Guest Essayist: Tony Williams
Ronald Reagan Speech, Brandenburg Gate & Berlin Wall 1987

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – Ronald Reagan

After World War II, a Cold War erupted between the world’s two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. Germany was occupied and then divided after the war as was its capital, Berlin. The Soviet Union erected the Berlin Wall in 1961 as a symbol of the divide between East and West in the Cold War and between freedom and tyranny.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the superpowers entered into a period of détente or decreasing tensions. However, the Soviet Union took advantage of détente to use revenue from rising oil prices and arms sales to engage in a massive arms build-up, supported communist insurrections in developing nations around the globe, and invaded Afghanistan.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 during a time of foreign-policy reversals including the Vietnam War and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. He blamed détente for strengthening and emboldening the Soviets and sought to improve American strength abroad.

As president, Reagan instituted a tough stance towards the Soviets that was designed to reverse their advances and win the Cold War. His administration supported the Polish resistance movement known as Solidarity, increased military spending, started the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and armed resistance fighters around the world, including the mujahideen battling a Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.

Reagan had a long history of attacking communist states and the idea of communism itself that shaped his strategic outlook. In the decades after World War II, like many Americans, he was concerned about Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe spreading elsewhere. In 1952, Reagan compared communism to Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism characterized by a powerful state that limited individual freedoms.

“We have met [the threat] back through the ages in the name of every conqueror that has ever set upon a course of establishing his rule over mankind,” he said. “It is simply the idea, the basis of this country and of our religion, the idea of the dignity of man, the idea that deep within the heart of each one of us is something so godlike and precious that no individual or group has a right to impose his or its will upon the people.”

In a seminal televised speech in 1964 called “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan stated that he believed there could be no accommodation with the Soviets. “We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we are willing to make a deal with your slave-masters.’”

Reagan targeted the Berlin Wall as a symbol of communism in a 1967 televised town hall debate with Robert Kennedy. “I think it would be very admirable if the Berlin Wall should…disappear,” Reagan said, “We just think that a wall that is put up to confine people, and keep them within their own country…has to be somehow wrong.”

In 1978, Reagan visited the wall and heard the story of Peter Fechter, one of hundreds who were shot by East German police while trying to escape to freedom over the Berlin Wall. As a result, Reagan told an aide, “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic.  It is this: We win and they lose.”

As president, he continued his unrelenting attack on the idea of communism according to his moral vision of the system.  In a 1982 speech to the British Parliament, he predicted that communism would end up “on the ash heap of history,” and that the wall was “the signature of the regime that built it.”  When he visited the wall during the same trip, he stated that “It’s as ugly as the idea behind it.” In a 1983 speech, he referred to the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

Reagan went to West Berlin to speak during a ceremony commemorating the 750th anniversary of the city and faced a choice. He could confront the Soviets about the wall, or he could deliver a speech without controversy.

In June 1987, many officials in his administration and West Germany were opposed to any provocative words or actions during the anniversary speech. Many Germans also did not want Reagan to deliver his speech anywhere near the wall and feared anything that might be perceived as an aggressive signal. Secretary of State George Schultz and Chief of Staff Howard Baker questioned the speech and asked the president and his speechwriters to tone down the language. Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Powell and other members of the National Security Council wanted to alter the speech and offered several revisions. Reagan demanded to speak next to the Berlin Wall and determined that he would use the occasion to confront the threat the wall posed to human freedom.

Reagan and his team arrived in West Berlin on June 12. He spoke to reporters and nervous German officials, telling them, “This is the only wall that has ever been built to keep people in, not keep people out.” Meanwhile, in East Berlin, the German secret police and Russian KGB agents cordoned off an area a thousand yards wide opposite the spot where Reagan was to speak on the other side of the wall. They wanted to ensure that no one could hear the message of freedom.

Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate with the huge, imposing wall in the background. “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.”

Reagan challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev directly, stating, “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

He finished by predicting the wall would not endure because it stood for oppression and tyranny. “This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” No one imagined that the Berlin Wall would fall only two years later on November 9, 1989, as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe.

A year later, Reagan was at a summit with Gorbachev in Moscow and addressed the students at Moscow State University. “The key is freedom,” Reagan boldly and candidly told them. “It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream – to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters.” Ronald Reagan believed that he had a responsibility to bring an end to the Cold War and destroy all nuclear weapons to benefit both the United States as well as the world for an era of peace. He dedicated himself to achieving this goal. Partly due to these efforts, the Berlin Wall fell by 1989, and communism collapsed in the Soviet Union by 1991.

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. 

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

On March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman delivered a speech advocating assistance to Greece and Turkey to resist communism as part of the early Cold War against the Soviet Union. The speech enunciated the Truman Doctrine, which led to a departure from the country’s traditional foreign policy to a more expansive direction in global affairs.

Truman said, “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Protecting the free world against communist expansion became the basis for the policy of Cold War containment.

The United States fought a major war in Korea in the early 1950s to halt the expansion of communism in Asia especially after the loss of China in 1949. Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower had resisted the French appeal to intervene in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States gradually increased its commitment and sent thousands of military advisers and billions of dollars in financial assistance over the next decade.

In the summer of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was in the midst of a presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater and pushing his Great Society legislative program through Congress. He did not want to allow foreign affairs to imperil either and downplayed increased American involvement in the war.

Administration officials were quietly considering bombing North Vietnam or sending ground troops to interdict the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the United States Navy was running covert operations in the waters off North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.

On August 2, the destroyer USS Maddox and several U.S. fighter jets from a nearby carrier exchanged fire with some North Vietnamese gunboats. The U.S. warned North Vietnam that further “unprovoked” aggression would have “grave consequences.” The USS Turner Joy was dispatched to patrol with the Maddox.

On August 4, the Maddox picked up multiple enemy radar contacts in severe weather, but no solid proof confirmed the presence of the enemy. Whatever the uncertainty related to the event, the administration proceeded as if a second attack had definitely occurred. It immediately ordered a retaliatory airstrike and sought a congressional authorization of force. President Johnson delivered a national television address and said, “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met….we seek no wider war.”

