madison, Wisconsin on July 13, 1854. That convention nominated the first slate of Republican candidates for that fall’s local elections. [13].

The Republican Party spread across America, coalescing diverse factions into a new political movement that would dominate American politics for the next 76 years, winning 14 of the next 19 Presidential elections. It also signaled the end of 36 years of political obfuscation on the issue of slavery in America, ultimately leading to the Civil War.

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.


[1] McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford University Press, New York, 1988) page 51.

[2] Ibid., page 60.

[3] Ibid., page 118.

[4] Mayer, George H., The Republican Party 1854-1966 Second Edition (Oxford University Press, New York, 1966) page 25.

[5] Julian, George Washington, Political Recollections; Anthology – America; Great Crises in Our History Told by its Makers; Vol. VII (Veterans of Foreign Wars, Chicago, 1925) page 212.

[6] Op. Cit., McPherson, page 124.


[8] Pedrick, Samuel M. , The life of Alvan E. Bovay, founder of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wis., March 20, 1854. (Commonwealth Partners, 1950).

[9] Unity Weekly; Unity Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois; Volume LXI, Number 16, June 18, 1908, pages 245-246.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Legler, Henry E., Leading Events of Wisconsin History. Milwaukee: Sentinel, 1898. Pages 226-229.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Op. Cit., Mayer, page 26.

Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

Sent by President Millard Fillmore, Commodore Matthew C. Perry went on an expedition to Japan in 1853 to persuade, even pressure, Japan to end its policy of isolation and become open to trade and diplomacy with the United States. Japan signed a treaty with the U.S. in 1854, agreeing to trade and an American consulate. The Treaty of Kanagawa was the first by Japan with a Western nation. Among many accomplishments, Commodore Perry devised a naval apprentice system, assisted the Naval Academy, worked to develop naval officers to their fullest potentials, and helped found the New York Naval Lyceum.

Commodore Perry had a long and distinguished career in the United States Navy, with his commanding of ships in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, but was also instrumental at the end of his career in opening Japan to the West.

Perry was asked to travel to Japan in 1852, when President Fillmore sent Perry on a mission to open the ports of Japan for American trade. Perry embarked on his voyage on November 24, 1852, from Norfolk, Virginia.  After making various stops along the way, including at Cape Town and Hong Kong, on July 8, 1853, Perry and his contingent arrived at Uraga.  Despite demands by the Japanese to proceed to the only port open to foreigners at Nagasaki, Perry refused. Perry warned the Japanese that if forced to fight, the Japanese would suffer immense damage and that the Americans would conquer them.

After some delays caused by the illness of Japanese shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and debating what was to be done with the demands of Perry, the Japanese decided to accept his offered letter. Perry was allowed to land near Uraga, at Kurihama. Perry presented his letter to the Japanese delegates, and departed for Hong Kong.

Returning approximately six months later, rather than the year he had promised, Perry landed and after negotiations, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854. Perry signed on behalf of America. Signed under threat of force, the Convention contained twelve articles, including a provision for it to be ratified within eighteen months. The treaty was written in English, Japanese, Chinese and Dutch, and the text was eventually ratified by Emperor Komei. The treaty was ratified on February 21, 1855.

Perry earned the nickname or title “Father of the Steam Navy” for his advocacy of modernizing the United States Navy and pushing for wider use of the steam engine.

Perry’s efforts to open Japan to the west for trade and diplomatic relationships after many years of isolation was an important achievement, and his ability to land and present his letter on July 14, 1853, is an important date in American history.

Among others, the treaty provided which ports would be open and contained a provision that Japan would supply the United States with any advantages that Japan might negotiate with any foreign nation in the future.

Perry returned to the United States in 1855 and Congress awarded him the sum of $20,000 for his work in Japan.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.  

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Dan Morenoff

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed shortly after James Wilson Marshall discovered gold flakes in the area now known as Sacramento. Border disputes would continue, but the treaty ended the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and added a large swath of western territory broadly expanding the United States. It would make up Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Texas, and parts that would later make up Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana. The new lands acquired from Mexico stirred sectional passions about the expansion of slavery in the West that helped lead to the Civil War after being temporarily settled by the Compromise of 1850.

Americans almost never think about the Mexican-American War. We don’t often pause to consider its justifications or results. We may know that it served as the training ground of just about everyone who became famous in the Civil War, but details of how, where, or why they fought that prequel might as well be myth. Most of us have no idea how many of our place names have their roots in its participants. Outside of a little-understood line in the Marine Hymn, we almost never hear anything about how we won it. And almost no American knows anything about the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that formally ended it: not its name, not its terms, not who signed it, and not the drama that went into creating a Mexican government willing to enter it.

We have good reason to studiously remember to forget these details.  Guadalupe-Hidalgo was an unjust treaty forced on a weaker neighbor to conclude our least-just war. It was also hugely consequential, and we spectacularly benefited from imposing it on Mexico.

The War Itself

The war’s beginnings lay in the unsettled details of Texas’s War of Independence. Yes, Mexican President Santa Anna had signed the so-called Treaties of Velasco while held prisoner after the Texian victory at San Jacinto in 1836, but Mexico both: (a) refused to ratify them (so never formally recognizing Texas’s independence); and (b) simultaneously argued that the unrecognized republic’s Southern border lay at the Nueces River, about a hundred and fifty (150) miles north of the Rio Grande (as Texas noted the Treaties of Velasco would have determined).

All this came to matter when James K. Polk won the Presidency in 1844.  He had campaigned on a series of promises that, for our purposes, included: (a) annexing Texas; and (b) obtaining California (and parts of five (5) other modern states) from Mexico.[1], [2]  Part one came early and easily, as he negotiated Texas’s ascension to the Union in 1845.  But when the Mexican government refused to meet with his emissary sent to negotiate the purchase of the whole northern part of their country,[3] in pursuit of a fallback plan, President Polk sent an army south to resolve the remaining ambiguity of the Texas-Mexico border. That army (contemporaneously called, with greater honesty than later sources usually admit, the “Army of Occupation”) under the command of Zachary Taylor went to “guard” the northern shore of the Rio Grande.  It took some doing, including the shelling of Matamoros (a major Mexican port city on the uncontested Southern shore of the river), but Taylor eventually managed to provoke a Mexican response. Mexican forces crossed the river to drive back the attacking Americans, in the process prevailing in the Thornton Skirmish and destroying Fort Brown.[4]

President Polk styled these actions a Mexican invasion of America that had killed American soldiers on American soil. On that basis, he sought and received a Congressional declaration of war. Days after receiving it (and in a time before even telegraphs, the distances involved – and coordination with naval forces in the Pacific make that timing revealing), American forces invaded Mexico in numerous arenas across the continent, seizing modern-day Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada; simultaneously, American settlers declared the “independence” of the Republic of California (the “independence” of which lasted no more than the twenty-five (25) days between their ineffective declaration and the arrival of the American military in Sonoma Valley).

But the achieving of Polk’s aims didn’t end the war.  Mexico didn’t accept the legitimacy or irreversibility of any of this. Polk ordered Taylor’s army South, to take Monterrey and press into the Mexican heartland.  Eventually, when that, too, failed to alter Mexican recalcitrance, President Polk sent another army, under the Command of Winfield Scott, to land in the Yucatan and follow essentially the same route Cortez had toward Mexico City. Like the conquistadors of old, that force (including Marines) would head for “the Halls of Montezuma” (the last Aztec king).

All this was controversial immediately.  Abraham Lincoln condemned the entire escapade from the floor of Congress as “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced.” Henry Clay called it an act of “unnecessary and [ ] offensive aggression.”  Fresh out of West Point, Ulysses S. Grant fought in the war, but after his Presidency would reflect that “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico.” And as the war raged, Washington, D.C. became consumed with the question of what all this new territory would do to the delicate balance established by the Missouri Compromise; was the whole war just a scheme to create new slave states? It was still only 1846, with the war’s outcome still unclear, when Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot sought to amend an appropriations bill (meant to authorize the funds to pay for peace) with “the Wilmot Proviso,” a bar on slavery in any formerly Mexican territory.[5]

Victory and Then What?

Wicked or not, the plan worked.  American forces promptly took Mexico City in September of 1847.

As Mexico City fell (with its President fleeing and the Foreign Minister declared acting-President), the collapsing Mexican Government proposed terms of peace (under which Mexico would retain all of modern New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California, and much of Nevada), designed to further pique Washington’s emerging divide by giving the U.S. only territory north of the free/slave divide established by the Missouri Compromise. But the Mexican government’s ability to deliver even those terms (which would have reversed enormous battlefield losses) was highly suspect; Jefferson Davis, who had fought in most of the war’s battles before being appointed a Mississippi Senator, warned Polk that any Mexican emissaries coming to Washington to negotiate based on it would see the talks go longer than their government’s survival and the negotiators labelled traitors and murderers, should they ever try to return home. And he was pretty clearly right: the people of Mexico were not happy about any of this: not with the loss of more than ½ their territory, not with the conquest of their capital, and not with the collapse of the government that was supposed to prevent anything of the sort from happening.

So how do you end a war and go home when there’s no one left to hand back the pieces to?

That was the rub.  The Americans in Mexico City didn’t want to stay. The whole war had been controversial and America having to occupy the entirety of Mexico sat particularly poorly with its opponents. The Wilmot Proviso hadn’t gone away either and Senators were already arguing that it would need to be incorporated into any peace treaty with Mexico (whomever that meant).  And there was no one with the ability to clearly speak for Mexico to negotiate anything anyway.

Eventual Treaty with Mexico’s Acting Government

It would take almost all of the remainder of Polk’s presidency to resolve these problems. Eventually, the acting Mexican government became willing to sign what America had decided the terms of peace required.  Those terms?  America would pay Mexico $15 million.[6]  America would assume and pay another $3.25 million of Mexico’s debts to Americans.[7]  As the GDP of California, alone, is estimated at $3.1 trillion for 2019, the purchase price was a bargain, to say the least. Mexico would renounce all rights to Texas and essentially all the rest of the modern American West.  All of California (down to the port of San Diego, but not Baja), Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado (and almost all of Arizona)[8] would so change hands; the Republic of Texas’s territories were substantially larger than those of the modern State of Texas, so this renunciation also secured American title to parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.


So America became the transcontinental republic Jefferson had dreamed of. Polk got to go home with his mission accomplished.[9]  America secured title to California weeks after settlers discovered what would become the world’s largest known gold deposits (to that date) at Sutter’s Mill, but before word of that discovery had made it to either Mexico City or Washington.

But America acquired something else with vast territories, and unforeseen riches.  It also acquired a renewal of fights over what to do with seemingly limitless, unsettled lands and how to accommodate the evil of slavery within them. Those fights, already underway before Mexico City fell, would scroll out directly into Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War.

Dan Morenoff is Executive Director of The Equal Voting Rights Institute.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] The complete set also included: (a) resolving the border with Canada of America’s Oregon territory; (b) reducing taxes; (c) solving the American banking crises that had lingered for decades; and (d) leaving office without seeking reelection.  Famously, Polk followed through and completed the full set.

[2] The targeted territory included lands now lying in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

[3] That was John Slidell, for whom the New Orleans suburb is named.

[4] Mexico so killed Major Jacob Brown, arguably the first American casualty of the war (for whom both the fort-at-issue and the town it became – Brownsville, Texas – were named).

[5] It failed in the House at the time, but exposed the raw power plays that success in (or perhaps entry into) the Mexican-American War would bring to the forefront of American politics.

[6] Depending on how one chooses to calculate the current value of that payment, it could be scored as the equivalent in modern dollars of $507.2 million, $4.04 billion, $8.86 billion, or $9.04 billion.

[7] The same approaches suggest this worked out to an assumption, in today’s dollars, of another $109.9 million, $876.1 million, $1.91 billion, or $1.96 billion in Mexican obligations.

[8] Later, the US would separately negotiate the Gadsen Purchase to acquire a mountain pass through which a railroad would one-day run.

[9] He promptly died on reaching his home in Tennessee; some have noted that this means he was not only the sole President to do everything he promised, but also the perfect ex-President.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall was overseeing some workers digging a millrace for a sawmill for his employer, John Sutter, along a tributary in the American River in the hills near Yerba Buena (modern San Francisco). While he was inspecting the project, the morning sun reflected off shiny pieces of yellow metal. Curious, he gathered a few pieces to examine them and showed the workers.

The group ran some tests on the metal to determine if it were gold. They hammered the malleable metal into thin sheets and then cooked it in boiling lye that cleaned it. Marshall was sure that he found gold but kept his composure as he rode his horse to share the news with Sutter. They tested it again with nitric acid and then its density. He smiled and told the group (which included a female cook), “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine.”

Marshall and Sutter began hunting for gold but shockingly did not attempt to hide the discovery. Sam Brannan owned a general store near Sutter’s fort (modern Sacramento) and developed a scheme to get rich by selling provisions to miners. He filled a large jar with gold dust and nuggets and traveled to San Francisco.

Brannan went about the village showing its residents the contents of the jar and enticing them to become miners by yelling, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” They did not need much encouragement. In the words of one person: “A frenzy seized my soul; unbidden my legs performed some entirely new movements of polka steps—I took several….Piles of gold rose up before me at every step; castles of marble, dazzling the eye….In short, I had a very violent attack of the gold fever.” The village emptied as people dropped everything and raced for the river.

Eight days after Marshall’s discovery, representatives of the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty ended the Mexican-American War and delivered the West including California to the United States in exchange for $15 million. Because of American property rights, the miners need only work the land to lay a claim to the property including its valuable minerals.

The miners used a variety of methods for finding gold. Most were inexperienced and initially used the simple method of panning for gold. Others used a cradle that was similar and could sift through more material. They soon built sluices and ran water over dirt and collected the dense gold at the bottom of grates. Later, enterprising individuals with the means introduced hydraulic mining using pressurized water cannons to blast hills into slurry that ran through sluices. Miners became amateur geologists and searched for ancient streambeds that might hold massive gold deposits.

Gold fever induced a gold rush that gripped Americans as well as thousands of others from around the world. The telegraph, letter writers, and travelers spread the news quickly. The New York Herald announced the discovery of gold to readers with the astonishing news that, “There are cases of over a hundred dollars being obtained in a day from the work of one man” (at a time when workers made perhaps $500 a year).

In his December Annual Message to Congress, President James Polk added his voice to the frenzy when he stated, “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers.”

Gold seekers known as Argonauts traveled to the American River from all over the world. They came from such distant places as Mexico, Chile, France, Hawaii, China, and Australia. In many cases, they risked everything they had voyaging thousands of miles for the chance to become fabulously wealthy. Ship captains had to find ways to prevent their crews from joining the passengers rushing to the mining camps.

More than 80,000 Americans of diverse backgrounds but with the same goal in mind headed west as part of the gold rush. They traveled overland for months along the Oregon Trail and other well-beaten paths where they hunted buffalo, traded with Native Americans, and risked cholera and starvation. Others of greater means selected travel aboard a Yankee clipper or other ships that sailed 15,000 miles around Cape Horn with its treacherous waters and storms. Others sailed to Panama, where they crossed the isthmus where tropical diseases claimed many, and then booked passage for the Pacific.

Besides the obsession with gold, the one thing that the Argonauts had was that almost all of them planned to get rich and return home. Very few planned to stay and build a permanent settlement. Almost 90 percent of the Argonauts were men.

The reality of the gold camps rarely matched people’s dreams. Many found only modest amounts of gold or had to settle for manual labor.  Any wealth was rapidly consumed by goods sold for astronomically inflated prices. Tensions between Americans and foreigners rose to a fever pitch due to nativism.

San Francisco grew rapidly though it had neither the government nor civil institutions to handle such growth. Saloons and gambling houses were ubiquitous where gold that was easily acquired was easily lost. Crime, ethnic gangs, and vice dominated the streets of the city. Justice was handled by vigilance committees that could order summary executions of frontier justice that was little more than mob rule and with the slightest pretense of due process.

California grew so rapidly due to the gold rush that it skipped the territorial stage and immediately applied for statehood. In September 1849, 48 delegates attended a constitutional convention in Monterey and drafted a state constitution and a bill of rights that banned slavery. The Pathfinder of the West, John Fremont, brought the constitution to Washington, D.C. where Congress considered it. Former Vice President and current U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun led the southern opposition to it because it banned slavery. He argued only Congress could decide the question.

The contentious issue was resolved only by the fragile Compromise of 1850 that included making California a free state and passing the Fugitive Slave Act. The gold rush thereby indirectly contributed to the growing sectionalism of the 1850s that led to the Civil War. The gold rush also helped create the American West and today’s prosperous sunbelt.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. He is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: David F. Forte

The tall, awkwardly boned, young Illinois legislator rose to speak. His thick hair, impervious to the comb, splayed over his head. The crowd at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield leaned forward. They did not know it, but they were about to hear a prophet.

The title of Lincoln’s address was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” It could have been subtitled, “Will this nation survive?” From the moment his high-pitched voice began to address the audience, Lincoln’s passionate embrace of the Constitution set his life out on an arc that would carry him a quarter century later to Gettysburg when he asked whether a nation conceived in liberty “can long endure.” He was asking it even now.

Yet 1838 was not such a bad year. True, the nation was struggling through the effects of the Panic of 1837, and it would be a few years before a recovery could take hold. But the wrenching crises of slavery and nullification that nearly severed the Union were in the past—at least many hoped so. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, it was thought, had settled the geographical boundary that separated the slave from the free.   And in 1831, Andrew Jackson had squelched South Carolina’s attempt at nullification. The trio of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and most especially Henry Clay—Lincoln’s idol—had fashioned peace through compromise. The Annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Dred Scott, and John Brown were still in the unknowable future.

But Lincoln was not mollified. He saw the nation falling apart right then and there. Vigilantism and brutal violence were everywhere rampant. There was a contagion of lynching. Lincoln reviewed what all knew had been happening. First, five gamblers in Vicksburg were strung up. “Next, negroes suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State; then, white men supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers from neighboring States, going thither on business, were in many instances subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers, till dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every roadside, and in numbers almost sufficient to rival the native Spanish moss of the country as a drapery of the forest.” A Negro named McIntosh, accused of murdering a white man, was tied to a tree and burnt to death. Abolitionist editors were slain and their printing presses thrown in the river. This, Lincoln said, was mob law.

The founders, who gave us a blessed government, were now gone– “our now lamented and departed race of ancestors,” he told his listeners. The last had only recently passed. (It was James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” who died in 1836). What can we do without them? Lincoln asked. What then can save us from dissolution, from turning ourselves into a miserable race, nothing more than a vengeful mob?

Lincoln paused, and then declared, “The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and laws let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor — let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own and his children’s liberty.”