On August 7, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution which authorized the president “to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” The House passed the joint resolution unanimously, and the Senate passed it with only two dissenting votes.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution became the basis for fighting the Vietnam War. World War II remained the last congressional declaration of war.

President Johnson had promised the electorate that he would not send “American boys to fight a war Asian boys should fight for themselves.” However, the administration escalated the war over the next several months.

On February 7, 1965, the Viet Cong launched an attack on the American airbase at Pleiku. Eight Americans were killed and more than one hundred wounded. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara used the incident to expand the American commitment significantly but sought a piecemeal approach that would largely avoid a contentious public debate over American intervention.

Within a month, American ground troops were introduced into Vietnam as U.S. Marines went ashore and were stationed at Da Nang to protect an airbase there. The president soon authorized deployment of thousands more troops. In April, he approved Operation Rolling Thunder which launched a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

It did not take long for the Marines to establish offensive operations against the communists. The Marines initiated search and destroy missions to engage the Viet Cong. They fought several battles with the enemy, requiring the president to send more troops.

In April 1965, the president finally explained his justification for escalating the war, which included the Cold War commitment to the free world. He told the American people, “We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure.”

As a result, Johnson progressively sent more and more troops to fight in Vietnam until there were 565,000 troops in 1968. The Tet Offensive in late January 1968 was a profound shock to the American public which had received repeated promises of progress in the war. Even though U.S. forces recovered from the initial shock and won on overwhelming military victory that effectively neutralized the Viet Cong and devastated North Vietnamese Army forces, President Johnson was ruined politically and announced he would not run for re-election. His “credibility gap” contributed to growing distrust of government and concern about an unlimited and unchecked “imperial presidency” soon made worse by Watergate.

The Vietnam War contributed to profound division on the home front. Hundreds of thousands of Americans from across the spectrum protested American involvement in Vietnam. Young people from the New Left were at the center of teach-ins and demonstrations on college campuses across the country. The Democratic Party was shaken by internal convulsions over the war, and conservatism dominated American politics for a generation culminating in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Eventually, more than 58,000 troops were lost in the war. The Cold War consensus on containment suffered a dislocation, and a Vietnam syndrome affected morale in the U.S. military and contributed to significant doubts about the projection of American power abroad. American confidence recovered in the 1980s as the United States won the Cold War, but policymakers have struggled to define the purposes of American foreign policy with the rise of new global challenges in the post-Cold War 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. 

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was a geopolitical struggle around the globe characterized by an ideological contest between capitalism and communism, and a nuclear arms race. An important part of the Cold War was the space race which became a competition between the two superpowers.

Each side sought to be the first to achieve milestones in the space race and used the achievements for propaganda value in the Cold War. The Soviet launch of the satellite, Sputnik, while a relatively modest accomplishment, became a symbolically important event that triggered and defined the dawn of the space race. The space race was one of the peaceful competitions of the Cold War and pushed the boundaries of the human imagination.

The Cold War nuclear arms race helped lead to the development of rocket technology that made putting humans into space a practical reality in a short time. Only 12 years after the Russians launched a satellite into orbit around the Earth, Americans sent astronauts to walk on the moon.

The origins of Sputnik and spaceflight occurred a few decades before World War II, with the pioneering flights of liquid-fueled rockets in the United States and Europe. American Robert Goddard launched one from a Massachusetts farm in 1926 and continued to develop the technology on a testing range in New Mexico in the 1930s. Meanwhile, Goddard’s research influenced the work of German rocketeer Hermann Oberth who fired the first liquid-fueled rocket in Europe in 1930 and dreamed of spaceflight. In Russia, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky developed the idea of rocket technology, and his ideas influenced Sergei Korolev in the 1930s.

The greatest advance in rocket technology took place in Nazi Germany, where Werner von Braun led efforts to build V-2 and other rockets that could hit England and terrorize civilian populations when launched from continental Europe. Hitler’s superweapons never had the decisive outcome for victory as he hoped, but the rockets had continuing military and civilian applications.

At the end of the war, Russian and Allied forces raced to Berlin as the Nazi regime collapsed in the spring of 1945. Preferring to surrender to the Americans because of the Red Army’s well-deserved reputation for brutality, von Braun and his team famously surrendered to Private Fred Schneikert and his platoon. They turned over 100 unfinished V-2 rockets and 14 tons of spare parts and blueprints to the Americans who whisked the scientists, rocketry, and plans away just days before the Soviet occupation of the area.

In Operation Paperclip, the Americans secretly brought thousands of German scientists and engineers to the United States including more than 100 German rocket scientists from Von Braun’s team to the United States. The operation was controversial because of Nazi Party affiliations, but few were rabid devotees to Nazi ideology, and their records were cleared. The Americans did not want them contributing to Soviet military production and brought them instead to Texas and then to Huntsville, Alabama, to develop American rocket technology as part of the nuclear arms race to build immense rockets to carry nuclear warheads. Within a decade, both sides had intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in their arsenals.

During the next decade, the United States developed various missile systems producing rockets of incredible size, thrust, and speed that could travel large distances. Interservice rivalry meant that the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force developed and built their own competing rocket systems including the Redstone, Vanguard, Jupiter-C, Polaris, and Atlas rockets. Meanwhile, the Soviets were secretly building their own R-7 missiles erected as a cluster rather than staged rocket.

On October 4, 1957, the Russians shocked Americans by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. Sputnik was a metal sphere weighing 184 pounds that emitted a beeping sound to Earth that was embarrassingly picked up by U.S. global tracking stations. The effort was not only part of the Cold War, but also the International Geophysical Year in which scientists from around the world formed a consortium to share information on highly active solar flares and a host of other scientific knowledge. However, both the Soviets and Americans were highly reluctant to share any knowledge that might have relationship to military technology.

While American intelligence had predicted the launch, Sputnik created a wave of panic and near hysteria. Although President Dwight Eisenhower was publicly unconcerned because the United States was preparing its own satellite, the American press, the public, and Congress were outraged, fearing the Russians were spying on them or could rain down nuclear weapons from space. Moreover, it seemed as if the Americans were falling behind the Soviets. Henry Jackson, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington, called Sputnik “a devastating blow to the United States’ scientific, industrial, and technical prestige in the world.” Sputnik initiated the space race between the United States and Soviet Union as part of the Cold War superpower rivalry.

A month later, the Soviets sent a dog named Laika into space aboard Sputnik II. Although the dog died because it only had life support systems for a handful of days, the second successful orbiting satellite—this one carrying a living creature—further humiliated Americans even if they humorously dubbed it “Muttnik.”

The public relations nightmare was further exacerbated by the explosion of a Vanguard rocket carrying a Navy satellite at the Florida Missile Test Range on Patrick Air Force Base on Cape Canaveral. on December 6. The event was aired on television and watched by millions. The launch was supposed to restore pride in American technology, but it was an embarrassing failure. The press had a field-day and labeled it “Kaputnik” and “Flopnik.”

On January 31, 1958, Americans finally had reason to cheer when a Jupiter-C rocket lifted off and went into orbit carrying a thirty-one-pound satellite named Explorer. The space race was now on and each side competed to be the first to accomplish a goal. The space race also had significant impacts upon American society.

In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to spend more money to promote science, math, and engineering education at all levels. To signal its peaceful intentions, Congress also created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a civilian organization to lead the American efforts in space exploration, whereas the Russian program operated as part of the military.

In December 1958, NASA announced Project Mercury with the purpose of putting an astronaut in space which would be followed by Projects Gemini and Apollo which culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. The space race was an important part of the Cold War and also about the spirit of human discovery and pushing the frontiers of knowledge and space.

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. 

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In 1919, Dwight Eisenhower was part of a U.S. Army caravan of motor vehicles traveling across the country as a publicity stunt. The convoy encountered woeful and inadequate roads in terrible condition. The journey took two months by the time it was completed.

When Eisenhower was in Germany after the end of World War II, he was deeply impressed by the Autobahn because of its civilian and military applications. The experiences were formative in shaping Eisenhower’s thinking about developing a national highway system in the United States. He later said, “We must build new roads,” and asked Congress for “forward looking action.”

As president, Eisenhower generally held to the postwar belief called “Modern Republicanism.” This meant that while he did not support a massive increase in spending on the federal New Deal welfare state, he would also not roll it back. He was a fiscal conservative who supported decreased federal spending and balanced budgets, but he advocated a national highway system as a massive public infrastructure project to facilitate private markets and economic growth.

The postwar consumer culture was dominated by the automobile. Americans loved their large cars replete with large tail fins and abundant amounts of chrome. By 1960, 80 percent of American families owned a car. American cars symbolized their geographical mobility, consumer desires, and global industrial predominance. They needed a modern highway system to get around the sprawling country. By 1954, President Eisenhower was ready to pitch the idea of a national highway system to Congress and the states. He called it, “The biggest peacetime construction project of any description every undertaken by the United States or any other country.”

In July, Eisenhower dispatched his vice-president, Richard Nixon, to the meeting of Governors’ Conference to win support. The principle of federalism was raised with many states in opposition to federal control and taxes.

That same month, the president asked his friend, General Lucius Clay, who was an engineer by training and supervised the occupation of postwar Germany, to manage the planning of the project and present it to Congress. He organized the President’s Advisory on a National Highway Program.

The panel held hearings and spoke to a variety of experts and interests including engineers, financiers, construction and trucking companies, and labor unions. Based upon the information it amassed, the panel put together a plan by January 1955.

The plan proposed 41,000 miles of highway construction at an estimated cost of $101 billion over ten years. It recommended the creation of a federal highway corporation that would use 30-year bonds to finance construction. There would be a gas tax but no tolls or federal taxes. A bill was written based upon the terms of the plan.

The administration sent the bill to Congress the following month, but a variety of interests expressed opposition to the bill. Southern members of Congress, for example, were particularly concerned about federal control because it might set a precedent for challenging segregation. Eisenhower and his allies pushed hard for the bill and used the Cold War to sell the bill as a means of facilitating evacuation from cities in case of a nuclear attack. The bill passed the Senate but then stalled in the House where it died during the congressional session.

The administration reworked the bill and sent it to Congress again. The revised proposal created a Highway Trust Fund that would be funded and replenished with taxes primarily on gasoline, diesel oil, and tires. No federal appropriations would be used for interstate highways.

The bill passed both houses of Congress in May and June 1956, and the president triumphantly signed the bill into the law creating the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways on June 29.

The interstate highway system transformed the landscape of the United States in the postwar period. It linked the national economy, markets, and large cities together. It contributed to the growth of suburban America as commuters could now drive their cars to work in cities or consumers could drive to shopping malls. Tourists could travel expeditiously to vacations at distant beaches, national parks, and amusement parks like Disneyland. Cheap gas, despite the taxes to fund the highways, was critical to travel along the interstates.

The interstate highway system later became entwined in national debates over energy policy in the 1970s when OPEC embargoed oil to the United States. Critics said gas-guzzling cars should be replaced by more efficient cars or public transportation, that American love of cars contributed significantly to the degradation of the environment, and that America had reached an age of limits.

The creation of the interstate highway system was a marvel of American postwar prosperity and contributed to its unrivaled affluence. It also symbolized some of the challenges Americans faced. Both the success of  completing the grand public project and the ability to confront and solve new challenges represented the American 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.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

The fall of 1939 saw dramatic changes in world events that would alter the course of history. On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland to trigger the start of World War II but imperial Japan had been ravaging Manchuria and China for nearly a decade. Even though the United States was officially neutral in the world war, President Franklin Roosevelt had an important meeting in mid-October.

Roosevelt met with his friend, Alexander Sachs, who hand-delivered a letter from scientists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard. They informed the president that German scientists had recently discovered fission and might possibly be able to build a nuclear bomb. The warning prompted Roosevelt to initiate research into the subject and beat the Nazis.