On that day, January 27, 1838, Lincoln set his course. It was Lincoln’s charter of the rest of his public life. The Constitution. Only reverence for it and for the law can keep us from becoming divided tribes ruled by our passions, he told the crowd in the Young Men’s Lyceum, and other crowds in the coming decades. Reverence for the Constitution saved the Union in the bitter election of 1800. It energized Henry Clay and his political enemy, Andrew Jackson, to keep the states tied together. It steeled Lincoln in his perseverance to see the Civil War through to victory.

It can save us yet.

David F. Forte is Professor of Law at Cleveland State University, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where he was the inaugural holder of the Charles R. Emrick, Jr. – Calfee Halter & Griswold Endowed Chair. He has been a Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the University of Warsaw and the University of Trento. In 2016 and 2017, Professor Forte was Garwood Visiting Professor at Princeton University in the Department of Politics. He holds degrees from Harvard College, Manchester University, England, the University of Toronto and Columbia University.

During the Reagan administration, Professor Forte served as chief counsel to the United States delegation to the United Nations and alternate delegate to the Security Council. He has authored a number of briefs before the United States Supreme Court and has frequently testified before the United States Congress and consulted with the Department of State on human rights and international affairs issues. His advice was specifically sought on the approval of the Genocide Convention, on world-wide religious persecution, and Islamic extremism. He has appeared and spoken frequently on radio and television, both nationally and internationally. In 2002, the Department of State sponsored a speaking tour for Professor Forte in Amman, Jordan, and he was also a featured speaker to the Meeting of Peoples in Rimini, Italy, a meeting that gathers over 500,000 people from all over Europe. He has also been called to testify before numerous state legislatures across the country. He has assisted in drafting a number of pieces of legislation both for Congress and for the Ohio General Assembly dealing with abortion, international trade, and federalism. He has sat as acting judge on the municipal court of Lakewood Ohio and was chairman of Professional Ethics Committee of the Cleveland Bar Association. He has received a number of awards for his public service, including the Cleveland Bar Association’s President’s Award, the Cleveland State University Award for Distinguished Service, the Cleveland State University Distinguished Teaching Award, and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Alumni Award for Faculty Excellence. He served as Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family under Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In 2004, Dr. Forte was a Visiting Professor at the University of Trento. Professor Forte was He has given over 300 invited addresses and papers at more than 100 academic institutions.

Professor Forte was a Bradley Scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Visiting Scholar at the Liberty Fund, and Senior Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Religion and the Constitution in at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. He has been President of the Ohio Association of Scholars, was on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Society, and is also adjunct Scholar at the Ashbrook Institute. He is Vice-Chair of the Ohio State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

He writes and speaks nationally on topics such as constitutional law, religious liberty, Islamic law, the rights of families, and international affairs. He served as book review editor for the American Journal of Jurisprudence and has edited a volume entitled, Natural Law and Contemporary Public Policy, published by Georgetown University Press. His book, Islamic Law Studies: Classical and Contemporary Applications, has been published by Austin & Winfield. He is Senior Editor of The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (2006), 2d. edition (2014) published by Regnery & Co, a clause by clause analysis of the Constitution of the United States.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Remember the Alamo! The Battle of San Jacinto and Texan Independence

In December 1832, Sam Houston went to Texas. He had been a soldier, Indian fighter, state and national politician, and member of the Cherokee. Beset by several failures, he sought a better life in Texas. On the way, Houston traveled to the San Antonio settlement with frontiersman and land speculator, Jim Bowie, to San Antonio.

During the 1820s, thousands of Americans had moved to Texas in search of land and opportunity. The Mexican republic had recently won independence and welcomed the settlers to establish prosperous settlements under leaders such as Stephen F. Austin. These settlers were required to become Mexican citizens, convert to Catholicism, and free their slaves. The prosperous colony thrived, but Mexican authorities suspected the settlers maintained their American ideals and loyalties and banned further immigration and cracked down on the importation of slaves in 1830.

In 1833, Houston attended a convention of Texan leaders, who petitioned the Mexican government to grant them self-rule. Austin presented the petition at Mexico City where he was imprisoned indefinitely. Meanwhile, the new Mexican president, Antonio López de Santa Anna, took dictatorial powers and sent General Martin Perfecto de Cos to suppress Texan resistance. When Austin was finally released in August 1835, he asserted, “We must and ought to become part of the United States.”

Texans were prepared to fight for independence, and violence erupted in October 1835. When Mexican forces attempted to disarm Texans at Gonzales, volunteers rushed to the spot with cannons bearing the banner “Come and Take Them” and blasted them into Mexican ranks. Texans described it as their Battle of Lexington, and with it, the war for Texas independence began.

In the wake of the initial fighting, the Texans began to organize their militias to defend their rights with the revolutionary slogan “Liberty or Death!” Houston appealed to the Declaration of Independence and was an early supporter of an independent Texas joining the American Union.

Houston was appointed commander-in-chief of Texan forces. His fledgling army was a ragtag group of volunteers who were ill-disciplined and highly individualistic and democratic. His strategy was to avoid battle until he could raise a larger army to face the Mexican forces, but he could barely control his men. He opposed an attack on San Antonio, but his men launched one anyway. On December 5, Texans assaulted the town and the fortified mission at the Alamo. Texan sharpshooters and infantry closed in on General Cos’s army. Despite the arrival of reinforcements, Cos surrendered on the fourth day, and his army was permitted to march home with their weapons.

Santa Anna brought an army to San Antonio and besieged the Alamo held by 200 Texans under William Travis. The Texans deployed their men and cannons around the fort, and begged Houston for more troops. Travis pledged to fight to the last man. James Fannin launched an abortive relief expedition from Goliad, 100 miles away, but had to turn back for lack of supplies. The men at the Alamo were on their own, except for one recent American who came.

Davey Crockett was a colorful frontiersman and a member of Congress who said, “You can go to hell, I will go to Texas.” Crockett arrived in San Antonio in February and went to the Alamo. He proudly fought for liberty and roused the courage of the defenders.

Before dawn on March 6, the Mexican army assaulted the mission in four columns from different angles. The defenders slaughtered the enemy with cannon blasts but still they advanced. The Mexicans scaled ladders and were picked off by sharpshooters. Soon, the attackers established a foothold on the walls and overwhelmed the defenders. The Mexicans threw open the gates for their comrades, and the Texans and Crockett retreated into the chapel. They made a last stand until the door was knocked down and nearly all inside were killed.

Santa Anna made martyrs and heroes of the men who fought for Texan independence at the fort. “Remember the Alamo!” became a rallying cry that further unified the Texans.  At Gonzales only a few days before, on March 2, the territory’s government had met in convention and declared Texas an independent republic in a statement modeled on the Declaration of Independence. The delegates appealed to the United States for diplomatic recognition and aid in the war.

Later that month, James Fannin’s garrison of about 400 men was trapped by the Mexican army. The Texans courageously repelled several cavalry charges and fought through the night until they ran low on water and ammunition. The following day, they were forced to surrender, and Mexican forces executing the unarmed prisoners by firing four volleys into their ranks. The atrocity led to another rallying cry: “Remember Goliad!”

Houston only had 400 soldiers remaining and refused to give battle. Santa Anna chased the Texan government from Gonzales and terrorized civilians throughout the area with impunity. However, hundreds of Texans enthusiastically flocked to Houston’s camp, and he learned that Santa Anna’s force had only 750 men. Houston moved his army to the confluence of the Buffalo Bayou and San Jacinto River, where he deployed his force in the woods.

On April 20 the two armies squared off and engaged in an artillery duel with the Texans firing their canons, nicknamed the “Twin Sisters.” A group of Texan cavalry sallied out and ignored an order only to scout enemy positions. The cavalry exchanged fire with the Mexicans and narrowly escaped back to their lines. Both sides retired and prepared for battle the following day.

On the morning of April 21, General Cos arrived and doubled the size of Santa Anna’s army, but his men were exhausted from their march and took an afternoon nap. Houston seized the moment and formed up his army. They silently moved across the open ground until they started yelling “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” The shocked Mexican army roused itself and quickly formed up. The Texans’ “Twin Sisters” canons blasted away, and the infantry drove the Mexicans into the bayou while the cavalry flanked and surrounded them. In a little over 20 minutes, however, 630 were killed and more than 700 captured. Santa Anna was taken prisoner and agreed to Texan independence. The new republic selected Houston as its president and approved annexation by the United States.

Americans were deeply divided over the question of annexation, however, because it meant opening hostilities with Mexico. Moreover, many northerners, such as John Quincy Adams and abolitionists, warned that annexation would strengthen southern “slave power” because Texas would come into the Union as a massive slave state or several smaller ones. Eight years later, in 1844, President John Tyler supported a resolution for annexation after the Senate had defeated an annexation treaty. Both houses of Congress approved the resolution after a heated debate, and Tyler signed the bill in his last few days in office in early March 1845.

Annexation led to war with Mexico in 1846. Throughout the annexation debate and contention over the Mexican War, sectional tensions raised by the westward expansion of slavery tore at the fabric of the Union. The tensions eventually led to the Civil War.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. He is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

In early August 1831, Nat Turner, an African-American preacher and slave in Virginia, began planning and preparing a revolt against slavery. Beginning on August 21, Nat and others with him killed his master’s family, then mounted horses and continued the same on farms and elsewhere of slave owners and their families. After, the Virginia legislature received petitions urging the menace of slavery be dealt with as a cause of political and economic failure.

Turner was born on October 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia, a slave held by Benjamin Turner. Turner at the time of the slave rebellion was owned by Samuel Turner, Benjamin’s son, who inherited Nat when Benjamin died. Nat was smart, learning to read and write at a very early age, and often read and preached the Bible. Nat claimed to have visions that he thought were from God. Fellow slaves gave him the nickname, “The Prophet.”

One of the visions Turner credited with motivating the rebellion. In August, after postponing the rebellion due to personal illness, he saw an August 7 solar eclipse, the second one in a six month period, as the final sign that the vision was to be implemented. The slave rebellion began on August 21, 1831, and was small at first, consisting of Nat and a few of his trusted fellow slaves. The rebels in the group traveled from home to home in the neighborhood, freeing the slaves they found at each home and killing any white people they found. The small group of rebels grew over the short-lived rebellion.

Governor John Floyd received a note on August 23, 1831, alerting him “that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down.”

The rebellion led by Nat Turner led to the death of almost 60 white people, including men, women and children. In order to suppress the rebellion, whites formed militias and they in turn killed approximately 200 black people, including men, women and children, many of whom had no connection to the rebellion.

The rebellion lasted only a few days, but Nat avoided capture until October 30, when a farmer discovered him hiding. Turner was tried and was convicted and sentenced to death on November 5, 1831. Less than a week later, Nat Turner was hanged at Jerusalem, Virginia, his body flayed as an example to anyone who might be thinking of rebellion.  Turner’s attorney during the trial, Thomas Ruffin Gray, wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., a pamphlet that some have dismissed as not being accurate. Whatever its accuracy, nothing more detailed exists. One alleged statement of the vision that appears in the pamphlet was:

“I had a vision … I saw white and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened … the thunder rolled in the heavens and flowed in the streams. I discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven.”

Nat’s slave rebellion appears to be the only United States one that was effective and sustained. One of the repercussions of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion was that it led to a series of oppressive legislation that prohibited many slave activities, including education, movement and assembly. Laws also expanded against free blacks. Some states banned the possession of abolitionist publications, and in emancipation debates around the time of the rebellion and subsequently, slavery was defined by some as a positive good.

Nat Turner has been considered a patriot by some and Molefi Kete Asante listed him as on of the “100 Greatest African Americans.”  Others have noted his violence and slaughtering of many. For example, historian Scot French told The New York Times:

“To accept Nat Turner and place him within the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes is to sanction violence as a means of social change. He has a kind of radical consciousness that to this day troubles advocates of a racially reconciled society. The story lives because it’s relevant today to questions of how to organize for change.”

His rebellion made it clear that slaves were not content with their enslavement, and August 21, 1831, is an important date in American History.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.  

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: James S. Humphreys

The Indian Removal Act passed the United States House of Representatives by a vote of 102 to 97 and the U.S. Senate by a vote of 28 to 19. It was signed by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830.  Jackson, a Tennessean, held slaves and belonged to the Democratic Party. He first attracted national attention during the War of 1812, when his forces decimated the Creek Indians and later successfully defended New Orleans against the onslaught of an experienced and well-trained British army. Jackson’s reputation as the hero of New Orleans assisted him in his rise to the presidency. He signed the Indian Removal Act fourteen months after assuming office.

The act, consisting of eight sections, broadly outlined the conditions under which Native Americans would relinquish claim to their tribal land within the United States in exchange for territory west of the Mississippi River. United States officials would provide assistance to Native Americans during removal and would guarantee forever the migrants’ right to their western homeland. The act called for the allocation of $500,000 to cover the expenses incurred by the implementation of the measure. It also declared that earlier treaties negotiated with the Native Americans remained in force, disavowing any coercion of Native Americans on the part of U.S. officials. Removal was to be voluntary, not forced.[1]

The act targeted Native American groups living in the southern region of the United States. Whites referred to these groups as the “Five Civilized Tribes” — Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee — because the tribes had adopted many of the habits and practices of white Americans. Some members of the tribes were not full-blooded Native Americans. John Ross, a prominent Cherokee leader, for example, was only one-eighth Native American. Hoping to earn the respect of whites, the Cherokee developed a phonetic alphabet, printed a newspaper with articles in English and Cherokee, wrote a constitution, held slaves, and founded a capital in northern Georgia called New Echota. Many whites, nevertheless, coveted Cherokee land in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia and the other four “civilized” tribes’ territory in other southern states. The deep-seated racism of whites toward Native Americans; the admission into the United States of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, all of which held prime cotton-growing land; and the discovery of gold in Georgia in 1829 whetted whites’ appetite for acquiring Native American territory. That is not to say that removal attracted the overwhelming support of whites. The Indian Removal act barely passed the House of Representatives. Many Whig party politicians, the most prominent of which was Kentuckian, Henry Clay, loathed Jackson and opposed the measure.

Andrew Jackson was not the first president to address the presence of large numbers of Native Americans living within the borders of the United States, but his removal policy stands out as the most aggressive strategy for dealing with them. Jackson viewed the policy as enlightened and benevolent, because, in his mind, the expansion of white civilization posed a lethal threat to Native American culture. The Native Americans, of course, viewed the policy differently, fearing that instead of saving their way of life, removal would destroy it. Cherokee leaders hoped to reach an agreement allowing them to remain on their land with U.S. officials, but Jackson’s unwillingness to yield eventually frustrated them.  Cherokee leaders, therefore, sought redress in the federal courts, where they found judges sympathetic to their plight. John Marshall, Supreme Court Chief Justice, issued two rulings favorable to the Cherokee in the cases of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. The gist of each decision was that Cherokee lands belonged to the Cherokee, a fact U.S. officials were bound to respect. The court rulings failed to halt the implementation of the removal program, which dispensed with the earlier emphasis on voluntary migration.

The Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw Indians succumbed to pressure from federal officials to migrate to land west of the Mississippi River.  The removal of the three Native American groups took place from 1831 to 1837. The most wrenching removal occurred in 1838 during the administration of Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren. A relatively small group of Cherokee agreed to removal terms outlined in the Treaty of New Echota. Members of the “Treaty Party,” believing removal was inevitable, accepted five million dollars from federal officials to relinquish all claim to Cherokee territory. The treaty’s provisions aroused the ire of Cherokees, who opposed migrating. The resisters beseeched members of the Senate to reject the treaty, but to no avail.  The Senate ratified the treaty by one vote. As white settlers increasingly overran their territory, sometimes resulting in violence against Native Americans, the Cherokees held out bravely before being gathered into camps by U.S. troops prior to removal. The United States Army then oversaw the journey of twenty thousand Cherokees to the Oklahoma territory. The arduous trek, carried out during the winter, claimed the lives of four thousand Native Americans. The episode became known as the “Trail of Tears.” Seething with anger over what they considered betrayal, Cherokee resisters murdered several leaders of the “Treaty Party,” and the reputation of Andrew Jackson, once considered a great president, has declined over time as a result of his role in Native American removal.

James S. Humphreys is a professor of United States history at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky.  He is the author of a biography of the southern historian, Francis Butler Simkins, entitled Francis Butler Simkins: A Life (2008), published by the University Press of Florida.  He is also the editor of Interpreting American History: the New South (2018) and co-editor of the Interpreting American History series, published by the Kent State University Press.   

[1] “Indian Removal Act of 1830,” California History Social Science Project, accessed March 19, 2020,

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

Andrew Jackson started out as a lawyer and grew in politics. By the end of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain, Jackson was a military hero of great influence. Former governor of Tennessee, he defeated John Quincy Adams in 1828, became the seventh president and first Democratic Party president, and helped found the Democratic Party.

Jackson’s biography reads larger than life. He was born in 1767 in a backwoods cabin, its precise location unknown. He was scarred by a British officer’s sword, orphaned at fourteen and raised by uncles. He was admitted to the bar after reading law on his own, one year a Congressman before being elected to the U.S. Senate, a position he then resigned after only eight months. He was appointed as a circuit judge on the Tennessee superior court. He became a wealthy Tennessee landowner, and received a direct appointment as a major general in the Tennessee militia which led, after military success, to direct appointment to the same rank in the U.S. Army. He was an underdog victor and national hero at the Battle of New Orleans, and conducted controversial military actions in the 1817 Seminole War. He experienced disappointment in the 1824 presidential election, but success four years later. He survived the first assassination attempt of a United States President and was the first President to have his Vice-President resign. He appointed Roger Taney (Dred Scott v. Sanford) to the U.S. Supreme Court. President Jackson died in 1845 of lead poisoning from the two duelist bullets he carried for years in his chest, one for forty years. You couldn’t make this biography up if you tried.

President Andrew Jackson is a constitutionalist’s dream. Few U.S. Presidents intersected the document of the U.S. Constitution as often or as forcefully during their terms as did “Old Hickory.” From the Nullification Crisis of 1832, to “killing” the Second National Bank, to his controversial “Trail of Tears” decision, Jackson seemed to attract constitutional crises like a magnet. When the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Worcester v. George, Jackson is purported to have said “Well, John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” It has not been reported whether Thomas Jefferson’s moldering corpse sat up at hearing those words, but I think it likely.

Jackson’s multiple rubs with the Constitution preceded his presidency. As the General in charge of defending New Orleans in late 1814, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which the Constitution gives only Congress the power to suspend,[1] unilaterally declaring martial law over the town and surrounding area. Habeas corpus, the “great and efficacious writ,”[2] enjoyed a heritage going back at least to Magna Carta in 1215, a fact Jackson found not compelling enough in the light of the civilian unrest he faced. As Matthew Warshauer has noted: “The rub was that martial law saved New Orleans and the victory itself saved the nation’s pride… Jackson walked away from the event with two abiding convictions: one, that victory and the nationalism generated by it protected his actions, even if illegal; and two, that he could do what he wanted if he deemed it in the nation’s best interest.”[3]

It would not be Jackson’s last brush as a military officer with arguably illegal actions. Three years later, during the First Seminole War, he found his incursion into Spanish Florida, conducted without military orders, under review by Congress. Later, when running for President, Jackson had to defend his actions: “it has been my lot often to be placed in situations of a critical kind” that “imposed on me the necessity of [v]iolating, or rather departing from, the constitution of the country; yet at no subsequent period has it produced to me a single pang, believing as I do now, & then did, that without it, security neither to myself or the great cause confided to me, could have been obtained.” (Abraham Lincoln would later offer a not dissimilar defense of his own unconstitutional suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1861).