The United States entered the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the Roosevelt administration began the highly secretive Manhattan Project in October 1942. The project had facilities in far-flung places and employed the efforts of more than half a million Americans across the country. The weapons research laboratory resided in Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

As work progressed on a nuclear weapon, the United States waged a global war in the Pacific, North Africa, and Europe. The Pacific witnessed a particularly brutal war against Japan. After the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the Americans launched an “island-hopping” campaign. They were forced to eliminate a tenacious and dug-in enemy in heavy jungles in distant places like Guadalcanal. The Japanese forces gained a reputation for suicidal banzai charges and fighting to the last man.

By late 1944, the United States was closing in on Japan and invaded the Philippines. The U.S. Navy won the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but the Japanese desperately launched kamikaze attacks that inflicted a heavy toll, sinking and damaging several ships and causing thousands of American casualties. The nature of the attacks helped confirm the Americans believed they were fighting a fanatical enemy.

The battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa greatly shaped American views of Japanese barbarism. Iwo Jima was a key island for airstrips to bomb Japan and U.S. naval assets as they built up for the invasion of Japan. On February 19, 1945, the Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions landed mid-island after a massive preparatory bombardment. After a dreadful slog against an entrenched enemy, the Marines took Mt. Suribachi and famously raised an American flag on its heights.

The worst was yet to come against the nearly 22,000-man garrison in a complex network of tunnels. The brutal fighting was often hand-to-hand. The Americans fought for each yard of territory by using grenades, satchel charges, and flamethrowers to attack pillboxes. The Japanese fought fiercely and sent waves of hundreds of men in banzai charges. The Marines and Navy lost 7,000 dead and nearly one-third of the Marines who fought on the island were casualties. Almost all the defenders perished.

The battle for Okinawa was just as bloody. Two Marine and two Army divisions landed unopposed on Okinawa on April 1 after another relatively ineffective bombardment and quickly seized two airfields. The Japanese built nearly impregnable lines of defense, but none was stronger than the southern Shuri line of fortresses where 97,000 defenders awaited.

The Marines and soldiers attacked in several frontal assaults and were ground up by mine fields, grenades, and pre-sighted machine-guns and artillery covering every inch. For their part, the Japanese launched several fruitless attacks that bled them dry. The war of attrition finally ended with 13,000 Americans dead and 44,000 wounded. On the Japanese side, more than 70,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians were killed. The naval battle in the waters surrounding the island witnessed kamikaze and bombing attacks that sank 28 U.S. ships and damaged an additional 240.

Okinawa was an essential staging area for the invasion of Japan and additional proof of the fanatical nature of the enemy. Admiral Chester Nimitz, General Douglas MacArthur, and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were planning Operation Downfall—the invasion of Japan—beginning with Operation Olympic in southern Japan in the fall of 1945 with fourteen divisions and twenty-eight aircraft carriers, followed by Operation Coronet in central Japan in early 1946.

While the U.S. naval blockade and aerial bombing of Japan were very successful in grinding down the enemy war machine, Japanese resistance was going to be even stronger and more fanatical than Iwo Jim and Okinawa. The American planners expected to fight a horrific war against the Japanese forces, kamikaze attacks, and a militarized civilian population. Indeed, the Japanese reinforced Kyushu with thirteen divisions of 450,000 entrenched men by the end of July and had an estimated 10,000 aircraft at their disposal. Japan was committed to a decisive final battle defending its home. Among U.S. military commanders, only MacArthur underestimated the difficulty of the invasion as he was wont to do.

Harry Truman succeeded Roosevelt as president when he died on April 12, 1945. Besides the burdens of command decisions in fighting the war to a conclusion, holding together a fracturing alliance with the Soviets, and shaping the postwar world, Truman learned about the Manhattan Project.

While some of the scientists who worked on the project expressed grave concerns about the use of the atomic bomb, most decision-makers expected that it would be used if it were ready. Secretary of War Henry Stimson headed the Interim Committee that considered the use of the bomb. The committee rejected the idea of a demonstration or a formal warning to the Japanese in case it failed and strengthened their resolve.

On the morning of July 16, the “gadget” nuclear device was successfully exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The test was code-name “Trinity,” and word was immediately sent to President Truman then at the Potsdam Conference negotiating the postwar world. He was ecstatic and tried to use it to impress Stalin, who impassively received the news because he had several spies in the Manhattan project. The Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding unconditional surrender from Japan or face “complete and utter destruction.”

After possible targets were selected, the B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, carried the uranium atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy from Tinian Island. The Enola Gay dropped Little Boy over Hiroshima, where the blast and resulting firestorm killed 70,000 and grievously injured and sickened tens of thousands of others. The Japanese government still adamantly refused to surrender.

On August 9, another B-29 dropped the plutonium bomb Fat Man over Nagasaki which was a secondary target. Heavy cloud cover meant that the bomb was dropped in a valley that restricted the effect of the blast somewhat. Still, approximately 40,000 were killed. The dropping of the second atomic bombs and the simultaneous invasion of Manchukuo by the Soviet Union led to the Emperor Hirohito to announce Japan’s surrender on August 15. The formal surrender took place on the USS Missouri on September 2.

General MacArthur closed the ceremony with a moving speech in which he said,

It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice…. Let us pray that peace now be restored to the world, and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.

World War II had ended, but the Cold War and atomic age began.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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After the Revolutionary War, Americans flooded the frontier beyond the Appalachian Mountains in search of land and greater opportunity. The path for settlement was rooted in republican ideals and resulted in one of the greatest successes of the government under the Articles of Confederation.

One of the most important developments in settling the West was the states ceding their western land claims to the nation. For example, in 1781, Virginia ceded its claims to the territory north of the Ohio River to Congress, and other states quickly followed.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Ordinance of 1784, which was considered and adopted by the Congress. The land ordinance established the principles of making new territories entering into the Union equal to the original thirteen states and guaranteeing the new states a republican form of government.

Jefferson included a clause that would have forever banned slavery in the western territories, but it narrowly lost by a single vote. Reflecting on its failure, Jefferson wrote a few years later: “The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime; heaven will not always be silent; the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail.”

The following year, Congress adopted the Land Ordinance of 1785 which specified how the land in the Northwest Territory would be disposed of and divided as a model of orderly western settlement. The ordinance stated that the land was to be surveyed and then divided into townships and farms to shape civil society and individual land ownership. Land purchases were to be paid to the national government to provide revenue, especially to help retire the national debt. Communities would establish public schools to educate the citizens in knowledge and the virtues of republican citizenship.

In July 1787, while delegates were meeting at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, representatives of several land companies lobbied the Congress in New York for land grants to settle the Northwest Territory. New England minister Manassah Cutler of the Ohio Company and New York speculator William Duer of the Scioto Company paid for large tracts of land of millions of acres.

On July 13, Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance to establish government along republican principles for the territory. The document authorized the territory to be carved into three to five states. It provided a path to statehood and reaffirmed the idea that the new states would enter the Union equally with the other states.

The process for statehood started with Congress appointing a governor and council to govern a territory until the population for the territory reached 5,000. The people could then elect a representative assembly through free and frequent elections. When the population included 60,000 settlers, the territory could adopt a constitution and apply to Congress for statehood.

The Northwest Ordinance was rooted in republican government and natural rights as the foundation for just laws. “For extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions are erected; to fix and establish those principles as the basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments,” it declared.

Another republican measure included in the ordinance was the banning of primogeniture. The document thus prevented an aristocracy of land passed through the generations of first-born sons. Instead, it supported the principle of equality.

The ordinance specifically protected several individual liberties. Religious liberty was once again explicitly protected as an essential right. All citizens were protected from civil penalties for their “mode of worship or religious sentiments.”

The rights of the accused were firmly protected. They included a right to habeas corpus, trial by jury, bail, no cruel and unusual punishments, and due process of law. The governments were bound to protect property rights and the right to contract.

Perhaps most significantly, Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the territory. While slavery was being abolished outright or gradually in most northern states at the time, the ordinance prevented slavery from spreading in three to five new states in the Northwest. It read, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” It did, however, provide for a fugitive slave clause for the recovery of escaped slaves.

Contrarily, the Southwest Ordinance of 1790 protected the expansion of slavery. “Provided always that no regulations made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate Slaves.” The roots of the sectional divide over the western expansion of slavery were laid early in the new nation.

The Northwest Ordinance promoted education and religion as the basis of good and virtuous citizenship, which was in turn the foundation of republican self-government as the Ordinance held that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The ordinance promised that justice, liberality, and good faith would always be practiced with the Indians in the territory. It also promised not to take their property without consent and not to disturb them. These good intentions were rarely practiced, and several battles would be fought over the ensuing decade for control of the area.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was a seminal founding document. The republican and natural rights principles of the American founding shaped the ordinance and the creation of new states in that territory. That republican vision resulted in the dynamic growth of the continental American union and empire of liberty.

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.

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In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the making of the Declaration of Independence and its principles. Jefferson admitted that the Declaration was intended to be “an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, [and] printed essays.”

The “harmonizing sentiments” of the American mind were present during the debate over British tyranny and taxes in the 1760s and 1770s. The American colonists drew on ancient history and philosophy, the English constitutional tradition, Protestant Christianity, and the Enlightenment ideas especially of John Locke in asserting their rights. They claimed the traditional rights of Englishmen and more importantly their inalienable natural rights and the republican ideal of governing themselves by their own consent.

In the wake of the Boston Tea Party and punitive parliamentary Coercive Acts, the Continental Congress met in 1774 as an expression of American unity. The delegates penned a declaration of rights that defended their natural rights and republican ideals. “That they are entitled to life, liberty, & property, and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.”

The natural rights republicanism continued to shape the American thinking and debate about independence. For example, a young Alexander Hamilton wrote in Farmer Refuted,  “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

In July 1775, Jefferson helped to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. He wrote, “The arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.”

In 1776, Thomas Paine electrified the colonies with the best-selling pamphlet, Common Sense, which firmly put republican principles and American independence in the center of the debate. Paine wrote that the rule of law rather than the arbitrary will of a monarch was the basis of guarding essential liberties. “LAW IS KING.” The purpose of that new government would be to protect liberty, property, and religious freedom,” he wrote.

The Continental Congress took up the question of independence that spring. On May 10, it adopted a resolution for the representative colonial assemblies and conventions of the people to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”

Five days later, Adams added his own even more radical preamble expressing republican principles. “It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties.” This bold declaration was essentially a break from British authority and declaration of American sovereignty and liberties. He wrote excitedly to Abigail that this measure was “independence itself.”

On June 7, Richard Henry Lee rose in Congress and offered a resolution for independence. “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Congress appointed a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence while states such as Virginia wrote constitutions and their own declarations of rights.

On June 12, the Virginia Convention published the Virginia Declaration of Rights that asserted the Lockean idea of the rights of nature and maintained that the purpose of government was to protect those liberties. It read: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights… cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

The committee selected Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence because he was well-known for the elegance of his pen. In 1774, Jefferson had written the influential Summary View of the Rights of British North America. In that pamphlet, he described the natural rights basis of consensual republican government. The American colonists were “a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.”  The colonists argued for the “rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” He concluded with a reflection on rights embedded in human nature: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

When Jefferson sat down to compose the Declaration, he probably did not have a copy of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. However, he knew the ideas of that book well and had a copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams edited the document lightly and submitted it to Congress.

On July 1, John Dickinson and Adams engaged in an epic debate over whether America should declare its independence. The next day, Congress voted for independence by passing Lee’s resolution. Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that, “The Second Day of July will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America….It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

The Congress then considered and edited the document much to Jefferson’s chagrin.  It adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4 and enunciated the natural rights principles of the American republic.