After the ratification of the Adams–Onís Treaty in 1821, settling affairs with Spain, Jackson resigned from the army and, after a brief stint as the Governor of the Territory of Florida, returned to Tennessee. The next year he reluctantly allowed himself to be elected Senator from Tennessee in a bid (by others) to position him for the Presidency.

In the 1824 election against John Quincy Adams, Senator Jackson won a plurality of the electoral vote but, thanks to the Twelfth Amendment and the political maneuvering of Henry Clay, he was defeated in the subsequent contingent election in favor of “JQA.” Four year later, while weathering Federalist newspapers’ charges that Adams was a “murderer, drunk, cockfighting, slave-trading cannibal” the tide finally turned in Jackson’s favor and he won an Electoral College landslide.

As his inauguration day approached, I wonder how many Americans knew just how exciting would be the next eight years? On March 4, 1829, Jackson took the oath as the seventh President of the United States.

In an attempt to “drain the swamp,” he immediately began investigations into all executive Cabinet offices and departments, an effort that uncovered enormous fraud. Numerous officials were removed from office and indicted on charges of corruption.

Reflecting on the 1824 election, in his first State of the Union Address, Jackson called for abolition of the Electoral College, by constitutional amendment, in favor of a direct election by the people.

In 1831, he fired his entire cabinet.[4]

In July 1832, the issue became the Second National Bank of the United States, up for re-chartering. Jackson believed the bank to be unconstitutional as well as patently unfair in the terms of its charter. He accepted that there was precedent, both for the chartering (McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) as well as rejecting a new charter (Madison, 1815), but, perhaps reflecting his reaction to Worcester v. Georgia earlier that year, he threw down the gauntlet in his veto message:

“The Congress, the Executive, and the Court must each for itself be guided by its own opinion of the Constitution. Each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others. It is as much the duty of the House of Representatives, of the Senate, and of the President to decide upon the constitutionality of any bill or resolution which may be presented to them for passage or approval as it is of the supreme judges when it may be brought before them for judicial decision. The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both. . .”[5] . (emphasis added)

Later that same year came Jackson’s most famous constitutional crisis: the Nullification Crisis. Vice President John C. Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina declared that the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of the state, thus “firing a shot across the bow” of Jackson’s view of federalism. The doctrine of nullification had been first proposed by none other than James Madison and Thomas Jefferson thirty-four years earlier and it retains fans today. South Carolina eventually backed down but not before Jackson’s Vice President, J.C. Calhoun resigned to accept appointment to the Senate and fight for his state in that venue, and not before Congress passed the Force Bill which authorized the President to use military force against South Carolina.

In 1834, the House declined to impeach Jackson, knowing the votes were not there in the Senate for removal and settled on censure instead, which Jackson shrugged off.

Yet in 1835, Jackson sided with the Constitution and its First Amendment by refusing to block the mailing of inflammatory abolitionist mailings to the South even while denouncing the abolitionists as “monsters.”

Today, some people  compare our current President to Jackson, including President Donald Trump himself.  Others disagree.  There are indeed striking similarities, as well as great differences. Although coming from polar opposite backgrounds, both are populists who often make pronouncements upon the world of politics without the filter of “political correctness.” Further comparisons are found in the linked articles.

Thanks to the great care taken by the men of 1787, the “American Experiment” has weathered many a controversial president, such as Andrew Jackson – and we will doubtlessly encounter, and hopefully weather many more.

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] U.S. Constitution; Article One, Section 9, Clause 2

[2] Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England.


[4] Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, who had suggested the firing, resigned as well to avoid the appearance of favoritism.


Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

In 1817, construction on the Erie Canal began, opening in October of 1825. Initially a 363-mile waterway, 40 feet wide and four feet deep, it connected the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean flowing from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo, New York. The canal increased transportation of bulk commercial goods at a much lower cost, widely expanded agricultural development, and brought settlers into surrounding states as the free flow of goods to the stretches of Northwest Territory were availed through the Appalachian Mountains.

On Friday, July 13, 1787, “James Madison’s Gang,” otherwise known as the Constitutional Convention, approved a motion stating that until completion of the first census, showing exactly how many residents each state contained, direct taxes to the states would be proportioned according to the number of representatives the state had been assigned in Congress. A short time later, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and Pierce Butler of South Carolina had a rather heated exchange over the issue of slavery and how to account for slaves in determining the state’s representation.

That same day, ninety-five miles to the northeast in New York City, the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, creating the Northwest Territory and opening a significant new portion of the country to rapid settlement. The territory would go on to produce 5 new states and, more importantly to our story, produce tons and tons of grain in its fertile Ohio Valley. At the time, the only practical route to bring this produce to world markets was the long, 1,513 miles, voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Cincinnati, Ohio to New Orleans, a voyage that could take weeks and was quite expensive. A cheaper, more efficient method had to be found.

The idea of a canal that would tie the western settlements of the country to the ports on the East Coast had been discussed as early as 1724. Now that those settlements were becoming economically important, talk resumed in earnest.

The first problem encountered was geography. The most logical western route for a canal was from the east end of Lake Erie at Buffalo, to Albany, New York on the Hudson River, but Lake Erie sits 570 feet above sea level. Descending eastward from the lake to the Hudson River would be relatively easy, but canals had to allow traffic in both directions. Ascending 570 feet in elevation on the westbound trip meant one thing: locks and lots of them. Lock technology at the time could only provide a lift of 12 feet. It was soon determined that fifty locks would be required along the 363 mile canal. Given the technology of the time, such a canal would be exorbitantly expensive to build; the cost was barely imaginable. President Jefferson called the idea “little short of madness” and rejected any involvement of the federal government. This left it up to the State of New York and private investors. The project would not get any relief with a change of Presidents. On March 3, 1817, President James Madison vetoed “An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements.” In his veto message, Madison wrote he was “constrained by the insuperable difficulty [he felt] in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States.

“The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers, or that it falls by any just interpretation within the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States…

“The power to regulate commerce among the several States” can not include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses…”

Once again, no help would come from the federal government.

Two different routes were considered: a southern one which would be shorter but present more challenging topography and a northern route which was longer but presented much easier terrain to deal with. The northern route was selected.

Estimates of the workers involved in building the canal vary widely, from 50,000 to 3,000 workers. A thousand men reportedly died building Governor DeWitt Clinton, “Clinton’s Folly” — the majority of them due to canal wall collapses, drowning, careless use of gunpowder and disease. Men dug, by hand, the 4-foot-deep by 40-foot-wide canal, aided occasionally by horses or oxen, explosives, and tree-stump-pulling machines. They were paid 50 cents a day, about $12 a month, and were sometimes provided meals and a place to sleep. The sides of the canal were lined with stone set in clay. The project required the importation of hundreds of skilled German stonemasons.

The gamble paid off. Once the canal opened, tolls charged to barges paid off the construction debt within ten years. From 1825 to 1882, tolls generated $121 million, four times what it cost to operate the canal. When completed in 1825, it was the second longest canal in the world.

The Erie Canal’s early commercial success, combined with the engineering knowledge gained in building it, encouraged the construction of other canals across the United States. None, however, would come close to repeating the success of the Erie. Other projects became enmeshed in politics. They became more and more expensive to build and maintain. Many canals had to be closed in the winter, yet goods still needed to get to market, whatever the cost. Railroads soon began offering competitive rates.

But the Erie Canal left its mark. New York City is today the business and financial capital of America due largely to the success of the Erie Canal.

Today, the Erie Canal is a modest tourist attraction. Cheaper means are available to move cargo. You can still take a leisurely trip via small boat from the Great Lakes to the Hudson and beyond. But so can certain species of fish, mollusks and plants use the canal and its boat traffic to make their way from the Great Lakes to “invade” New York’s inland lakes and streams, the Hudson River and New York harbor.

In 2017, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo established a “Reimagining the Canal task force” to determine the canal’s future. Addressing the environmental damage caused by invasive animal and plant life, the task force recommended permanently closing and draining portions of the canal in Rochester and Rome.

I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania an hour’s drive from the terminus of the canal at Buffalo and I still recall the family visit we took to see it. My young brain didn’t really comprehend the labor and hardship faced by those thousands of workers over those eight years of construction. But now I can marvel at their ingenuity and perseverance in the face of amazing engineering challenges – a testament to the American Spirit.

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On May 24, 1844, Samuel Finley Breese Morse demonstrated his electro-magnetic telegraph in the capitol building in Washington, DC, by transmitting a message sent to a railway station in Baltimore, Maryland, approximately thirty-eight miles away. The message transmitted over the telegraph line was “What has God wrought?” a biblical passage from Numbers 23:23. This demonstration convinced many in both government and industry of the viability and usefulness of the new technology.

Much had happened before that eventful day to bring that demonstration to fruition. Much would happen afterward that would make this demonstration momentous in American history. Morse was not a scientist by training. He had already made his mark, if not his fortune, as an artist who preferred to paint epic, historical scenes but who often resorted to completing commissioned portraits of prominent figures as a way of making money. He became acquainted with advances in electro-magnetic telegraphy in Europe while on a voyage to Europe after the death of his first wife. His discussions with European scientists gave him some background knowledge in the scientific issues that had to be confronted. His own creativity and his dogged willingness to learn from the work of others led him to develop a model telegraphic device that proved to be practical and profitable. Among those who had worked in this field before were William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, who patented an electro-magnetic telegraph in Britain.   Cooke and Wheatstone employed a variety of different circuits and electrical wires to transmit signals to a receiver. When a current was transmitted through different circuits, or different combinations of circuits, signals for different characters were recognized and a needle was turned to point to various letters of the alphabet. However, the Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph message was, in Morse’s words, “evanescent.” It left no permanent record.[1]

Morse developed a telegraph that operated on a single circuit with a single wire situated between the transmitter and receiver. The transmitter employed a lever that would connect and disconnect an electrical current that would start and then stop a magnetic attraction within a mechanism at the receiver. The magnetic attraction would cause the arm of the device to mark a paper tape with dots and dashes, representing the length of time that the circuit was engaged. The innovation achieving the marking of paper may have been the creation of Morse’s assistant, Alfred Vail. What is not in doubt is that Morse created the code that translated combinations of dots and dashes into letters of the alphabet and numerals. The code was essentially a form of binary language that is now in use in computer systems today, except that now the dots and dashes have been replaced by a series of ones and zeroes.[2]

Morse also had to tackle the difficulty of transmitting signals over great distances. The signal strength declined the farther along the line that the message traveled. Morse relied upon the assistance of the famous physicist, Dr. Joseph Henry, later the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry showed Morse how a series of relays situated miles apart from each other could renew the signal strength for an indefinite distance. Morse acknowledged the contribution of Henry in private correspondence before perfecting his invention, but downplayed Henry’s role later during challenges to his patent.[3]

Morse demonstrated his invention in many venues, but had not demonstrated its ability to work over a long distance. Morse approached Congress to gain an appropriation of $30,000 to develop the telegraphic device but also to construct a telegraph over a long distance to demonstrate its feasibility. When the appropriation bill was debated in the House of Representatives, some Congressmen ridiculed the proposal.   A tongue-in-cheek amendment to the bill, proposing an appropriation to send messages through “mesmerism,” was discussed and voted on in the chamber. Ultimately, the appropriation narrowly passed the House, and then passed unanimously in the Senate. The funding could not have come at a better time for Morse, who later estimated that just after the vote he had only thirty-seven-and-a half cents to his name. Morse originally attempted to build a long trench stretching from Baltimore to Washington, in which an insulated telegraph wire was placed.   Preliminary tests proved unsuccessful, so Morse quietly arranged to support the wires over a series of poles that would hold the lines above ground. Once completed, Morse was able to send the famous “What hath God wrought?” message from Washington, D.C. to Vail in Baltimore.  The on-looking Congressmen were amazed by the achievement, and were generous in their praise of Morse.[4]

Under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, Congress was empowered “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”   The exclusive right to the discoveries of a scientific nature takes the form of what is generally known as a patent. Morse had been denied a patent for his invention in the United States when he first applied in 1837, although he had received a “caveat” from the office that would give priority to his claim in front of other applicants seeking a patent for an identical device. He was able to patent his creation in the United States by 1840, but had been denied a patent in Britain in 1838.[5] That same year he received a French patent, which was one reason the U.S. Supreme Court eventually limited the duration of his American patent to fourteen years from the date of his original French patent, October 30, 1838.[6] The Supreme Court also limited the scope of his patent to the telegraph device that Morse had designed. He was not able to enjoy exclusive rights to “use of electro-magnetism, however developed, for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters at any distances,”  as Morse’s original patent claim held. If that overly broad had been accepted, Morse could plausibly claim patent rights covering modern day fax transmissions and email messages.[7]

Morse was able to sell territorial licenses to his patent which permitted companies to run telegraph services in certain geographic areas but not nationwide. For a time, the telegraphy business was quite decentralized and competitive, but by the late 1860s, one company, Western Union, had achieved a dominant position in the industry. The new invention had major impacts on industrial development, military operations, and government regulation. The telegraph was used by both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. For the first time, commanders far distant from battlefields could provide specific orders to troops in combat. In some instances, President Abraham Lincoln skipped over the normal chain of command to send instructions directly to officers in the field through the telegraph.[8]

The telegraph proved very useful in industry in conveying almost instant   information about price changes in products and securities, as well as news of events that might affect the supply and demand for products and the factors of production. No industry was more greatly affected by the telegraph than the railroads. The speed of communication over long distances allowed railroad management to coordinate the movement of trains moving over single tracks in opposite directions. Railroads aided the expansion of telegraph lines by granting rights-of-way to telegraph companies to set up poles and wires alongside the railroad tracks.[9]

In much of the world, telegraph services were owned and operated by the government. For the most part, this was not the case in the United States and Canada. Governments were still deeply involved in the growth of the telegraph services, both by subsidizing the infrastructure and by regulating the service. States promoted the industry by granting rights-of-way and imposing penalties for damaging lines. They also regulated the industry by imposing penalties for refusing to receive messages sent from other telegraph companies, for transmitting dispatches out of the order in which they were received, and for disclosing private communications to third parties.[10] As telegraph lines crossed state lines, the federal government gained some jurisdiction.   The Post Office operated some limited telegraph services for a time.   Later the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated interstate services, although railroads, not the telegraph industry, were the primary focus of the ICC. Later, the Federal Communications Commission gained jurisdiction, although by then telephony and radio and broadcast television was the major concern of that regulatory body.[11]

If Morse had never worked on telegraphy he would still be remembered today, at least to art historians, as an exceptionally fine painter. His work on the telegraph and, perhaps more importantly, the Morse code was of monumental importance. Morse’s work on communicating messages across enormous spaces in minimal periods of time has had enormous impact upon the way that America and the whole world have developed over the last century-and-a-half.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Wheeler, Tom. “The First Electronic Network and the End of Time.” In From Gutenberg to Google: The History of Our Future, 87-116. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019.

[2] Wheeler, op cit..


[4] Wheeler, op cit.


[6] O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 15 at page 96

[7] Kappos, David J., and Christopher P. Davis. 2015. “Functional Claiming and the Patent Balance.” Stanford Technology Law Review 18 (2): 365–74.

[8] Wilhelm, Pierre. “The Telegraph: A Strategic Means of Communication During the American Civil War.” Revista De Historia De América, no. 124 (1999): 81-9

[9] Du Boff, Richard B. 1980. “Business Demand and the Development of the Telegraph in the United States, 1844-1860.” Business History Review 53 (4): 459-479.

[10] Nonnenmacher, Tomas. “State Promotion and Regulation of the Telegraph Industry, 1845-1860.” The Journal of Economic History 61, no. 1 (2001): 19-36.

[11] Goldin, H. H. “Governmental Policy and the Domestic Telegraph Industry.” The Journal of Economic History 7, no. 1 (1947): 53-68.


Guest Essayist: Joshua Schmid

Realpolitik and Idealism Coupled: A Brief History of the Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine remains one of the most influential foreign policy statements in United States history. The principles it espoused were largely consistent with the foreign affairs doctrine of non-interventionism in European affairs that were followed by the first U.S. presidents. Even by the twenty-first century, at times when U.S. geopolitical strategies were drastically different from those of the early nineteenth century, some foreign policy makers still invoked the Monroe Doctrine when prioritizing the spread of democracy and the well-being of the Western Hemisphere over other parts of the world. One of the key reasons for its longevity and success was because it established a foreign policy rooted in a combination of realism and idealism.

In the early days of the American republic, the U.S. remained largely uninvolved in the affairs of Europe and the rest of the world. As George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation…Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.” The young nation could ill-afford to become involved in the squabbling affairs of the Old World as it needed to focus more on its own internal development.

Despite the best attempts by the U.S. in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to avoid entanglements with Europe, foreign policy issues abounded. Spain, Britain, France, and Russia all sought to lay claim to vast swaths of territory on the North and South American continents. A number of these, especially Spanish colonies in Latin America, began revolutions in the early nineteenth century to claim self-governance. The so-called “Holy Alliance” of Prussia, Austria, and Russia emerged in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars with the established purpose of protecting monarchy around the globe. After the Holy Alliance and France successfully re-instated the Spanish king following a revolution, it then turned to putting down the liberal revolutions occurring in the New World. The U.S. hardly blinked at the Spanish restoration as it had no impact on its affairs. However, the prospect of European armadas barging into the Western Hemisphere to put down movements that followed the spirit of the American Revolution posed a threat to U.S. security.

In response to potential intrusions into South America, U.S. President James Monroe decided to release a stunning declaration to the world. He laid out his policy in his Seventh Annual Message to Congress in December 1823. First, Monroe addressed the continual colonization of the New World by European powers, stating, “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” He then proceeded to discuss the attempts by European nations to interfere in Latin America’s revolutions. “With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected…The political system of [European monarchs] is essentially different…from that of America. We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety,” Monroe continued. While Monroe conceded that European powers would be allowed to keep the colonies they held at the time, this announcement had the potential to drastically alter geopolitical affairs in the New World. By framing his doctrine in this manner, Monroe established a policy that simultaneously protected American interests in the Western Hemisphere while also supporting self-government from absolutism.

As bold of a declaration as the Monroe Doctrine was, it would have been largely ineffectual without the support of the British navy in helping to enforce it. The American navy did not have the resources to patrol the entire Western Hemisphere to prevent colonization by European powers. However, Britain—the most liberal of the major European powers of the time—did. It was using its navy to protect free trade around the world and the prospect of additional New World colonies, with their closed markets, would have harmed this economic policy. In fact, Britain’s Foreign Minister George Canning approached U.S. officials earlier in 1823 with a plan to release a joint-declaration to deter intervention in the New World. However, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams convinced Monroe that Britain had imperial motivations for wanting a joint-declaration, and a unilateral proclamation was announced. Even then, British self-interest in a largely de-colonized Western Hemisphere ensured that the U.S. would have a partner in enforcing its new hegemony.

The Monroe Doctrine helped the U.S. remain distant from European affairs and allowed it to chart a path to dominance in the Western Hemisphere. While initially largely symbolic, it would eventually be invoked by presidents ranging from Ulysses Grant to Teddy Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to justify U.S. military interventions in the Western Hemisphere. According to the Monroe Doctrine, the success of American ideals of liberty and self-government in the Western Hemisphere went hand-in-hand with U.S. security. This coupling was in large part what made the doctrine so successful and why it has lasted as a cornerstone of American foreign policy. By claiming a hegemony in the New World that would support liberal values against absolutism, the U.S. began on its path to becoming the leader of the Free World for two centuries.

Joshua Schmid serves as a Program Analyst at the Bill of Rights Institute.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: David Head

February 22, 1819, was, John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary, “perhaps the most important day of my life.”[1] On that day, the United States finalized a momentous treaty with Spain that acquired Florida for the United States and settled a border with Spain’s North American provinces that reached across the continent to give the United States a piece of Oregon on the Pacific Ocean.

The agreement was known officially as the Treaty of Amity, Settlement, and Limits Between the United States of America and His Catholic Majesty.[2] Today, it’s more commonly called the Transcontinental Treaty, to emphasize its geographic scope, or it’s known as the Adams–Onís Treaty, after its two architects, Secretary of State Adams and Spanish minister plenipotentiary Luis de Onís.[3]

Adams would have preferred the last title. Self-pitying and often depressed, he feared his role would “never be known to the public—and, if ever known, will be soon and easily forgotten.”[4]

Adams and Onís negotiated the final agreement, but the issues between their two nations ranged back to the earliest days of the American republic.

One source of discord was the border. Where, exactly, did it lie?

The Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution promised the United States British territory west to the Mississippi River and south to the 31st parallel (the north–south border between Alabama and the Florida panhandle today).[5]

Spain, though not a formal U.S. ally, fought against Britain in the war as an ally of France. In North America, fighting on the winning side brought Spain the British colonies of East and West Florida. The two Floridas were analogous to the modern state, but somewhat bigger as the panhandle extended West Florida along the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River. On the northern side, Spain claimed the Floridas were even larger as it did not recognize the 31st parallel as the proper boundary.

In 1795, Spain acquiesced to the American definition of its border with Florida in the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also called Pinckney’s Treaty). But new problems erupted eight years later when the United States acquired the Louisiana territory from France.[6]

The Purchase treaty was maddeningly vague on just what “Louisiana” was. Rather than stipulating geographic features like rivers—things that might appear on both a map and in reality—the document defined the land to be transferred only by reference to the Treaty of San Ildefonso in which Spain had ceded Louisiana back to France in 1800.[7]

With Louisiana moved from France to Spain, back to France, and then to the United States, it’s little wonder no one could say what “Louisiana” really was.

For their part, U.S. policymakers insisted they had purchased West Florida from the Mississippi River east to the Perdido River (the modern border between Alabama and Florida) as well as a chunk of Texas from the Mississippi to the Rio Grande.

Spain countered that no, Louisiana was never that big. In the gulf region, Louisiana was only ever a sliver between the Mississippi River in the east and the midpoint between the Mermentau and Calcasieu Rivers in the west (not far from the border between modern Louisiana and Texas). Everything else was Spanish.

Another category of contention revolved around money. The U.S. government felt Spain owed U.S. citizens compensation because of two Spanish violations of American rights.

The first kind of violation happened in the 1790s, and like the land squabbles, it involved Spain’s relationship with France and the geopolitics of European war. Some American ships attempting to trade with Britain had been seized by French privateers and were then taken to Spanish ports to be condemned as prize of war by a friendly admiralty court. Since the United States declared its neutrality in the war, U.S. leaders said Spain had committed spoliations—unlawful destruction of a neutral’s property—and should make restitution to the American merchants.

The second kind of violation occurred in 1802 when Spain, which controlled New Orleans, prevented American merchants from selling their goods in the city, a right won for Americans trading down the Mississippi River by the Treaty of San Lorenzo. American merchants stuck with goods they couldn’t sell demanded that Spain make them whole.

Spain and the United States attempted to reconcile on several occasions in the following years. But no agreement survived Napoleon’s shifting ambitions, the emerging Spanish American push for independence, and the fading of Spain’s position as an imperial power.

France’s 1808 invasion of Spain touched off a crisis for the Spanish empire. Napoleon vanquished the king, installed his brother Joseph on the throne, and inspired a resistance government to form in Spain and independence movements to rise up in the Americas to fight against both French and Spanish rule.

The United States broke off negotiations with Spain as a result. Though Luis de Onís lived in Philadelphia, President James Madison kept him at arm’s length. Madison didn’t want the United States appearing to take sides in the Spanish resistance government’s battle with Napoleon or look like it was playing favorites between Spain and its rebelling colonies.

In 1814, King Fernando VII regained the Spanish crown in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. Relations between the United States and Spain stayed chilly, however. President Madison didn’t trust Onís, who he suspected of conspiring with Britain during the War of 1812, but more substantially, both nations believed their bargaining power would improve with time. As a consequence, both sides delayed negotiations.

In 1817, a new administration took office, with James Monroe as president and Adams as Secretary of State. The delays continued.[8]

Onís was officially received by Monroe. Talks began but the delays continued. Adams complained about his futile meetings with Onís, who, he said, “beat about the bush” and failed to “make any propositions at all.”[9]

Then, suddenly in 1818, two developments broke open negotiations and quickly produced a treaty.

First, General Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida. Tasked to secure the Georgia–Florida border against Indian attacks and prevent slaves from running away, Jackson exceeded his orders, captured two Spanish forts, and executed two British subjects for assisting Natives. Following tense discussions inside the administration, Monroe decided to back Jackson. Onís, fearing the United States might seize Florida outright, backed down. A treaty sooner rather than later looked good.

Second, Spain found its hopes of European support for retaking its American colonies frustrated. Meeting at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, Fernando’s fellow kings refused to help restore his empire. Spain was on its own in the Americas. A deal with the United States was imperative.

The treaty terms settled both the border and compensation issues. The United States received Florida, its top priority, and access to the Pacific via Oregon, its second concern.

Spain got the Texas border it wanted, and the United States agreed to take responsibility for paying the claims of U.S. citizens up to $5 million. (The contention that the United States bought Florida for $5 million is erroneous.)

Approved by the Senate, the treaty encountered a hiccup when it arrived in Spain. An error was discovered in one treaty’s terms having to do with land grants the king made to various Spanish noblemen, and Spain tried to trade the lands back to the United States in exchange for putting pressure on the new Spanish American republics.

The treaty passed two years in limbo until a rebellion of Spanish army officers, who refused to continue fighting in the Americas, forced Fernando to acquiesce to the wishes of the Spanish legislature on, among other issues, accepting the treaty with the United States.

Approved in Spain, the treaty was again ratified by the Senate on February 22, 1821—exactly two years after Secretary Adams’ most important day.[10]

The full significance of the treaty emerged only later in the nineteenth century. It cleared the way for U.S. expansion south into Florida and west to the Pacific Ocean. In time, Americans pushed against the border in the west, putting more pressure on an independent Mexico.

The pushing turned to war in 1846, and after the United States took the provinces once contemplated as the limits of American growth, a vast expansion of territory lay bare the nation’s ugliest disagreement: what to do about slavery?

Adams knew the true results of his accomplishment would only be realized in the future.

“What the consequences may be of the compact this day signed with Spain is known only to the all-wise and all beneficent Disposer of events,” he recorded in his diary.

But despite the unknown, Adams was cautiously hopeful. “May no disappointment embitter the hope which this event warrants us in cherishing,” he wrote. “May its future influence on the destinies of my country be as extensive and as favorable as our warmest anticipations can paint!”[11]

David Head teaches history at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic and A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution. For more information visit www.davidheadhistory or follow him on Twitter @davidheadphd.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] John Quincy Adams, February 22, 1819, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, 12 vols. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1874–77), 4: 274.

[2] The text of the treaty can be found at;

[3] For overviews of the treaty, its context, and its negotiation, see J. C. A. Stagg, Borderlines in Borderlands: James Madison and the Spanish–American Frontier, 1776–1821 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); James E. Lewis, Jr., The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire, 1783–1829 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969); Philip C. Brooks, Diplomacy in the Borderlands: The Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819 (1939; reprint, New York: Octagon, 1970).

[4] Adams, February 22, 1819, Memoirs, 4: 275.

[5] The text of the Treaty of Paris can be found at

[6] David Head, Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 21–22.

[7] The Louisiana Purchase treaty can be found at; the Treat of San Ildefonso can be found at

[8] Head, Privateers, 21–22, 25–29.

[9] Adams, January 10, 1818, Memoirs, 4: 37.

[10] Head, Privateers, 29–30.

[11] Adams, February 22, 1819, Memoirs, 4: 274.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the British Royal Navy stopped American ships and forcibly impressed their sailors into naval service after attempts by the Jefferson and Madison administrations to use embargoes and trade sanctions to compel British respect for freedom of the seas. In June 1812, Congress declared war to defend American national sovereignty from repeated British violations. Most of the battles were fought at sea and around the Great Lakes.

However, in August 1814, the British fleet arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and landed 4,000 troops who humiliated U.S. forces at Bladensburg, Maryland. The British marched into Washington, D.C. and burned the capital in revenge for the burning of York (Toronto). A few weeks later, British Admiral Alexander Cochrane and his officers decided to invade the nearby port-city of Baltimore because he thought the “town ought to be laid in ashes.”

Francis Scott Key was a prosperous D.C. attorney who had argued before the Supreme Court and had a large family. Like many Easterners, he was opposed to the war whose main proponents were “war hawks” from the West and South. However, Key was appalled by the threats to the capital and then the burning of Washington, and joined the local militia. He was persuaded by some friends to help secure the release of Dr. William Beanes from British captivity. Key gained an audience with President James Madison and soon joined with prisoner of war agent, John Skinner, to seek Beanes’ release.

Meanwhile, Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland militia prepared Baltimore’s defenses for a British assault. During the morning of September 12, 4,700 redcoats and royal marines disembarked along the Patapsco River for a fifteen-mile march to Baltimore. They were led by General Robert Ross who promised to “sup in Baltimore tonight, or in hell.” A Royal Navy squadron sailed up the river to bombard Fort McHenry in the harbor and then the city itself.

The American militia was 3,000-strong and deployed along a narrow part of the peninsula to block the British advance. A rifleman among the forward skirmishers killed General Ross in the opening round. The British attacked after a brief, but sharp artillery exchange and forced the Americans back several times. The British pressed the attack the next day but suffered increasing numbers of casualties and were forced to withdraw. The Americans had held, and the British infantry attack on Baltimore had ground to a stop and failed.

Meanwhile, at sunrise on Tuesday, September 13, Commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead, and commander of a volunteer artillery company from the city which had joined in the defense of the fort, peered through their spyglasses into Baltimore Harbor. They saw five British bomb-ships maneuvering into position one and a half miles from the star-shaped fort.

Armistead’s soldiers in the 1,000-man garrison were up and preparing the 36 guns to defend the fort. The tension was rife, and their nerves were stretched to the limit. Suddenly, the ship Volcano lobbed 200-pound explosive shells into the fort. The other four bomb ships and the rest of the fleet fired on the fort. Inaccurate but terrifying, screaming rockets were launched from Erebus toward the fort.

Major Armistead ordered his soldiers to return fire, and several cannonballs scored direct hits on British ships. The American fire was unexpectedly severe and forced the British to move out of range of the fort’s guns. The British had moved out of range of the American guns, but their bomb ships could still hit Fort McHenry. Finally, Armistead ordered his men to take cover in a moat.

A few observers of the battle from the British fleet were Key and Skinner. They had rented a packet-ship and went to the enemy fleet to secure the release of their prisoner. They had been stuck with the British fleet aboard the HMS Surprize for several days as it had moved toward the harbor. They were transferred with Beanes back to their small vessel but not allowed to depart until after the battle.

They were as distressed as the men in the fort at being bombarded and suffering casualties but impotent to return fire. A British shell crashed through the roof of the fort’s magazine where 300 barrels of gunpowder were stored, but miraculously, did not explode.

In the early afternoon, the sun disappeared, and heavy rain fell from a nor’easter. The men in the fort lowered the American flag stitched by Mary Pickersgill and raised a storm flag due to the rain. The British fleet moved closer to fire broadsides from several warships. The Americans quickly fired their own guns and caused severe damage to three warships forcing the British back.

However, the British bomb ships continued to fire as darkness settled with the arrival of evening, Admiral Cochrane had thought he would force a surrender in less than two hours leaving Baltimore vulnerable to a coordinated land-sea assault. But Armistead had no intention of surrendering.

The shelling continued through the night. Finally, the first light of dawn approached with Fort McHenry still standing. From his vantage point, Key watched as the fort raised the immense 30 by 42-foot star-spangled banner as the soldiers stood at attention. Meanwhile, Key pulled a letter from his pocket and started to jot down some words and notes for a song that came to mind. “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light . . .” it began, and ended with “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

The American forces redeemed themselves at Baltimore and Fort McHenry after the national humiliation in Washington, D.C. Only a few months later, American commissioners including John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Albert Gallatin signed the Treaty of Ghent officially ending the War of 1812. Key’s words became America’s national anthem, marking its great victory in what some have called the Second War for American Independence.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On May 14, 1804, President Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and an army captain, William Clark, began an expedition exploring the territory stretching from the Mississippi River, along the Missouri River, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But the origins of the expedition began long before this, even before Jefferson became president of the United States and well before the Louisiana Purchase took place. Only a few years after the Revolutionary War, shortly after sea captain Robert Gray had discovered the estuary of the Columbia River in present-day Oregon, Jefferson instructed Andre Michaux to “explore the country a[long] the Missouri, & thence Westwardly to the Pacific ocean.” [1] The enterprise was sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and included the support of subscribers such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The expedition was quickly ended before the entourage reached the Missouri River after it was discovered that Michaux was acting as an agent of the French government. Other expeditions, led by explorers such as Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Thomas Freeman, William Dunbar, and Peter Custis, were also enlisted by Jefferson during his presidency to explore various sections of the American West, but none of these luminaries have gained the popular recognition that the Lewis and Clark Expedition retains today.

Meriwether Lewis, like Jefferson, was born into a family of Virginia planters. Lewis served for a time in the army during the Whiskey Rebellion, but saw no combat. For a period of about six months, Lewis served under the command of William Clark, who was the younger brother of the Revolutionary War commander, George Rogers Clark.     Lewis left the army as a captain to become the private secretary to President Jefferson, whom he advised on the capabilities and political loyalties of high-ranking officers in the military. Lewis availed himself of Jefferson’s personal library, which was considered one of the finest in the world. After his appointment as the commander of the expedition to the west (also known as the “Corps of Discovery”) Lewis received instruction in astronomy, botany, and medicine by some of the leading scientists in the country to prepare him for his mission. Lewis later asked William Clark to join in the command with the rank of captain, although the initial budget for the expedition included pay for only one captain.   Clark was eventually commissioned as a lieutenant, although this was not known to the crew.[2]

President Jefferson first proposed the Lewis and Clark expedition in a secret message to Congress on January 18, 1803, months before the Louisiana Purchase took place. The message stressed the need for the government to develop the fur trade along the Missouri River in what was then Spanish territory. Jefferson wished to provide new lands to compensate private fur traders who would be forced out as the federal government purchased Indian titles to land along the Mississippi River.   Jefferson hoped to induce Native-American tribes to take up agriculture and abandon their reliance upon hunting and fur-trading.[3] Although the primary purpose of the expedition was commercial in nature,  it should be understood that with that commercial development, significant expansion in government authority would necessarily take place. In addition to its implications for commerce and government, the expedition had other purposes and objectives. Jefferson’s specific marching orders to Lewis indicated that “the object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce. . . . Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take [careful] observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognised hereafter….The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri, & of the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean, should also be fixed by observation, & the course of that water to the ocean, in the same manner as that of the Missouri.”[4]

Jefferson clearly had interest in the geographic and scientific discoveries that the expedition could make, and was particularly interested in learning if a water route from the Missouri to the Pacific could be found.  Jefferson also hoped to learn something about the life of the Native American tribes the expedition would encounter along the way.[5]

The original plan was for Lewis to lead a party of only a dozen or so men. A larger party was thought to be perceived as a military threat to the Native Americans encountered along the way. Lewis and Clark, however, decided to add some additional members for the expedition, while still keeping the numbers down to a sufficiently small size to convince the Indians of their peaceful intentions. The expedition departed from the northern bank of the Missouri River, just north of St. Charles, Missouri, on May 21, 1804. Traveling in a heavily laden keelboat and two pirogues, the expedition only traveled three-and-a-half miles before stopping to camp for the night. Twenty-eight months later, the expedition returned to St. Louis. A total of forty-five men began the expedition. Others were added for a while on the journey but left before the expedition was completed. Thirty-three returned. One member died along the way of a “bilious colic,” which may have been appendicitis.   The party included William Clark’s African-American slave, York, and a French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who was pregnant when she joined the expedition.   Sacagawea was a talented interpreter of Indian languages, and also skilled in finding edible plants on the westward journey. Her very presence in the party was beneficial in that Native American tribes did not believe a war party would contain a woman in its midst. This provided convincing evidence that the Corps of Discovery had peaceful intentions. Throughout the entire expedition, the party had only one lethal encounter with Native Americans. A band of Piegan Blackfeet Indians attacked the camp in an attempt to steal horses and weapons.   Two of the Blackfeet were killed in the battle.