The Declaration claimed that the natural rights of all human beings were self-evident truths that were axiomatic and did not need to be proven. They were equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The equality of human beings meant that they were equal in giving consent to their representatives in a republic to govern. All authority flowed from the sovereign people equally. The purpose of that government was to protect the rights of the people. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The people had the right to overthrow a government that violated the people’s rights with a long train of abuses.

The American constitutional regime would provide the framework—or “picture of silver” for the “apple of gold” (the Declaration) in Abraham’s Lincoln’s immortal phrase—for creating a lasting republic and “more perfect Union” to preserve those natural rights and liberties in 1787.

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.

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In the early seventeenth century, gentlemen adventurers and common tradesmen voyaged to Jamestown and established the first permanent English settlement in North America. They were free and independent Englishmen who risked their lives and fortunes to brave the dangers of the New World for personal profit and the glory of England.

The settlement was part of the grand national political, economic, and religious European struggle for imperial preeminence. Unlike their Spanish counterparts who received official financial backing, the enterprising individuals created an entrepreneurial joint-stock company.

In 1606, John Smith and other wealthy adventurers and merchants organized the Virginia Company and received a royal charter to colonize the territory. They were promised the rights of Englishmen “as if they had been abiding and born within our realm of England.” The crown charged them with the religious purpose of spreading the Protestant faith to the Native Americans. While primarily interested in getting wealthy from gold and silver and the discovery of the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia, the company received rights to the commodities it found.

Almost 150 adventurers and sailors crossed the Atlantic in a harrowing voyage that took some five months. They sailed on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. They suffered a variety of contrary winds and storms that impeded their progress and caused tensions to escalate aboard the ships. The contentious John Smith ran afoul of the leaders of the armada and was clapped in chains and nearly hanged in the Caribbean.

The ships finally sighted Virginia and over the next few days went ashore where they erected a cross, encountered several groups of Indians who alternatively attacked and traded with them, and explored the James River. On May 14, 1607, they disembarked at Jamestown because they thought it bountiful and defensible against expected Spanish attacks. The instructions from the company were opened and the appointed leaders of the colony—including John Smith—were sworn into their offices.

While they had several peaceful trading encounters with the local Indians, the settlers suffered a large, deadly attack a few weeks later and decided to build a fort. That was only the beginning of the colony’s troubles. That summer, most of the company was sickened by drinking brackish water from the tidal James. They suffered a variety of maladies including salt poisoning, typhoid fever and dysentery. The settlers were mostly too sick to work or plant food. However, the gentlemen leaders of the colony believed that the colonists were being lazy. Moreover, disputes among the councilors resulted in the imprisonment of President Edward Maria Wingfield. The colony was in chaos.

The remedy was worse than the problems the colony faced. The leaders imposed draconian laws on the settlers, and Smith forced men to work or suffer punishment. The settlers did not enjoy the rights of Englishmen they were promised. They also had very little incentive to work because they did not own land or the fruits of the labor as they toiled for the company and consumed food from the common storehouse. They also completely depended on the goodwill of the Indians for food through trade or coercion at gunpoint.

The situation over the next few years did not improve because the colony was still governed poorly and based upon the wrong incentive structure. They depended upon regular resupply from England but sent scant precious metals or valuable raw materials back to England.

In 1609, the company dispatched a fleet of ships with 500 settlers and supplies led by the flagship, Sea Venture. A massive hurricane dispersed the fleet and sank the Sea Venture near Bermuda with the admiral of the fleet, the new president of the colony, its instructions, and most of the supplies destined for Jamestown. The shipwrecked survivors were stranded there for nearly a year.

Meanwhile, in Jamestown, the rest of the fleet had arrived with hundreds of tempest-tossed settlers but few supplies. In addition, people tired of John Smith, and he barely survived an assassination attempt and departed the colony. With the dearth of food and the leadership vacuum, the winter of 1609-1610 became known as the “Starving Time.” Desperate colonists ate rats, dogs, and snakes, and resorted to trying to eat leather goods and even each other. The colony was hanging by a thread.

In May 1610, Gates and the Bermuda castaways finally arrived in Jamestown but quickly decided to return to England before all starved to death. As they were sailing down the James, they encountered another supply fleet bringing the new governor, Lord De La Warr, who ordered the colonists to return to Jamestown. The governor attempted to rebuild the colony through the same methods that had failed the colony to date: martial law, harsh discipline, forced work, and communal ownership.

The colony barely survived over the next few years even with the arrival of tons of supplies and additional settlers to make up for the horrific death toll. Even the planting of tobacco did not fundamentally alter the structure of the colony or facilitate lasting success as commonly assumed.

Only in 1616 and 1617 did the colony find the path to permanent success and prosperity in Jamestown. The introduction of private property gave colonists the right incentive to grow crops including food and tobacco to sustain themselves. Moreover, the company finally guaranteed the traditional rights of Englishmen rooted in the common law including liberties and trial by jury. Most importantly, in 1619, the House of Burgesses—the first representative legislature in America—was created for just laws and good government.

Jamestown began to thrive over the next few years as opportunity beckoned despite the still frighteningly high death rate from disease. Approximately 4,000 settlers migrated to Virginia for greater opportunity. Women finally arrived in large numbers to support families and a lasting colony. The first Africans arrived in 1619 and had a largely obscure status until slavery was codified over the next several decades.

The settlement of Virginia had entrepreneurial origins that developed only in fits and starts and after almost a decade of failure. The introduction of private property, freedom, self-government, and a capitalist ethos laid the foundations of a successful colony and shaped the colonists’ thinking. Those ideals rested uneasily with the development of slavery, and this contradiction of slavery and freedom would continue for more than two centuries. However, the founding ideals of America were established along the James in Virginia.

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.

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The state and constitution of Kansas was born amid arguably the most contentious controversy than any other state. The 1850s witnessed fierce national debates over slavery and its expansion westward with such key events as the Compromise of 1850, the furor over the Fugitive Slave Act and slavecatching, the Dred Scott (1857) decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the Harpers Ferry raid. These and the violent and bloody birth of Kansas helped spark the descent into the destructive Civil War.

The Kansas controversy originated in the Mexican War and the peace treaty ceding an immense tract of land to the United States in the West. Partisan and sectional arguments tore at the nation’s political system as proposals such as the Wilmot Proviso offering to ban slavery in all the territory acquired from Mexico. Finally, the congressional statesmen engineered a compromise in 1850 to save the republic which included “popular sovereignty” in New Mexico and Utah, meaning that the territorial legislatures could allow slavery though no one expected slavery to take root in those areas.

In 1853 and 1854, Stephen Douglas of Illinois engineered the Kansas-Nebraska bill. Settlers in search of good agricultural land had moved to the area, and Douglas supported a transcontinental railroad running through that part of the country. Both required the area to be organized into a territory for statehood. He was agnostic on the morality of slavery and wanted to leave it up to the territorial legislatures according to “popular sovereignty” which explicitly contradicted the Missouri Compromise of 1820 for the territory.

The Congress narrowly passed the bill into law on May 30, 1854. The sectional breach in the Democratic Party damaged it for decades, while the sectional divide within the Whig Party was fatal, paving the way for the birth of the Republican Party. More immediately, abolitionist New York Senator William Seward asserted: “I accept it in behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.” Southern Democrat Senator David Atchison of Missouri agreed that, “We are playing for a majority stake….The game must be played boldly.”

Northerners and southerners rushed into Kansas to make it a free or slave state respectively. Pro-slavery southerners won the first round as Missourian “border ruffians” crossed into Kansas, cast thousands of illegal ballots, and elected a pro-slavery territorial legislature in Lecompton. It legalized slavery and passed a harsh slave code. President Franklin Pierce and the Democratic Senate endorsed this government. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives endorsed a rival free-state government that was established in Lawrence, called for a constitutional convention for the territory, and adopted a free constitution in Topeka in 1855.

Violence erupted in the territory. Radical abolitionist John Brown and his band murdered five pro-slavery southerners in cold blood. Southerners sacked and burned Lawrence. Other deadly incidents provoked the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” to describe the volatile situation. The violence in Kansas spread to Congress during a debate over the issue as South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death.

In 1857, the Lecompton legislature called for a state constitutional convention that wrote a pro-slavery document. Both sides boycotted the other side’s referendum on the Lecompton constitution with pro-slavery voters supporting it in late 1857 and free-state voters opposed.

In 1858, the U.S. Senate voted for the Lecompton Constitution, but the House defeated it replete with an indecorous fistfight. The constitution was sent back to Kansas voters who rejected it, leaving the state’s status in limbo. At the same time, yet another constitution, the free-state Leavenworth Constitution, provided for the natural rights of African Americans but was also rejected by the Congress.

The following year, Kansans adopted the Wyandotte Constitution, which was approved by Congress in 1860 as the South seceded. Congress finally admitted Kansas as a free state and banned slavery on January 29, 1861. It was the 34th state in the Union. This constitution opened with a preamble asserting the significance of civil and religious liberty: “We, the people of Kansas, grateful to Almighty God for our civil and religious privileges, in order to insure the full enjoyment of our rights as American citizens, do ordain and establish the Constitution of the State of Kansas.” The constitution remains the constitution of Kansas though it has been amended since ratification including the addition of women’s suffrage.

The Kansas constitution was born in one of the most tumultuous periods of American history related to the causes of the Civil War. Nevertheless, it endorsed the maxims of a free society and was part of the confirmation of the principles of the Founding that occurred with the Civil War and ending of slavery in the United States.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow for the Bill of Rights Institute and a Fellow for Constituting America. He is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.

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Louisiana, the eighteenth admitted to the United States, ratified the U.S. Constitution April 30, 1812 just before the start of the War of 1812. The current Louisiana State Constitution in use was adopted in 1975.

Louisiana was one of the flashpoints in the European struggle for empire in North America throughout the eighteenth century. It soon became one of the key points in the expansion of the United States both in terms of domestic sectional tensions and American foreign policy in the new nation.

The French owned the Louisiana Territory through the French and Indian War in the middle of the eighteenth century. The British made incursions into the Great Lakes area and erected a series of forts. The defeated French ceded the territory to the victorious British at the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and Spain gained possession of the territory around New Orleans. Carlos III wanted the territory as a base from which to safeguard treasure fleets coming from Mexican silver mines.

New Orleans was an area steeped in diversity and a rich exchange of different cultures that more or less mingled easily. The area from New Orleans to Baton Rouge grew quickly through end of the century, more than quadrupling from about 4,000 free persons and 5,000 enslaved persons to 19,000 free persons and 24,000 enslaved. Likewise, commerce expanded along the Mississippi.

Spain allowed the Americans to trade on the Mississippi during the Revolutionary War. However, after the war, Spanish officials feared that the new nation was expanding rapidly and moving westward to the Mississippi. Those fears were justified as American settlers flooded the frontier now that the old 1763 Proclamation Line that had banned their settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains was negated by victory in the American Revolution. Kentucky became a state in 1792 followed by Tennessee four years later. Southern slaveowners brought their slaves to lands in what is now Alabama and Mississippi especially to grow cotton. As a result, Spain clamped down and restricted American trade on the Mississippi to the outrage of southern planters and statesmen.

Many of the founders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson envisioned a growing empire of liberty in the West. They made personal investments in western lands and schemes to build canals. One of their guiding principles was to link the original thirteen colonies to the Americans on the frontier. Washington and others were profoundly concerned that the settlers would lose their attachment to republican principles and to the United States. Instead, they would be drawn to the monarchical empires in the West and switch their allegiance.

Part of the reason for the land ordinances of the 1780s was to provide for the orderly settlement of western lands. In 1784, the Congress voted down a Jeffersonian provision for the exclusion of slavery in the entire West—a provision that would have fundamentally altered the character of settlement in Louisiana. But, there was an even larger concern that caused sectional friction in the new nation.