The Corps of Discovery made slow progress up the Missouri River and into the Rocky Mountains. The expedition had to proceed on foot and on horseback for much of the way after learning that there was no water route through the mountains to the ocean. The expedition made its way to the Pacific coast by the December of 1805, when it voted to spend the winter at Fort Clatsop. The entire party participated in the decision, including York and Sacagawea,  perhaps marking the first time that an African-American slave and a Native American woman had participated formally in a decision of a federal governmental body.[6]

Lewis and Clark made their return in the spring of 1806. In July, Lewis took part of the company with him while Clark took the remainder to explore different paths within the territory of present-day Montana. The two groups re-joined one another in August in present-day North Dakota. The expedition proceeded back to St. Louis, where the party arrived on September 22. As Lewis scrambled out of his canoe, the first question that he had for a local resident was “When does the post leave?” Lewis was desperate to report to the president.[7]

Lewis had been directed by Jefferson to keep a journal of his discoveries. Clark also kept a journal, which he filled with descriptions of his observations, as well as fine illustrations of flora and fauna above, beneath, and beside his handwritten text on the pages of the journal.    Lewis traveled to Washington, D.C., to report directly to the president.   What was said at that meeting is unknown, but it is clear that Lewis pledged to write and publish a book that would report his findings.   Unfortunately, the book was never written. Jefferson offered Lewis an appointment as the governor of the territory of Louisiana. Jefferson no doubt expected that the position would provide income and security for Lewis as he authored his book. However, the sedentary position did not suit Lewis, who seemed unable to master administrative duties once the expedition was completed. He suffered from serious drinking problems, indebtedness, and acute melancholy. He died from gunshot wounds, probably by his own hand, while staying at an inn on a trip to Washington.[8]

Because of Lewis’s death and failure to complete his narrative about the expedition, much of the scientific, ethnographic, and geographic findings of the enterprise were not fully appreciated. Many of the discoveries of plants and animals that the Corps made were, for a time, lost. Those species were later re-discovered many years later. Sergeant Patrick Gass, a member of the expedition, did compose a book length narrative about the venture, but that volume did not contain much of the kind of discoveries that were of original interest to President Jefferson.    Francis Biddle, later the president of the Second Bank of the United States, conducted an “audit” of the enterprise and then was the primary, but uncredited author of the official history of the expedition, which appeared in two volumes. The second of the two volumes was devoted to the botanical and zoological discoveries of Lewis and Clark, but Biddle was neither an expert scientist nor a first-hand observer of the phenomena that he was to describe. Biddle was one of the great intellectuals of his age, but he was not scientifically trained and he could have benefited greatly from the elaboration that Lewis could have offered him had he lived. For these reasons, the significance of the expedition was not recognized in the first century after the return of the Corps of Discovery as it could have been and, in fact, as it has been in more recent years as more and more scholars have slowly uncovered more evidence of the events that took place.[9] Today, we can see that the Corps of Discovery accomplished much in the way of learning of the terrain, climate, and physical environment of the trans-Mississippi West.   The expedition learned much of the Native Americans who lived in that territory. This knowledge aided in the settlement and development of a massive land area on the North American continent. Obviously, those developments have had diverse implications for all involved, most notably for the Native Americans who lived there. Nevertheless, the Lewis and Clark expedition paved the way for the future transformation of much of what is now the United States.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of  Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.


[2] Ambrose, Stephen E.  1996. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.   New York: Simon & Schuster. Pages 133-136.

[3] Guinness, Ralph B. 1933. “Purpose of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 20 (January): 90–100.


[5] Ronda, James P.  1991.  ‘A Knowledge of Distant Parts’: The Shaping of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.   Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Autumn): 4-19.

[6] Ambrose, Stephen E.  1996. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.   New York: Simon & Schuster. Pages 313-316.

[7] Ambrose, op cit.  Chapter 32.

[8]Ambrose, op cit.  Chapter 39

[9] Snow, Spencer. 2013. “Maps and Myths: Consuming Lewis and Clark in the Early Republic.” Early American Literature 48 (3): 671–708.

Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

The 1803 treaty signed in Paris brought a purchase by the United States for 828,000 square miles, doubling the nation’s size. Constitutional questions stirred disputes over how to best divide territory and keep the nation’s peace. Concurrently, the Louisiana Purchase helped sustain America’s growing need for agriculture, free flow of commerce along the Mississippi, and secure westward regions.

On June 12, 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to William Johnson: “On every question of construction, let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”

Twenty years earlier, Jefferson had been in a bit of a quandary concerning this very topic. As the third President of the United States, he was presented with an enormous opportunity: nearly double the size of the nation by purchasing land offered by France at a bargain-basement price. But search the Constitution from top to bottom, side to side, Article 1 to Amendment 11, he could find no explicit power given the President to make such a purchase. At first blush, Jefferson concluded an amendment to the Constitution was required. In an August 1803 letter to John Dickinson, he wrote: “The General Government has no powers but such as the Constitution gives it.  It has not given it power of holding foreign territory, and still less of incorporating it into the Union. An amendment of the Constitution seems necessary for this.”

An amendment would have to be rushed through Congress. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were tantalizingly close to the 2/3 majority needed to pass an amendment in the House (they controlled 67 of 103 seats, or 65%), but they only held 14 of 32 seats in the Senate (43%).  The Federalists, still smarting from the drumming they took at the polls in 1800, were not at all interested in supporting Jefferson (sort of like today’s Democratic Party with President Donald Trump), so crossover votes were unlikely. Even if an amendment could get through Congress, it would take months to be ratified by the states; by then would this “deal of a lifetime” slip through their grasp? Would Napoleon Bonaparte have found another buyer? Otherwise, would Jefferson be required to “squeeze” new meaning out of the Constitution? The President could not pass this deal up, but what was he to do?

The ownership of the land was even in question. Totaling 828,000 square miles (530,000,000 acres) the land had been claimed at times by Britain, France and Spain. Its ownership in 1803 rested upon secret treaties and informal agreements. Everyone at the time could see that many states would eventually emerge from the acquisition (fifteen states to be precise) but to take control of both banks of the Mississippi, a river down which, to use Jefferson’s characterization “three-eighths of our territory must pass to market”[i] simply could not be passed up.

To solve his puzzle, Jefferson did the most practical thing he could think of. He consulted none other than “Father of the Constitution” himself, James Madison.  Fortunately for the President, Madison worked right down the street from the “President’s House.”[ii] Jefferson had wisely brought Madison into the administration as his Secretary of State.

Madison adroitly opined that the power of a nation to “extend its territories” was a power enjoyed by any nation “by treaties.” And the treaty power was, without question, enjoyed by the President of the United States.[iii]

James Monroe and Robert Livingston had previously been dispatched to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and Florida. The day after Monroe arrived in France (Livingston was already there) the pair had been summoned to the chambers of Talleyrand himself and offered the entirety of Louisiana. Unbeknownst to them, the day before, Napoleon had declared Louisiana “entirely lost” and ordered it be offered to the Americans. Napoleon needed the cash for yet another war with Britain. After some crafty negotiations, Monroe and Livingston were able to get the price down to $15 Million, still above the limits of their instructions, but “affordable.” The pair quickly signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on April 30th 1803, and hurried home.

On October 31, 1803, the last day the Senate could do so without nullifying it, the treaty was ratified, making Louisiana part of the United States.

Twenty-five years later, the Supreme Court would finally confirm Jefferson and Madison’s decision by stating: “The Constitution confers absolutely on the government of the Union, the powers of making war, and of making treaties; consequently, that government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or by treaty.”[iv]

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[i] April 18, 1802 letter to Robert Livingston.

[ii] The building would not be informally called the “White House” until shortly before the War of 1812 and not officially until action taken by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.

[iii] Article 2, Section 2.

[iv] American Insurance Co. v. Canter (1828).

Guest Essayist: Jeanne McKinney

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the fractured colonies were up against the British Empire like a David against Goliath. For 150 years, the colonists had already experienced an unusual amount of freedom managing their own affairs. This was not because of Britain granting the freedoms, but their preoccupation with local affairs, foreign conflicts, inefficiency, geography, and neglect.

It wasn’t so much a planned rebellion but a continuing outrage against offenses that grew into a movement to protect and defend what the colonists had toiled hard for and held dear.

The American Revolution began in 1765. Some of the key causes were:

The Founding of the Colonies

French and Indian War

Taxes, Laws, and More Taxes

Protests in Boston

Intolerable Acts

Boston Blockade

Immediate and sometimes violent objections of the Americans to their new taxes both baffled and angered the British. The colonists’ position was that, while Parliament could legislate for the colonies,

taxes could only be levied through their direct representatives of whom they had none in Parliament. (1)

England sent troops to protect against mob violence when Americans refused to import the goods in order to avoid the duties. The Americans’ argument grew boldly stating equality, claiming their colonial assemblies stood on equal footing with Parliament. Their assertion was they alone could legislate for the colonies, while Parliament legislated for Great Britain. (2)(Marines in the Revolution, Charles R. Smith)

British naval and ground forces were placed strategically on a colonial chessboard when arguments and assertions transformed into a growing rebellion and King George’s colonial income stream was faltering. His radar was now switched on.

A never-before-tried precedent to go against a greater enemy for cause the world had never seen before. A collective body of colonists gave birth to the concept of a government by the people. They risked all to obtain inalienable rights and individual freedoms given from God to all men.

Before 1775, the colonists had no central government arsenals stocked with weapons and ammo, no formal armies or navies. Growing unity among the colonies spurred a mobilization of the crudest kind. Whether farmer or shopkeeper, educated or uneducated, they grabbed their rifles to form small groups and state militias. The colonists adapted slogans like “Join or Die,” and “Don’t Tread on Me.”

A fever swept through the patriots, willing to give what little they had for a rapidly evolving mission of independence from Britain.

America’s first Continental Army served under the helm of a tall, unstoppable military leader. Recruitment offered meager rewards and much hardship. General George Washington inspired and led, on his white horse, America’s rag tag patriot troops through defeat after defeat and horrific fighting conditions. With Washington at the front lines, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other representatives in the Continental Congress had their fight to create an enduring foundation to a budding republic – a new way to live that would require external defense.

The Brits were well-equipped and had years of formal military training. Their success in pillaging and usurping foreign lands made them cocky, brutal, and unforgiving against any attempt to defy their deity, King George. Their many war ships blockaded the harbors of the colonies. The red and white lobsters, with cannons, bullets, and swords, would militarily take from the colonists what they claimed was theirs.

In the late 1700s, the British navy fueled their prowess with the ability to deliver expeditionary ground forces in numbers and navigate waterways into the interior. Washington, Adams, even Benedict Arnold (before he turned) knew they needed amphibious troop movement to expand their defenses and procure much-needed food, ammunition, and warm clothing. Washington’s pivotal victory crossing the Delaware in small boats to win the Battle of Trenton proves this.

The birth of expeditionary power projection.

“On 10 November 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized the raising of two battalions of [Continental] Marines. From this small beginning we have seen the United States Marine Corps grow into a powerful force for the nation’s security.” (Marine Corps History Division, Brigadier General E. H. Simmons History Center).

Newly commissioned Captains Samuel Nicholas and Robert Mullan supposedly organized the first Marine Corps muster at Tun Tavern, a popular watering hole in Philadelphia.

(The following excerpts are summarized from interviews with Gunnery Sergeant Jon Holmes and Sgt. William Rucker at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), Miramar, Feb 25, 27, 2020).

According to Rucker, the captains rounded everybody up, got them drunk and said we’ve got an offer – ‘you can come fight and protect your country, protect these ships’. They recruited people to see if it’s something they voluntarily wanted to do. Back then, that’s what distinguished the Marines from other branches.

“You weren’t mandated – [they said] you want to come join this fighting institution- come along with us,” says Rucker. One of the requirements was good moral character and rifle skills. They were supposed to be good shots.

Holmes states, “This isn’t a well-trained army that has been established for years. These are people who are tired of being taken advantage of – they don’t like the taxation without representation. They think they can achieve a better life for them and their families and for the future.”

When the leaders of the colonists formally declared their independence 2 July, 1776, John Adams believed it would be “the most memorable epocha in the history of America.” Essentially, the entire war against Britain was an open act of treason with death warrants if overrun or captured. To top it all off – where was the funding for the fight coming from? For years Britain’s East India Trading Company provided a well-established economy that funded Britain’s large navy.

“Then you have people who have been colonizing a frontier land; a farmer’s basic way of life and what they have is what they have to subsist with. The ammunition for their weapons, outside of their militias, is for hunting weapons,” says Holmes.

“Any ships they had were probably ‘tactically borrowed,’” he adds, “everything they had [to fight with] they had gotten from someone else…and they used it to great effect.”

On September 5, 1776, the Naval Committee published the Continental Marines uniform regulations specifying green coats with white facings (lapels, cuffs, and coat lining), with a leather high collar to protect against cutlass slashes and to keep a man’s head erect. The moniker “Leatherneck,” stemmed from that first uniform. Though the green color is attributed to the traditional color of riflemen, Colonial Marines carried muskets. More likely, green cloth was simply plentiful in Philadelphia, and it served to distinguish Marines from the red of the British or the blue of the Continental Army and Navy. (Wikipedia)

Holmes relates that the Continental Marines were originally tasked with security for the Navy. Other than safeguarding the ship during naval engagements, they were to specifically aim for officers on the enemy side.

“They were trained to remove those key positions of leadership so the enemy would fall apart,” says Holmes.

Today, leadership in the Marine Corps is passed down through the ranks. If one falls out- the next highest rank takes over and that dominoes down the lowest rank in the various units. That way there is always a leader to complete the mission and stay congealed as a force. That wasn’t really something that was taught back then.

Yet, in those early days as it is now in the Marine Corps, “Every man a rifleman.” Which one can surmise was a safeguard to protect something so very precious, vital and new as a free republic. The Marine Corps is the only branch of America’s armed forces that requires proficient rifle qualifications from all personnel.

Marine amphibious doctrine grew during the eight-year fight for American independence.

“The infant American Marine Corps was a threat to be reckoned with.” (Marine Corps History Division)

The first amphibious assault by Colonial forces came against the British during The Raid of Nassau, Bahamas, 3 March, 1776. During this naval operation, the Marines sailed there – raided it once and got the ammunition and other military supplies. Their main purpose was to get 200 barrels of gunpowder, but the Brits managed to get most of it off the island. Marines, not to be dissuaded from their goal, conducted a second raiding party and got more.

They also captured in April a small 6-gun schooner HMS Hawk and a merchant vessel carrying guns and gunpowder. (Military History Now)

Nobody thought the Colonists at the time would be capable of putting up any defense- much less mounting a raid and attacking one of the most superior naval powers at the time. The Raid of Nassau was the Marines’ first major victory where a very small organization went forth to take supplies from a much larger, more superior force.

“I think the biggest reason for that… is because they [the Marines] were underestimated,” says Holmes.

The Battle of Nassau was the first major victory for the Continental Marines. In December 1776, the Continental Marines were tasked to join Washington’s army at Trenton to slow the progress of British troops southward through New Jersey. Washington, unsure what to do with the Marines, added them to a brigade of Philadelphia militia. Though they were unable to arrive in time to meaningfully affect the Battle of Trenton, they were able to fight at the Battle of Princeton. (Wikipedia)

One of the Continental Marines’ final acts was escorting gold bullion from King Louis of France to start the first bank and treasury of the United States.

The Continental Marines served throughout the Revolutionary War and were disbanded in 1783 after the Treaty of Paris. In all, there were 131 Colonial Marine officers and probably no more than 2,000 enlisted Colonial Marines.

The American Revolution finally won, the navy and the army were also largely disbanded. The few ships in the young American Navy were sold or turned into merchant vessels. America no longer had the protection of the British navy and had to defend its own interests abroad. The idea of an American Navy was the subject of much debate between the Federalists who favored a strong navy and the anti-federalists who felt the money required for a navy would be better spent elsewhere. Repeated threats from France and the Barbary states of North Africa gave cause to consider resorting to more forceful measures to procure the security of American shipping interests. (Wikipedia)

The United States Marine Corps we know today was re-established formally on July 11, 1798.

Despite this, Nov. 10, 1775 is still considered to be the “birthday” of the U.S. Marines. Enemies of America have been underestimating Marines ever since the organization was formed. They repeatedly shock the world with ‘running towards bullets,’ showing tenacious aggression and fearless force. Fueled by steel-clad brotherly love, their motto “No man left behind,” is life itself.

These time-tested, elite warriors have established themselves throughout U.S. history as game changers on foreign battlefields.

Marines have participated in all wars of the United States, being in most instances first, or among the first, to fight. In addition, Marines have executed more than 300 landings on foreign shores and served in every major U.S. naval action since 1775. (Jan 2, 2020,

1918: The Battle of Belleau Wood.

“Retreat, hell we just got here!” was the war cry of Capt. Lloyd Williams during World War I, 1918. He was advised to withdraw with the French who had had suffered greatly from a massive German assault in their quest to take France and win the war. Marine 5th and 6th regiments (nicknamed ‘devil dogs’) stood their ground – forcing the Germans to withdraw to Belleau Wood and Bouresches. (1) They then launched their assault into oncoming machine gun fire to clear the woods and recapture French soil.

“The Battle of Belleau Wood did not win the war, but it prevented the Allies from losing it,” said Alan Axelrod, author of Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps.

“The Marines advanced from shipboard guard or constabulary forces of the 19th century into the multi-purpose force-in-readiness of the 20th and 21st centuries.” (2) (

1942: The Battle of Guadalcanal.

“On August 7, 1942, in the Allies’ first major offensive in the Pacific, 6,000 U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and seized the airfield, surprising the island’s 2,000 Japanese defenders. Both sides then began landing reinforcements by sea, and bitter fighting ensued in the island’s jungles.” (

The Battle of Guadalcanal set a powerful precedent, noted for the operational interrelationship of a complex series of engagements on the ground, at sea, and in the air. This marked a turning point for the Allies in the Pacific. (

1945: Battle of Iwo Jima.

Shortly after its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan gained control over much of Southeast Asia and the central Pacific. World War II Commanding General Henry (Hap) Arnold wanted Iwo Jima to place B-29 fighters in favorable range of Tokyo, so that they could support bombing operations in the region. (1)

“There was no way we would have been able to make it to Japan and accomplish what we needed to do to win the war with the [Japanese-occupied] island chains. It was a constant threat for our aircraft potential threat for naval vessels, because the Japanese were using the islands to resupply and do strikes from.” (1b)

“With the partnership of the Navy, the Marines were able to go from island to island – seize it- go to the next objective – and take that. All along the way they are building supply lines for U.S. operations up to the enemy’s front lines.” (2b) (GySgt. Jon Holmes)

Adm. Chester Nimitz created a U.S. Joint Expeditionary Force of Navy and Marines to carry out Operation Detachment. February 19, 1945, Marines began to land on the beach of Iwo Jima in intervals and the rest is legend. The offensive was one of the deadliest conflicts in U.S. Marine Corps history.

Nearly 70,000 troops under the command of Maj. Gen Harry Schmidt were forced to kill the Japanese virtually to the last man because they refused to surrender. (2)

Marines twice raised the American flag on Suribachi’s summit. The second raising was photographed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Joe Rosenthal (AP), to become one of the most famous combat images of World War II. (3) (

Nimitz said after the battle was won, “Of the Marines on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” (USMCU)

1968: Tet Offensive:

During the Tet Offensive 85,000 troops under the direction of the North Vietnamese government carried out attacks against five major South Vietnamese cities, dozens of military installations, and scores of towns and villages throughout South Vietnam. The enemy did this to foment rebellion amongst the South Vietnamese population against U.S. involvement in the war. The size and scope of the communist attacks caught the American and South Vietnamese allies completely by surprise. (

The Marines, used to jungle and guerilla warfare, were not prepared for the fighting style of house to house, street to street.

“That definitely changed our mindset on how we train and changed America’s mindset on how we train…Gave us our motto, “We fight in any clime and place.” It took a scope back to the Tet Offensive [to see that].” (Sgt. William Rucker)

The offensive was a crushing tactical defeat for the North, but it struck a sharp psychological blow that eroded support for the war among the American public and political establishment.

2004: The Battle of Fallujah 1 and 2.

The First Battle of Fallujah called “Operation Valiant Resolve,” was a U.S. military campaign during the Iraq War. The Iraq city of Fallujah was overrun with extremists and insurgents. Marines were tasked to pacify the city and find those responsible for the March 31 ambush and killing of four American military contractors.

Marine Cpl. Stephen Berge was in an abandoned factory in Fallujah when he felt the tides turning. He didn’t know at the time that this second battle of Fallujah he currently was in, also known as Operation Phantom Fury, would become known as the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War. (Marine Corps Times).

The Second Battle of Fallujah is notable for being the first major engagement of the Iraq War fought solely against insurgents rather than the forces of the former Ba’athist Iraqi government, which was deposed in 2003.

When coalition forces (mostly U.S. Marines) fought into the center of the city, the Iraqi government requested that the city’s control be transferred to an Iraqi-run local security force, which then began stockpiling weapons and building complex defenses across the city through mid-2004.

Insurgency, counterinsurgency was a new kind of enemy and fighting. They hid in the shadows, wore no uniform, used civilians as shields, and were in the business of malevolent terror. They were not afraid to die, had no rules of engagement or sense of humanity in warfighting, and used the crudest methods to do the most explosive and lethal harm. Then brag about the innocent people they killed, including children.

2010: The Battle for Sangin.

In October 2010, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5) started clearing the Taliban insurgency from the Sangin District in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

Prior to that a full third of all British casualties in Afghanistan had occurred in the Sangin District…They were done in with death and injury, gladly turning it over to U.S. Marines.

The Helmand Valley was significant geography. A fertile green zone, the opium drug trade was booming and the Taliban had nestled into a stronghold. The Sangin crossroads fingered out to Kajaki Dam (electricity), Lashkar Gah (Helmand capital), and Kandahar. Dominating Kandahar put the insurgents that much closer to capital city, Kabul, just an RPG or two away from winning the war.

3/7 followed by 3/5 Marines were deployed to clear districts, kill the insurgents that were killing them, stop movement of weapons, ammunition and IED-making materials, open the roads, destroy weapons caches and insurgent hideouts, and hundreds of other tasks. 3/5 lived within feet of the people who wanted them dead. The missions were measured out among platoons, squads, and teams placed on somewhat exposed, but strategically located bases. Daily patrol demanded each Marine taking each step forward in the exact same place as the man ahead, while sweepers tried to unearth the hidden bombs.

Marines earned the respect of the Taliban by showing force and taking the fight to them.

U.S. Marine Corps accomplishments and sacrifices merit an immortal place in America’s history.

Similar observations can be made about the enduring, courageous character of a U.S. Marine in many other legendary battles not mentioned. All of which should be sobering reminders that victorious ends have come about through bloody means.

These points of pride left indelible marks on the Marines fighting in them – more than celebratory and triumphant accolades, but a sense of a harsh, unescapable reality that the environment of freedom can only exist when there are forces to sustain it. Marines need not prove who they are – their results do.

They are not only frightful and lethal when they need to be, but also serve humanitarian missions in natural disasters and disease outbreaks. They adapt to the calls of their country in any clime or place. Marines build vital global relationships with partners and allies who look to them for training. Because of their generous nature, they have helped other nations build their armies and security forces to be able to be ready, like them, for future conflicts. Marines have been one of the most enduring elements of the 20th and 21st centuries, shaping the world by winning its conflicts, securing stability, and building relationships among allies.

“The Army specialty is land warfare, the Air Force is sky space dominance, the Navy has the seas, and the Marine Corps focus on that amphibious ocean to [expeditionary] land aspect. WWII is a great example…if it’s impossible; Marines have found ways to do it.” (GySgt. Jon Holmes)

The Revolutionary War was the beginning of it. Even then they were looking at more than just sailors on ships. America’s various struggles and successes winning independence and sustaining it were and are transformational on the world stage. The Goliath, Britain, underestimated its David, America, slinging her way to freedom to become a shining example to all nations. America’s first Marines helped her do it and have been serving her best interests through generations.

Jeanne McKinney is an award-winning writer whose focus and passion is our United States active-duty military members and military news. Her Patriot Profiles offer an inside look at the amazing active-duty men and women in all Armed Services, including U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard. Reporting includes first-hand accounts of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against violent terror groups, global defense, tactical training and readiness, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance, next-generation defense technology, family survival at home, U.S. port and border protection and illegal interdiction, women in combat, honoring the Fallen, Wounded Warriors, Military Working Dogs, Crisis Response, and much more. McKinney has won twelve San Diego Press Club “Excellence in Journalism Awards,” including seven First Place honors.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Joshua Schmid

The Making of King Cotton: Eli Whitney’s Dogged Inventiveness

When one considers the great inventors of nineteenth-century America, few surpass Eli Whitney in both personal tenacity and the broader impact their works had on industrialization. Born on December 8, 1765 in Massachusetts, Whitney came of age during the American Revolution. As a boy, he enjoyed tinkering in his family’s workshop. One story tells that he stayed home on a Sunday to take apart his father’s watch while the rest of his family went to church. At the age of 12, Whitney created a violin—an incredible feat at such a young age. However, his tinkering was no mere hobby. The American Revolution was taking a toll on the colonial economy as men left their jobs to fight in the war or dedicated their trades to creating military equipment. Whitney heard that farmers around his home needed nails, and he soon created a forge to meet the demand.

After the American Revolution, Whitney studied and worked hard to pass entrance exams and pay to attend Yale. His intelligence and skills caught the eye of officials at the college, one of whom helped Whitney secure a job as a tutor in the South. The young man left his home area for South Carolina after graduation, but the job ended up falling through. Fortunately, Whitney had met Catherine Greene, the widow of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene, on his way south and accepted a position on her plantation in Savannah, Georgia.

On the Greene plantation, the New Englander witnessed the troubles of Southern agriculture first-hand. The strand of cotton that was best adapted to grow throughout the South—known as green-seed cotton—was high quality but contained many seeds within the fiber. These seeds needed to be removed before the raw cotton could be sent to textile mills. Whitney discovered that no effective machinery existed to remove the seeds, requiring laborers do the work by hand. The young man immediately set about to find a viable solution, recognizing that a machine that could minimize the workload of removing seeds would be hugely profitable. Whitney partnered with Phineas Miller, the manager of the plantation, in developing the machine. The two quickly produced a crude model of what became known as the cotton gin. This machine used combs to pull the seeds out and mesh to collect them while straining the finished fiber out.

In October 1793, Whitney wrote to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to apply for a patent for his invention. Jefferson was very intrigued by the device, replying, “As the state of Virginia, of which I am, carries on household manufactures of cotton to a great extent, as I also do myself, and one of our great embarrassments is the clearing the cotton of the seed, I feel a considerable interest in the success of your invention.” Whitney and Miller received a patent in March 1794 and developed a plan to travel to plantations to use the gin on farmers’ cotton in exchange for a portion of the completed supply. However, the cotton gin was not difficult to replicate, and many began to steal the design for themselves despite the patent. A variety of litigation cases followed as Whitney attempted to uphold his patent rights. However, a loophole in the laws at the time prevented the inventor from winning any of his court battles until 1807, at which point only a single year remained on his patent. He pleaded to Congress for a patent renewal, requesting in a letter to be “admitted to a more liberal participation with his fellow citizens, in the benefits of [the cotton gin],” but was denied on two separate occasions.

The cotton gin inadvertently increased demand for slavery in the South to meet the demands for the production of “King Cotton,” increasing sectional tensions in the country over the issue of human bondage. Whereas many of the founders believed that slavery would die a natural death because it was being restricted to the South where tobacco stripped the land of nutrients, the cotton gin helped breathe new life into the “peculiar institution.” Cotton and slavery spread to the new southern states in the early nineteenth century, and the scourge of human bondage in the country would exist until after the Civil War.

Joshua Schmid serves as a Program Analyst at the Bill of Rights Institute.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: John Steele Gordon

Before independence there was little financial activity in the American colonies. Britain had forbidden the creation of banks and there were no corporations to issue stock and bonds. And while merchants kept their books in pounds, shillings, and pence, the actual money supply was a hodgepodge of foreign coins, warehouse certificates, scrip, and IOU’s.

With independence, that began to change. The Continental Congress issued paper money, called “continentals,” in massive amounts and this fiat money quickly depreciated into near worthlessness. Congress and the various states also issued bonds to help pay the costs of the Revolution. In 1782 the first bank was organized in Philadelphia. By 1790 there were three in operation under the new Constitution that had come into effect the previous year.

And Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, pushed through the new Congress a bill for the federal government to assume the debts of the states and to refund its own debt with bonds that were backed by revenue from the new tariff.

He also established the new Bank of the United States, modeled on the Bank of England to act as a central bank. It was to regulate the money supply, provide discipline for state-chartered banks, act as a depository for government funds, and loan money to the government.

Suddenly there were financial instruments—federal and state bonds as well as stock in new banks and insurance companies to be traded—and brokers began to do so.

A broker is someone who brings buyers and sellers together and takes a commission on the sale price. Only relatively recently has it, unmodified, come to mean someone who handles financial instruments. In the 1790’s New York brokers were often involved in a number of different areas. They might be a partner in a private bank, sell insurance, run a private lottery as well as handle securities trading.

While state and federal bonds were the meat and potatoes of the new securities brokerage, the “hottest” security was the stock of the new Bank of the United States. Capitalized at $10 million, a vast sum for that time and place. Twenty percent of the stock was to be held by the government while the rest was to be offered to the public.

Trading in the stock began on a when-issued basis in 1791. When it was issued in July of that year, it sold out almost immediately and began to rise, setting off the country’s first bull market. Short sales (the sale of borrowed stock in hopes of a decline in price), and puts and calls (the right to sell or buy a security at a certain price before a certain date) began at this time, greatly increasing the speculative possibilities.

Early trading took place in coffee houses and taverns (as well as on the street in good weather), but brokers also began holding auctions in their offices. In early 1792, John Sutton and his partner Benjamin Jay and several others decided to form a central auction at 22 Wall Street. Sellers would deposit the securities they wanted to sell and buyers would attend the auction and the auctioneers would take a commission on the sale price.

But the system soon collapsed as brokers would attend the auctions just to learn what the prices were and then offer the securities at a lower commission.

To fix that problem, on May 17th, 1792, a group of men gathered beneath a buttonwood tree (today, such trees are called sycamores) outside of 68 Wall Street and signed an agreement. (There is some doubt as to whether the agreement was actually signed beneath that tree, but it became a beloved Wall Street icon until it fell in a storm on June 14, 1865.)

The agreement read as follows: “We the Subscribers, Brokers for the Purchase and Sale of the Public Stock, do hereby solemnly promise and pledge ourselves to each other, that we will not buy or sell from this day for any person whatsoever, any kind of Public Stock, at a less rate than one quarter percent Commission on the Specie value and that we will give preference to each other in our Negotiations. In Testimony whereof we have set our hands this 17th day of May at New York, 1792.”

This is often regarded as the origin of the New York Stock Exchange, although the exchange would not be formally organized and given a constitution for another quarter of a century. Basically, the Buttonwood Agreement was a price-fixing arrangement among brokers not to undercut each other on commissions. And fixed commissions remained a feature of the Wall Street financial market until 1975, when the Securities and Exchange Commission abolished them, forcing brokers to compete in terms of price. The result was greatly reduced commissions and, therefore, greatly increased volume, bringing today’s Wall Street into being.

John Steele Gordon was born in New York City in 1944 into a family long associated with the city and its financial community. Both his grandfathers held seats on the New York Stock Exchange. He was educated at Millbrook School and Vanderbilt University, graduating with a B.A. in history in 1966.

After college he worked as a production editor for Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) for six years before leaving to travel, driving a Land-Rover from New York to Tierra del Fuego, a nine-month journey of 39,000 miles. This resulted in his first book, Overlanding. Altogether he has driven through forty-seven countries on five continents.

After returning to New York he served on the staffs of Congressmen Herman Badillo and Robert Garcia. He has been a full-time writer for the last twenty years. His second book, The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street, a history of Wall Street in the 1860’s, was published in 1988. His third book, Hamilton’s Blessing: the Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt, was published in 1997. The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000, was published by Scribner, a Simon and Schuster imprint, in November, 1999. A two-hour special based on The Great Game aired on CNBC on April 24th, 2000. His latest book, a collection of his columns from American Heritage magazine, entitled The Business of America, was published in July, 2001, by Walker. His history of the laying of the Atlantic Cable, A Thread Across the Ocean, was published in June, 2002. His next book, to be published by HarperCollins, is a history of the American economy.

He specializes in business and financial history. He has had articles published in, among others, Forbes, Forbes ASAP, Worth, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pages, the Washington Post’s Book World and Outlook. He is a contributing editor at American Heritage, where he has written the “Business of America” column since 1989.

In 1991 he traveled to Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Japan with the photographer Bruce Davidson for Schlumberger, Ltd., to create a photo essay called “Schlumberger People,” for the company’s annual report.

In 1992 he was the co-writer, with Timothy C. Forbes and Steve Forbes, of Happily Ever After?, a video produced by Forbes in honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the magazine.

He is a frequent commentator on Marketplace, the daily Public Radio business-news program heard on more than two hundred stations throughout the country. He has appeared on numerous other radio and television shows, including New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns, Business Center and Squawk Box on CNBC, and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. He was a guest in 2001 on a live, two-hour edition of Booknotes with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN.

Mr. Gordon lives in North Salem, New York. His email address is

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Gary Porter

In 1789, James Madison spoke on the House Floor introducing amendments to the U.S. Constitution, an attempt to persuade Congress a Bill of Rights would protect liberty and produce unity in the new government. Opposed to a Bill of Rights at first, Madison stated that the rights of mankind were built into the fabric of human nature by God, and government had no powers to alienate an individual’s rights. Having witnessed the states violating them, Madison realized in order to safeguard America’s freedoms, Congress needed to remain mindful of their role never to take a position of power by force over the people they serve.

There was probably no American more interested in what was taking place in Richmond, Virginia that brisk December morning in 1791 than James Madison. Christmas had come and gone and now Congress entered the last week of the year. The second-term U.S. Congressman from Virginia’s 5th Congressional District could only sit patiently in Mrs. House’s boarding establishment in Philadelphia and wait for a dispatch-rider carrying news from his home state. It must have been frustrating.

In the waning days of 1789, the Virginia Senate had outright rejected four of the proposed amendments, an ominous sign. The ratification by ten states was necessary (the admission of Vermont in March, 1791 bumped that up to eleven) and Virginia’s rejection did not bode well for Madison’s “summer project.”

Madison had single-handedly pushed the proposed amendments through a reluctant Congress during the summer of 1789, a Congress understandably focused on building a government from scratch. But push them through he did; a promise had to be kept.

Madison’s successful election to the First Congress under the new Constitution (by a mere 336 votes) had been largely due to a promise the future fourth President made to the Baptists of his native Orange County. “Vote for me and I’ll work to ensure your religious liberty is secured, not just here in Virginia but throughout the United States.” And vote for him they had.

Upon taking his seat in the First U.S. Congress, then meeting in New York,[1] “Jemmy” had encountered the ratification messages of the eleven states which had joined the new union. North Carolina and Rhode island would as well, eventually. Several of these ratification messages contained lengthy lists of proposed amendments which became Madison’s starting point. He whittled down the list, discarding duplicates and those with absolutely no chance for success, and submitted nineteen proposed amendments to Congress. These were “wordsmithed,” combined, some good ones inexplicitly discarded, and the lot reduced further to twelve, which were finally approved and submitted to the states for ratification on September 28, 1789.

Three states: New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina quickly ratified almost all of the amendments before the end of the year. [2] South Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island ratified different combinations of amendments in the first six months of 1790. And then things came grinding to a halt. The remaining four states would take no further action for more than a year.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Georgia were dragging their feet. The three states did not fully ratify what we know today as the Bill of Rights until its sesquicentennial in 1939! The new state of Vermont ratified all twelve articles in early November, 1791, but Congress would not learn of that for two months. Who would provide the ratification by “three-fourths of the said Legislatures” needed to place the proposed amendments into effect?

Here at the end of 1791, things were finally looking promising. On November 14th President George Washington informed Congress that the Virginia House of Delegates had ratified the first article on October 25th, agreed to by the Senate on November 3rd. But what about the remaining eleven articles? Was that it? Although now ratified by Virginia, this first Article still lacked ratification by 11 states, so Virginia’s action had no real effect.

Unbeknownst to Madison and the rest of Congress, on December 5th, the Virginia House of Delegates had ratified “the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth articles of the amendments proposed by Congress to the Constitution of the United States.” Ten days later, the Virginia Senate concurred. It would be another seven days before Assembly President Henry Lee sent off the official notice of his state’s ratification to Philadelphia and several more days before it arrived.  On December 30th, President Washington informed Congress of Virginia’s action.

But wait. Vermont’s ratification had still not made its way from that northernmost state. Congress pressed on with other urgent matters. Finally, on January 18, 1792, Vermont’s ratification finally arrived.  With it, Congress realized that Virginia’s December ratification had indeed placed ten of the Amendments into operation.

The rest of America symbolically shrugged its shoulders and went about its affairs. In the words of historian Gordon S. Wood, “After ratification, most Americans promptly forgot about the first ten amendments to the Constitution.”[3] It would be nearly 70 years before Americans even began referring to these first ten amendments as a “Bill of Rights.” Today, we seek their protections frequently, and vociferously.  Bravo, Mr. Madison!

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people.   CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Congress moved from New York to Philadelphia between August and December of 1790.

[2] New Jersey declined to ratify Article Two, until 1992.

[3] Quoted in James Madison and the struggle for the Bill of Rights. by Labunski, Richard E., Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 258.

Guest Essayist: James D. Best

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress sent a group of amendments to the states for ratification. Seventeen amendments had been approved by the House, the Senate trimmed the list to twelve, and ten ended up being ratified by the states to become our revered Bill of Rights. With Virginia’s ratification on December 15, 1791, the first ten amendments were incorporated into the supreme law of the land.

Bills of rights were not new at the time of the Founding. The 1215 Magna Carta, the 1689 English Bill of Rights of 1689, and many American states had previously enacted declarations of rights into their state constitutions. Although the original Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights, the base document included a few rights interspersed throughout the text. Writ of habeas corpus could not be suspended—except when the country was under attack; no bill of attainder or ex post facto law could be passed at the national or state level; Americans were guaranteed a jury trial for criminal cases; there could be no religious test for federal office; no state law could impair the obligation of contracts; and the citizens of each state were entitled to the privileges and immunities of the citizens of every other state.

Individual rights were not a significant issue during the Constitutional Convention, but a Bill of Rights certainly became a major issue during ratification. The clamor for a Bill of Rights was an antifederalist political weapon against ratification. For many antifederalists, the real objection was that the Constitution gave too much power to the national government. This argument floundered, while a demand for a bill of rights gained enormous traction, so prominent anti-Federalists made vocal and repeated demands for a Bill of Rights.

Despite the clamor for a Bill of Rights, most Federalists continued to insist that one was not needed because the national government’s powers were restricted, and most state constitutions already possessed declarations of rights. As Hamilton explained in Federalist 84, “Why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?”

James Madison’s support for a bill of rights became crucial. At first, he objected, then became unsure, and finally became a forceful advocate. He came to believe that a Bill of Rights had become a political necessity. In his speech on June 8, 1789, he said, “It may be thought all paper barriers against the power of the community are too weak to be worthy of attention … yet, as they have a tendency to impress some … it may be one mean to control the majority from those acts to which they might be otherwise inclined.” Madison became a strong advocate for these amendments, but as these words reflect, he remained ambivalent philosophically.

Despite a modern perception that the first ten amendments bestow rights, it’s clear that the Bill of Rights is really a list of government prohibitions. The Founders did not believe in government benevolence and would never have accepted government as the arbiter of rights. Here are some of the restrictive clauses used in the first eight amendments:

Congress shall make no law

shall not be infringed

without the consent

shall not be violated

nor shall be compelled

the accused shall enjoy

nor be deprived

no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined

shall not be required

These phrases make clear that the Bill of Rights is a restraining order issued by the people against the national government. Natural rights are endowed by the Creator and the government is enjoined from interfering with these rights.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” –Declaration of Independence

Because the Founders feared that a Bill of Rights might impede liberty due to sins of omission, the 9th Amendment provided that, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people.” The 10th Amendment further stated that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

These simple fifty words encapsulated the political philosophy of the Founders. Rights are not bestowed by the government, they are “endowed by their Creator” and reside with the people, and liberty depends on government operating within the restriction of enumerated powers delegated by a sovereign people.

Through the years, this sound philosophy has been diminished. The Supreme Court has succeeded in setting itself up as the arbiter of rights. So much so, many people have come to view government—specifically the Supreme Court—as the grantor and guarantor of rights. As the 9th Amendment states, rights exist that are not included in the first eight amendments, but the proper way to secure these rights from government interference is through laws at the state or national level or through the amendment process.

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, Lessons From the Origins of the American Republic, and the Steve Dancy Tales.

Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner

Alexander Hamilton was America’s first Chief Operations Officer (COO).

Along with James Madison, Hamilton crafted the best operating system ever devised in human history. The U.S. Constitution provided a framework for sharing power and resolving differences. Madison and Hamilton provided details for operationalizing the Constitution with their Federal Papers essays. These Papers remain integral to interpreting the original intent for court cases to this day.

America was blessed with George Washington, the most indispensable person in our nation’s history. However, Washington needed to augment his phenomenal leadership skills with Hamilton’s management acumen. During the American Revolution, Hamilton translated Washington’s military strategy into clear and concise orders to his commanders. Now as President, Washington needed Hamilton to translate the Founders’ vision, and his policies, into reality.

With Jefferson still conducting diplomacy in Europe, Hamilton became not just the first Treasury Secretary, but effectively functioned as Washington’s “prime minister.” Decisions and documents, down to minute detail, flowed from Hamilton’s pen, creating the Executive Branch.

Hamilton’s love of administrative detail was matched by his devotion to commerce.

He was the only “modern man” among the Founders. Hamilton grew-up outside the American colonies and had a full appreciation of how nations interacted. As an accounting clerk for various trading companies in the West Indies, Hamilton developed a deep understanding for the inner workings of international trade and finance. His was America’s first “capitalist.” The systems and institutions he put in place laid the foundation for America becoming the greatest economic power in the world.

Hamilton’s greatest achievement was managing the onerous debts arising from the Revolutionary War. Each state incurred debt as their individual state militias needed to be paid for back wages. Both national and state level soldiers were paid in bonds or “IOUs.” After the war, many cash-strapped soldiers sold these bonds/“IOUs” to speculators for a fraction of their worth. Countless suppliers of their armed forces sued for nonpayment. The paper currency issued during the war was “not worth a Continental” and legions of war veterans, farmers, merchants, and craftsman (like blacksmiths, barrel makers, and carpenters) demanded payment, declaring Continental scrip were “IOUs.”

The total debt was $79 million: $54 million owed by the national government and $25 million owed by the states. Hamilton saw repayment of this debt as a strategic and moral imperative: “States, like individuals, who observe their engagements are respected and trusted, while the reverse is the fate of those who pursue an opposite conduct.”

Without a debt repayment strategy, the IOUs and lawsuits would continue to cripple America’s economy with unbridled speculation and uncertainty. Trust in the Federal government’s ability to meet its obligations had to be restored. Something had to be done. Hamilton declared, “In nothing are appearances of greater moment than in whatever regards credit.”

Repayment of debts would allow America to enter into international agreements and borrow funds for investing in business ventures and stimulate economic growth. Hamilton observed that the American economy was stagnating from a limited money supply, deflation of land values, and no liquid capital. He also was concerned that if America was seen as financially broke and politically fragmented, foreign governments may lure individual states with separate debt financing arrangements.

The solution was to consolidate all public debt and set aside some of the steady federal revenue to service interest and payoff the principal. These were revolutionary and futuristic concepts in 1790.

It was his conviction that, “an assumption of the debts of particular states by the union and a like provision for them as for those of the union will be a measure of sound policy and substantial justice.”

Hamilton determined that consolidating all the Revolutionary War debt would accomplish several things. [1] It would bring order from chaos with one large debt instead of thousands of smaller ones. [2] It would simplify the management and repayment of the debt. [3] It would establish loyalty among the creditors and bond/IOU holders who would promote the stability and success of the federal government to assure their claims were paid.

Another aspect of Hamilton’s solution was that the U.S. Constitution gave the federal government the exclusive right to collect import duties. The Federal Government assuming state debt would prevent states from trying to return to the Article of Confederation when states levied duties on interstate commerce. Hamilton wanted to unify America and forge a national economy.

The critical element in assuming all debt was to have a unified America attract foreign investment through issuing federal government bonds. Such bonded debt would create investment partners who would forge trade relationships that allowed the U.S. Government to raise the necessary revenue to meet its debt obligations.  Hamilton sought to create a web of economic loyalties and relationships that bound everyone to supporting everyone’s economic wellbeing. In doing so, Hamilton would establish America as a major player in the modern international financial system.

Hamilton’s vision and how to implement it, was at the core of his fifty-one-page “Report on Public Credit” to the Congress.  It was his hope that Congress would pass the necessary legislation to authorize implementation of this integrated plan.  Any editions or subtractions would ruin his delicate balance between the various economic interests. Hamilton worried, “Credit is the entire thing. Every part of it has the nicest sympathy with every other part. Wound one limb and the whole tree shrinks and decays.”

Many in Congress rejected the plan as confusing and overly complex. Some saw it as too much like the way England financed its wars. Others declared it a bailout for speculators. Even Madison refuted it. As the assumption plan related to spending, its first test was in the House of Representatives.

The House debate was a sensation. Packed galleries watched Madison rail against the plan as a “betrayal of the American Revolution.” Hamilton, a member of the Executive Branch, mustered his votes behind the scenes. On April 12, 1790, the House defeated the debt assumption plan: 29 ayes to 31 nays.

The death of debt assumption found resurrection in the future location of the nation’s capital. Hamilton and northerners wanted the capital to remain in New York or return to Philadelphia. Southerners wanted it in the South and located outside an existing urban area. Jefferson saw this as a struggle between his vision of an agrarian nation versus the grime of industry. Madison and Henry Lee had purchased land along the Potomac River in the hopes that Jefferson would prevail. All sides wanted a final decision on the future of the Nation’s Capital, and symbolically the character of the nation. To break the stalemate, the key players, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and several others gathered for dinner on June 20, 1790, at Jefferson’s townhouse in New York City.

After much food, libations, and discussion a deal was struck. The Nation’s Capital would be along the banks of the Potomac between Georgetown in Maryland and Alexandria in Virginia. In exchange for Hamilton convincing northerners to support this location, Jefferson and Madison would support passage of Hamilton’s Debt Assumption plan.

On July 10, 1790 the House passed the Residence Act moving the temporary Capital back to Philadelphia and designating a ten-square mile area along the Potomac as the permanent Capital. The House then passed the Assumption bill on July 26. The Senate approved the plan on August 4, 1790.

Senator Daniel Webster placed Hamilton’s achievement into historical perspective:

“The fabled birth of Minerva from the brain of Jove was hardly more sudden or perfect than the financial system of the United States as it burst forth from the conception of Alexander Hamilton.”

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

On September 11, 1789, the Senate confirmed President George Washington’s appointment of Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury.  Hamilton wasted no time and worked all weekend to address immediate financial concerns and spent the next few years formulating the financial policies to engage in nation-building for the new republic.

As one of the primary authors of the Federalist and as a key delegate to the New York Ratifying Convention, Hamilton had been instrumental in winning ratification of the new Constitution strengthening the national government. During the 1790s, he would use the constitutional authority of that new government to build a lasting republic.

Hamilton’s visionary financial plan was the foundation of his nation-building in the 1790s. He wanted to establish the credit of the United States and encourage economic growth through a national bank. While he wanted to support a strong manufacturing base, he sought to integrate merchants, artisans, planters, farmers, and shippers from different sections of the country into a unified national economy.  Strong economic growth would allow the young republic to build a strong national security state to survive in a world of contending empires.  He believed that the soundness of the nation’s finances was essential for American prosperity and political stability for the national honor and future greatness.

The first part of the plan was to remedy the teetering financial footing of the new nation. President Washington thought the issue was of central importance to the new nation as he told Congress in his first State of the Union address. He said it was a “measure in which the character and permanent interests of the United States are so obviously and so deeply concerned.” In the fall, Congress had requested that the new treasury secretary submit a Report on Public Credit, which Hamilton did on January 14, 1790.

In the report, Hamilton wrote that the public debt totaled an estimated $79 million. He thought that it was a matter of national honor and natural law that the United States meet its financial obligations and the “punctual performance of contracts.” Practically, the good faith and respectability of the country was at stake.

A solid public credit in Hamilton’s estimation would result in many benefits. It would restore confidence in the United States. The country would enjoy lower interest rates and borrow on easier terms, freeing up capital for productive investment. The public credit would encourage domestic and foreign trade and thereby prosperity for all sectors of the economy. The public credit would “cement more closely the union of the states” and provide “security against foreign attack.”

The plan aroused a significant amount of opposition. The first major controversy was that some states had paid their Revolutionary War debts and others had not. Another source of contention was that many veterans had been paid in Continental securities but had sold the certificates when wartime inflation caused their value to drop. Speculators had bought them for ten or twenty cents on the dollar and would seemingly gain from gambling on the “distresses” of the soldiers.

Hamilton wanted to redeem the certificates of the current holders of the debt as a matter of contracts and justice. He also had a plan for the “assumption” of the state debts by the national government. He thought the costs of the war should be shared equally by all and wanted to empower the national government to collect the revenue to extinguish the debt gradually. He thought that “the proper funding of the present debt, will render it a national blessing” because it would restore the public credit and promote the productive engines of the American economy.

James Madison helped lead the opposition to the plan in the House of Representatives. He was particularly concerned by what he considered to be injustice against the Revolutionary War veterans who were supposedly victims of speculators. He also thought that a “public debt is a public curse.” Madison and other congressmen such as Representative William Maclay and Senator James Jackson used revolutionary ideology to criticize the proposal as encouraging rapacious speculators, vice, corruption, and political centralization that threatened republican self-government.

In late June, Thomas Jefferson hosted a dinner for Hamilton and Madison in which they helped to hammer out the Compromise of 1790 in which Hamilton won his financial plan and southerners won a capital in Washington, D.C. In July, after much debate and controversy, Congress eventually passed his plan for the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states as well as the tariffs and excise taxes he wanted gradually to extinguish the debt.

In December, Hamilton submitted another major part of his financial vision for the country with his Report on a National Bank. Congress more easily passed the National Bank to circulate currency and lend money to promote economic growth. Washington was unsure of the constitutionality of the bank and solicited opinions from his cabinet because he took seriously his presidential duty only to sign bills that were constitutional. He sided with Hamilton’s more expansive view of the Necessary and Proper Clause that the bank was related to several other congressional powers in Article I, Section 8.

In a few short years, Hamilton’s triumph was vindicated by a thriving, dynamic economy. Hamilton successfully used the federal government to provide stability and order to the financial system that allowed individuals to thrive in the private free market. In the 1790s, Hamilton and Washington established the finances of the new nation and shaped the American regime of republican liberty and self-government.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Craig Bruce Smith

From the United States capitol of New York City’s Federal Hall, Congress passed one of the earliest acts of the seven-months-old federal government: a pivotal piece of legislation for the defense of the new nation and its people.

Passed on September 29, 1789 and approved by President George Washington, the act legally formalized a national army. In so doing, the some hundred congressmen and senators formally rejected the deep Anglo-American fear of a standing army assuming dictatorial control.

Technically, this moment could be considered the birth of the modern US Army, as it was done under US Constitution of 1787 that we still follow today.[1] However, there were older variants of the army under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation. So when was the US Army actually born?

Wordily titled, “An Act to recognize and adapt to the constitution of the United States, the establishment of the troops raised under the resolves of the United States in Congress assembled and for other purposes,” the 1789 bill voted into tangible existence the military alluded to in the US Constitution.[2] Only ratified the previous year, the Constitution frequently refers to war (and a navy and militias), but only offers a single mention of an army in Article 2, Section 2, which outlines the powers of the executive branch. Without clearly creating any such organization, the document merely mentions: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”[3]

Though legally created in 1789, the US Army’s true roots begin earlier. The colonies had long embraced a tradition of local militias and maintained the deep fear of standing armies that affected the British Empire since the time of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War. But in the American Revolution, an army became a necessity to defend the people against British hostility.

On April 19, 1775, fighting between the British army and colonial militias broke out in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. It didn’t take long before Massachusetts patriot and future major general Dr. Joseph Warren wrote to the newly convened Second Continental Congress sitting in Philadelphia that British designs to “to ruin and destroy the inhabitants of this colony” had made “the establishment of an army indispensably necessary.” Warren pleaded with Congress “that a powerful Army, on the side of America” was “the only mean left to stem the rapid Progress of a tyrannical Ministry. Without a force, superior to our Enemies, we must reasonably expect to become the Victims of their relentless fury.”[4] Despite clearly linking the fighting in his home colony to the “Cause of America,” there was still debate about committing military support and the actual raising of an army. Was this really America’s war?

As colonial militias became a “New England Army” and the city of Boston was besieged, petitions of peace and questions of independence were considered by Congress, while they also made recommendations to logistically aid the colonial forces in Massachusetts and encouraged other colonies to do the same.[5] The term Continental Army was used as early as June 3, 1775, though no such organization formally existed.[6] Men like Warren and Massachusetts delegate John Adams had been adamant that the New England militias needed Congressional support. Warren wrote, clearly understanding Anglo-American fears of the unchecked authority of a standing army, “we tremble at having an army (although consisting of our countrymen) established here without a civil power to provide for and control them.”[7]

Finally, on June 14, 1775, Congress created the Continental Army out of a growing sense of unity and necessity. Congress also created an oath for soldiers and officers that placed the army under civilian governmental control: “I have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army…And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.”[8]

A five-person committee (George Washington, Philip Schuyler, Silas Deane, Thomas Cushing, and Joseph Hewes) was promptly assembled to create the named rules and regulations. The next day Colonel Washington, famed for his service in the French and Indian War, was “unanimously elected” and commissioned as the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief.[9] Though there were others who desired the post, Washington’s Virginian roots helped bridge a divide between the northern and southern colonies. While simultaneously declaring his reluctance to accept, Washington donned his military uniform and appeared in front of Congress to declare he was ready and willing to serve. Washington affirmed he would submit himself to congressional authority and “enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service and for the support of the glorious cause” of American liberty.[10]

Leaving immediately for Boston, Washington took command in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1775 shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Almost from his first moment in command, Washington constantly promoted civilian supremacy over the army and demanded “a due observance of those articles of war, established for the government of the army.”[11] In surrendering his commission back to Congress at the conclusion of the war in 1783 (along with the near complete demobilization of the army itself), he alleviated fears of a dictator backed by a standing army and firmly established the legacy of civilian supremacy. This is arguably the greatest moment in American history.

A year later on June 3, 1784, Congress resolved under the Articles of Confederation (America’s first constitution) to create the peacetime Regular Army comprised of only 700 men (also known as the First American Regiment) for the purpose of “securing and protecting the northwestern frontiers” after acquiring new lands from Britain after the Peace of Paris.[12] But the military proved ineffective under the Articles, because states had more power than the federal government. Partly in response to the failure of the government and its forces to suppress rural uprisings, such as in western Massachusetts’ Shays’ Rebellion, a new constitutional convention was called.

The 1789 congressional act continued the intent of the army as outlined in 1784 and 1775 as it was designed to “protect the inhabitant of the frontier” and “be governed by the rules and articles of war which have been established by the United States in Congress.”[13]

The act also created the oath of service that spelled out civilian supremacy and marked the military’s loyalty to the Constitution and the government — not to an individual: “…I will support the constitution of the United States…against all enemies…and to observe and obey the orders of the President.”[14] A variation of this oath still guides the Army today.[15]

A force of 700 soldiers unsurprisingly proved ineffective for the growing nation. In 1792, the army was again structurally reformed and enlarged as the Legion of the United States before finally adopting the name the “army of the United States” or US Army in 1796.[16]

So when was the Army as we know it today founded? 1775, 1784, 1789, 1792, or 1796? The answer depends on if you take a literal or spiritual interpretation.

Though legally created in 1789 under the current Constitution, the US Army instead chooses the spirit of liberty drawn from the American Revolution and the creation of the Continental Army. After all, it is these very ideals of liberty that continue to guide its soldiers and officers, and the entire nation.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower, former five-star general and Supreme Allied Commander, signed an executive order for the creation of a US Army flag that prominently featured the date “1775” and declared it a “suitable design and appropriate for adoption.”[17] Today, the US Army continues to celebrate June 14, 1775 as its official “birthday” with much fanfare, memorials, military balls, and cake.[18]

Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. For more information, visit or follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are that of the author and do not represent those of the Federal Government, the US Army, or Department of Defense.

[1] For more work on the history of the US Army, also used as references throughout this article: Matthew S. Muehlbauer and David J. Ulbrich. Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Routledge, 2014); Richard Stewart ED., American Military History. Volume I. (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 2009); David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), Ch. 1; Richard H. Kohn. Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802. (New York: Free Press, 1975); Allen R. Millett and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States. (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[2]“An Act to recognize and adapt to the constitution of the United States, the establishment of the troops raised under the resolves of the United States in Congress assembled and for other purposes,” 29 September 1789.

[3] US Constitution, 1787,

[4] Joseph Warren to the Continental Congress, 3 May 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress.

[5] John Adams, Autobiography, June-August 1775, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[6] “Saturday, June 3, 1775 and “Saturday, June 10, 1775,” Journals of the Continental Congress.

[7] Joseph Warren to the Continental Congress, 16 May 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress. bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00225)):; Adams, Autobiography.

[8] “Wednesday June 14, 1775,” Journals of the Continental Congress,

[9] “Thursday June 15, 1775,” Journals of the Continental Congress,

[10] George Washington, “Address to the Continental Congress,” 16 June 1775, Founders Online.

[11] General Orders, 4 July 1775, Founders Online.

[12] “Thursday, June 3, 1784,” Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 27, p. 530

[13] “An Act to recognize…the establishment of the troops…,”

[14] First Congress, Session I, Ch. 27. Resolutions, 1789 in The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America. (Boston: Little and Brown, 1845,) p. 95-96.

[15] US Army, “Oath of Enlistment,” and “Oath of Commissioned Officers,”

[16] A.J. Birtle. “The Origins of the Legion of the United States,” the Journal of Military History. (Vol. 67, No. 4, October 2003,) pp. 1249-1261; Fourth Congress, Session I, 1796,

[17] Dwight Eisenhower, 12 June 1756, Executive Order 10670, National Archives.

[18] John R. Maass, “June 14th: The Birthday of the U.S. Army,” US Army Center of Military History,; “Army Birthdays,”

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

Two weeks after the death of George Washington on December 14, 1799, his long-time friend General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee delivered a funeral oration to Congress that lauded the deceased as, “First in war- first in peace- and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.” The Jeffersonian newspaper of Philadelphia, The Aurora, had a rather different opinion than those countrymen. Sounding like his current counterparts in their sentiments about today’s President, the publisher declared on Washington’s retirement from office in 1797, “[T]his day ought to be a jubilee in the United States … for the man who is the source of all the misfortunes of our country, is this day reduced to a level with his fellow citizens.”

Each author likely could point to examples to buttress his case. Washington wore many hats in his public life, and his last service, as President from 1789 to 1797, had its shares of controversies. Washington kept his private life just that to his best abilities, with the result that it soon became mythologized. In public, Washington was reserved (or “dull,” to his detractors), dignified (or “stiff,” to his detractors), and self-disciplined. Yet his usually even-tempered nature occasionally flared, which few were willing to risk. According to Samuel Eliot Morison, during the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton bet Gouverneur Morris a dinner that the latter would not approach Washington, slap him on the back, and say, “How are you today, my dear General?” Morris, the convention’s jokester, took the bet, but after the look that Washington gave him upon the event, professed that he would never do so again for a thousand dinners. Washington’s formality had its limits. A Senate committee proposed that the official address to the President should be, “His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of the Rights of the Same.” The Senate rejected this effusive extravagance, and Washington was simply addressed as Mr. President.

On a later occasion, Morris wrote Washington, “No constitution is the same on paper and in life. The exercise of authority depends on personal character. Your cool, steady temper is indispensably necessary to give firm and manly tone to the new government.” Not only is this a correct observation about constitutions in general. A formal charter, the “Constitution” as law, is not all that describes how the political system actually operates, that is, the “constitution” as custom and practice. It is particularly true about Article II of the Constitution of 1787, which establishes the executive branch and delineates most of its powers. While some of those powers are set out precisely, others are ambiguous, such as the “executive power” and “commander-in-chief” clauses.

In several contributions to The Federalist, most thoroughly in No. 70, Hamilton explained how the Constitution created a unitary executive. He stressed the need for energy and for clarity of accountability that comes from such a system. In No. 67, he ridiculed “extravagant” misrepresentations and “counterfeit resemblances” by which opponents had sought to demonize the President as a potentate with royal prerogatives. Still, it has often been acknowledged that the Constitution sets up a potentially strong executive-style government. Justice Robert Jackson in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer in 1952 described the President’s real powers, “The Constitution does not disclose the measure of the actual controls wielded by the modern presidential office. That instrument must be understood as an Eighteenth-Century sketch of a government hoped for, not as a blueprint of the Government that is…. Executive power has the advantage of concentration in a single head in whose choice the whole Nation has a part, making him the focus of public hopes and expectations…. By his prestige as head of state and his influence upon public opinion, he exerts a leverage upon those who are supposed to check and balance his power which often cancels their effectiveness.” Washington was keenly aware of his groundbreaking role and used events during his time in office to define the constitutional boundaries of Article II and to shape the office of the President from this “sketch.”

Washington’s actions in particular controversies helped shape the contours of various ambiguous clauses in Article II of the Constitution. He shored up the consolidation of the executive branch into a “unitary” entity headed by the President and guarded its independence from the Congress. From the start, Washington was hamstrung by the absence of an administrative apparatus. The Confederation had officers and agents, but due to its circumscribed powers and lack of financial independence, it relied heavily on state officials to administer peacetime federal policy. The new Congress established various administrative departments, which quickly produced a controversy over the removal of federal officers. Would the President have this power exclusively, or would he have to receive Senate consent, as a parallel to the appointment power? The Constitution was silent. After much debate over the topic in the bill to establish the Departments of State and War, a closely-divided Congress assigned that power to the President alone. Some opponents of the law objected that the President already had that power as chief executive, and that the statute could be read as giving him that power only as a matter of legislative grace, to be withdrawn as Congress saw fit.

Even if this removal power was the President’s alone by implication from the executive power in Article II, the same analysis might not apply to other officers. Congress had been clear to note that the departments in the statute were closely tied to essential attributes of executive power, that is, foreign relations and control over the military during war. The position of the Treasury Secretary, on the other hand, was constitutionally much more ambiguous, given Congress’s preeminent role in fiscal matters. The Treasury Secretary was a sort of go-between who straddled Congress’s power over the purse and the President’s power to direct the administration of government. The law that created the Treasury Department required the Secretary to report to Congress and to “perform all such services relative to the finances, as he shall be directed to perform.”

This implied that the Secretary was responsible to Congress rather than the President. If followed with other departments, this would move the federal government in direction of a British-style parliamentary system and blur the separation of powers between the branches. Washington resisted that trend, but his victory in the removal question was incomplete. It was not until the Andrew Jackson administration that the matter was settled. Jackson removed two Treasury Secretaries who had refused his order to transfer government funds from the Second Bank of the United States. While the Senate censured him for assuming unconstitutional powers, Jackson’s position ultimately prevailed and the censure was later rescinded. Still, controversy over the removal of cabinet heads without Senatorial consent flared up again after the Civil War with the Tenure of Office Act of 1867 and led to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. It was not until 1926 in Myers v. U.S. that the Supreme Court acknowledged the President’s inherent removal power over executive officers.

A matter of much greater immediate controversy during the Washington administration was the President’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793. The country was in no position, militarily, to get between the two European powers fighting each other, Great Britain and the French Republic. To stave off pressure from both sides, and from their American partisans, to join their cause, Washington declared the United States to be neutral. Domestic critics charged that this invaded the powers of Congress. Hamilton, ever eager to defend executive power, wrote public “letters” under the appropriately clever pen name “Pacificus.” He set forth a very broad theory of implied powers derived from elastic clauses in Article II, primarily the executive power clause. In light of those powers and the President’s position as head of the executive branch, the President could do whatever he deemed necessary for the well-being of the country and its people, unless the Constitution expressly limited him or gave the claimed power to Congress. In this instance, until Congress declared war, Washington could declare peace.

Hamilton’s position made sense, especially as Congress met only a few weeks each year, while the President could respond to events more quickly. However, Hamilton did not go unchallenged. At the urging of Jefferson, a reluctant James Madison wrote his “Helviticus” letters that presented a much more constrained view of those same constitutional clauses. Hamilton’s asseverations have generally carried the day, although political struggles between Congress and the President over claimed executive excesses have punctuated our constitutional history and continue to serve as flashpoints today. Hamilton’s theory, and Washington’s application thereof, cemented the “unitary executive” conception of the presidency.

While generally silent on foreign affairs, the Constitution does address treaties. The power to make treaties was part of the federative power of the British monarch. Thus, at least from Hamilton’s perspective, the President could conduct foreign affairs and make treaties as the sole representative of the country. However, constitutional limits must be observed. Thus, the Senate has an “advice and consent” role. Originally, this was understood to require the President to consult with the Senate on negotiating treaties before he actually made one.

Washington tried this approach early in his administration. He and Secretary of War Henry Knox appeared before the Senate to discuss pending treaty negotiations with the Creek Indians. Rather than engaging the President and Knox, the Senate referred the matter to a committee. Washington angrily left, declaring, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here.” Twice more he sent messages to get advice on negotiations. Receiving no responses, Washington gave up even those efforts. Since then, Presidents have made treaties without prior formal consultation with the Senate. The Senate’s role now is to approve or reject treaties through its “consent” function. Of course, informal discussions with individual Senators may occur. The Senate’s similar formal advice role for appointments of federal officers likewise has atrophied.

Washington also used constitutional tools to participate effectively in domestic policy. For one, the Constitution obliged the President to deliver to Congress from time to time information on the state of the union and to recommend proposals. Washington used this opportunity for an annual report that he presented in person at the opening of each session of Congress. Presidents have continued this tradition, although, beginning with Jefferson, they no longer appeared personally until Woodrow Wilson revived the practice.

Another such tool was the President’s qualified veto over legislation. A potentially powerful mechanism for executive dominance, early Presidents used it sparingly. The controversy was over the permissible basis of a veto. Could it be used for any reason, such as political disagreement with the legislation’s policy, or only for constitutional qualms? Washington sympathized with the latter position, advocated by Jefferson. On that ground, he first vetoed an apportionment of the House of Representatives in 1791 that he believed violated the Constitution’s prohibition against giving a state more than one representative for every 30,000 inhabitants. Andrew Jackson eventually used the veto for purely political reasons, which has become the modern practice.

One more constitutional evolution that Washington set in motion involved government secrecy and the President’s right to withhold information from Congress and the courts, a doctrine known as “executive privilege.” It appears nowhere in the Constitution, but was recognized under the common law. There are two broad aspects to this doctrine. One is to protect the confidentiality of communications between the President and his executive branch subordinates. The other is to guard state secrets in the interest of national and military security. Again, under Hamilton’s implied powers, the President needs such privilege to carry out the duties of his office and to protect the independence of the executive branch. Two events during Washington’s administration gave an early shape to this doctrine.

In October, 1791, General Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory took 2,000 men, including the entire regular army plus several hundred militia, to build a fort to counter attacks by an alliance of Indian tribes supported by the British. On November 4, St. Clair’s force, down to about 920 from desertion and illness, was surprised by the Indians and suffered 900 casualties in the rout, the great majority of them killed. The Indians also killed the 200 camp followers, including wives and children, in what became the worst defeat of the American army by Indians. To no one’s surprise, the House ordered an inquiry and sought various documents from the War Department relating to the campaign.

Washington consulted his cabinet in what was perhaps the first meeting of the entire body. With the cabinet’s agreement, Washington refused to turn over most of the requested documents on the ground that they must be kept secret for the public good. Thus was the state secrets doctrine incorporated into American constitutional government. A committee in the House eventually exonerated St. Clair and blamed the rout on poor planning and equipping of the force. The defeat of St. Clair was reversed by General Anthony Wayne with a larger force of 2,000 regulars and 700 militia in August, 1794, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. That victory produced a peace treaty, which ended the Indian threat.

The second occurred when the House demanded that the administration disclose to them the instructions Washington had given to American negotiators regarding the unpopular Jay Treaty of 1794 with Great Britain. The President declined on grounds of confidentiality, relying on the Constitution’s placement of the treaty power in the President and Senate. The flaw with Washington’s argument was that the House had to appropriate funds required by the treaty. The House insisted on receiving the documents to carry out its constitutional appropriations function. Washington stood his ground, and the House grudgingly dropped the matter.

Any overview of the Washington administration requires at least a brief mention of the influence of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had long enjoyed Washington’s support, well before he became Secretary of the Treasury. His influence was well-earned. It is not uncommon for historians to refer to the United States of the 1790s as Hamilton’s Republic. Perhaps his signal achievement were his reports on the public credit and on manufactures, which Congress had asked him to prepare. The former, which he submitted on January 14, 1790, recommended that the foreign and domestic debt of the United States be paid off at full value, rather than at the depreciated levels at which the notes were then trading. As well, the United States would assume the states’ outstanding debts. The entirety would be funded at par by newly-issued bonds paying 6% interest. Import duties and excise taxes imposed under Congress’s new taxing power would provide the source to pay the interest and principal. Congress narrowly approved Hamilton’s proposal after he struck a deal with Jefferson that would place the new national capital in the South in 1800. The foreign debt was paid off in 1795 and the domestic debt forty years later.

The plan also established the Bank of the United States, modeled broadly on the Bank of England and the abortive Bank of North America, a venture by Robert Morris and Hamilton under the Articles of Confederation. Among other functions, the Bank would stabilize monetary excesses and protect American credit rating. Congress approved the Bank Bill in February, 1791. Hamilton’s recommendations in his Report on Manufactures, presented at the end of 1791, were not accepted by Congress. They eventually became the foundation for protectionist policies in favor of nascent domestic industries in the nineteenth century.

Washington’s last contribution to American constitutional development was his refusal to serve more than two terms. He had agreed only reluctantly even to that second term. His retirement was not the first time he had left office voluntarily even though he had sufficient standing to retain power. Years earlier, he had surrendered his command of the Army to Congress at the end of the Revolutionary War. The Constitution was silent on presidential term limits. Indeed, Hamilton had argued against them in The Federalist. By leaving the Presidency after eight years, Washington established the two-term custom that was not violated until Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election. Fear of such “third-termites,” made worse by FDR’s election to a fourth term, soon produced the 22nd Amendment, which formalized the two-term custom.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

"We The Future" Contest Best Middle School Song, Composed by Daniela Staton

A new country needs rules they say

To govern and protect the people

So our founders back in 1787

Created the rules that affect us today


The Constitution explains how our government works

Each part with a specific role

Three branches to check and balance each other, with

Legislative, Judicial, Executive


Our Constitution is the foundation

That binds us and allows us to be free

We have many different rights

To help us live peacefully.


So important is how our Constitution changes

Amendments are the primary way

That reflect how our nation rearranges

So that every person has a say


The first ten of these amendments are the Bill of Rights

These allow us to freely speak,

Choose our own religion

And give us the basic foundation so not be weak


They give us the right to bear arms to protect ourselves,

The right to peacefully assemble to let our voices be heard

The right against unreasonable searches or seizures

The right to a speedy and public trial


Our Constitution is the foundation

That binds us and allows us to be free

We have many different rights

To help us live peacefully.




Guest Essayist: James D. Best

James Madison took extensive notes during the Constitutional Convention. Monday, September 17, 1787 would be his last entry because the signing ceremony would be the final act of the convention. Many had doubted that the day would ever arrive.

For four months, delegates had been locked in a hot, closed room full of sweaty overdressed men. Swarms of horseflies frequently added to the discomfort that had heightened disputes. Acrimonious would be a polite description of the proceeding. Despite the hardships and ill-temper, the delegates stayed and stayed until they eventually hammered out a compromise they could accept.

A reverential spirit suffused the assembly that Monday. The chamber remained hushed as the secretary read the engrossed constitution in its entirety. At the conclusion, Franklin gave a short speech before declaring, “I move the constitution signed.”

Washington formally called on the delegates to sign the Constitution. For this momentous occasion, the secretary had set out the Syng inkstand used to sign the Declaration of Independence. Washington walked around the green baize-covered table to sign first. He then called the states from north to south. The delegates remained silent and respectful as they approached the low dais to apply their signatures to a document they hoped would permanently bind the country. Ratification was far from a certainty. As one of the delegates pointed out, the country remained at May 25th while the delegates had evolved through endless debates until they reached a consensus. When revealed to the general populous, the Constitution would come as a surprise.

Two Benjamin Franklin anecdotes have symbolized the ceremony for countless generations. Both are documented. The first appears in Madison’s notes and the second is described in the diary of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention.

Despite his illness, Franklin had remained standing after he signed, shaking hands with delegates and whispering an occasional aside.

While the last members were signing, Franklin raised his voice. “Gentlemen, have you observed the half sun painted on the back of the President’s chair? Artists find it difficult to distinguish a rising from a setting sun. In these many months, I have been unable to tell which it was. Now, I’m happy to exclaim that it is a rising, not a setting sun.”

Once the last signature was in place, everyone was anxious to leave the chamber that had dominated their life for so many months. Besides, one of the delegates was hosting a celebratory dinner at the City Tavern.

Because of the momentous day, an enfeebled Franklin had abandoned his rented prisoners who normally carried him to and from the chamber. He insisted on walking out of the State House. Washington took a point position in front of Franklin, who was helped by delegates at each elbow.

As the sentries threw open the doors, the delegates were assaulted by bright sunlight and a deafening roar. Hundreds of people cheered, clapped, and whistled at the sight of General George Washington framed by the great double doors of the State House. The sentries had skipped down the three steps and joined arms to hold back the surge of people. A rambunctious session on Saturday had informed Philadelphians that the convention had concluded its business.

As Franklin followed in Washington footsteps, the people continued to cheer and applaud. A woman leaned in to yell, “Dr. Franklin, what is it to be? A republic or a monarchy?”

His answer came in a firm, loud voice. “A republic—if you can keep it.”

James Madison wrote, “The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable, and perhaps the world has lost little it should regret. But the origins of the American Republic contain lessons of which posterity ought not to be deprived.”

Throughout history, new nations have come into being because of conquering armies, internal rebellion, or the edict of a great power. Although the United States of America was conceived in revolt, our governing institutions were born in calm reason. Our Constitution comes from a convention and ratification process where reasoned debate eventually led to a decision by a large segment of the population to put a new government in place.

The Founding of this great nation was unique. Until 1776, with a few brief exceptions, world history was about rulers and empires. The American experiment shook the world. Not only did we break away from the biggest and most powerful empire in history, we took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and implemented them. Our Founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny, and a revolution of ideas—ideas that changed the world.

That is why we still care about America’s founding and the Framers of our Constitution.

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, Lessons From the Origins of the American Republic, and the Steve Dancy Tales

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.