In 1784, the Spanish formally closed the Mississippi to American trade again (though despite the official restrictions, the Spanish still traded with American smugglers in New Orleans). Southerners were outraged, thought northerners were more concerned about fishing rights in Newfoundland. John Jay of New York began negotiating with Spanish minister Don Diego de Gardoqui for the free navigation of the Mississippi. In August 1786, Congress erupted in fierce debates over Jay’s negotiations when southerners discovered Jay was going to give up navigation rights for 25 years. Spain eventually made a few territorial concessions in modern-day Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama because of the presence of American settlers but refused to budge on the question of the Mississippi.

The issue was finally settled in the fall of 1795 with Europe in flames due to the wars of the French Revolution. Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina negotiated Pinckney’s Treaty which won additional territory in Spanish Florida and more importantly secured the American right of free navigation of the Mississippi and New Orleans to trade.

When Spain ceded the Louisiana Territory to France in 1800, Americans were concerned about Napoleonic designs in North America. However, the continuing wars in Europe and the French failure to suppress a slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) led Napoleon to consider selling the territory to the United States. President Jefferson dispatched New Yorker Robert Livingston and Virginian James Monroe to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans as a critically-important port.

The shocked diplomats discovered that Napoleon was offering the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States at a paltry $15 million, or three cents an acre. While the purchase exceeded their instructions, they knew that it was an offer too good to be refused. Jefferson was torn because his scruples about a strict reading of the Constitution gave him pause, but he eventually decided that it was for the country and could be reasonably justified under the treaty-making power.

In 1804, the president sent the Corps of Discovery under Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the lands of the purchase, map the area, record scientific observations, and establish friendly relations with the Native Americans. The purchase and exploration of the territory had hardly been completed when American settlers and their slaves moved into the area.

Louisiana quickly entered the Union as a slave state in 1812. The strategically-important port was the site of Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming victory over the British in 1815 during the War of 1812. By the time of the Civil War, Louisiana joined the Confederacy, and control of the Mississippi and New Orleans became a key theater of the war. Louisiana played a very important, if often underappreciated, role in the struggle for empire in North America and the history of the early republic.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow for the Bill of Rights Institute and a Fellow for Constituting America. He is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.

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Ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation had significant problems. The Congress was unicameral, and the national government did not have an independent executive or judiciary. The states were sovereign, and the national government did not have the power to tax or regulate commerce. It was essentially just a league of friendship.

Yet, the national government under the Articles did achieve some notable successes. The nation made peace with the British in 1783 and secured its independence. Moreover, the Confederation Congress established policies for the settlement of land in the West and principles for the integration of new states into the national Union, weak though it was.

Several states had claims to western lands from royal land grants as British colonies and relinquished those claims. As a result, the Confederation Congress was able to formalize the process by which territory could become states once enough Americans populated the area.

Congress passed the 1784 Ordinance written by congressman Thomas Jefferson. It would have made ten states out of the Northwest Territory, and each territory was eligible for statehood when its population reached 200,000. More importantly, it laid down important principles for the addition of new states to the Union. First, the new states would be admitted as equals to the original thirteen states. Second, the residents of the new states were also guaranteed republican self-government. Significantly, Jefferson proposed to ban slavery in all western territories, but it failed by a single vote.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 authorized the survey of the Northwest Territory and the land was to be sold at a dollar an acre to encourage settlement and raise revenue for the national government.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was passed by the Confederation Congress while the Constitutional Convention was meeting. It authorized three to five states in the territory and set up a specific path to statehood in which 5,000 settlers could elect an assembly and 60,000 residents could adopt a constitution and apply for statehood.

The principles of state equality in the national Union and the guarantee of republican governments were prominent again. The purpose was “for extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions, are erected.”

In addition, the Northwest Ordinance protected the rights of the accused including the right to a trial by jury. Freedom of religion was protected, and education to promote civic virtue was key to republican government. “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Slavery was banned in the territory as the framers of this document tried to restrict it to the South and put it on the road to ultimate extinction. Primogeniture was banned and equality in the distribution of property instituted to prevent an aristocracy from arising on American soil. The Northwest Ordinance was strongly bent toward fundamental liberties, republican government, and national Union.

The Constitution restated these principles yet again in Article IV, section 3 when it asserted that new states may be admitted into the Union and that Congress “shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States. In section 4, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion.” The Constitution added the principle of federalism to the relationship of the national government to the states.

Rapid westward expansion over the next century built a continental republic rooted in a national Union of equal republican states. However, the expansion was marred by the expansion of slavery and contention about the constitutional authority of Congress to regulate territories as in the Dred Scott (1857) case.

In his Farewell Address, President George Washington expressed the importance of national Union:

That you should cherish a cordial, habitual and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

President Abraham Lincoln concurred with Washington that the national Union and the republican principle were core ideas of the American Creed: “Fourscore 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.”

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.


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On May 15, 1776, the fifth Virginia Convention told its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to “be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain.”

On the same day, the Congress adopted recommended to the assemblies and popular conventions in the colonies to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”

John Adams called this measure “independence itself.” Adams added a radical preamble for self-government that “every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies.”

The Virginia Convention followed Congress’ exhortation to adopt a new constitution and appointed a committee to draft it, and a Declaration of Rights. The constitution was the framework of government. The declaration was, in the words of Edmund Randolph, “In all the revolutions of time, of human opinion, and of government, a perpetual standard…around which the people might rally and by a notorious record be forever admonished to be watchful, firm, and virtuous.”

The convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 13. George Mason was its primary draftsman. He began with a stunning assertion of natural rights.

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which…they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

The declaration was deeply influenced by the thinking of John Locke. It stated that “all power was vested in” the sovereign people, and the representative government was established to protect their rights. When it became destructive of these ends, the majority had the “indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible” right to alter or abolish it. Its influence on the Declaration of Independence was unmistakable.

The declaration included several core principles fundamental to the American experiment in liberty: free elections, separation of powers, trial by jury, rights of the accused. The freedom of the press was called “one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” Finally, the declaration protected freedom of conscience as a natural right. “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” it asserted.

In Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson was busy with the work of drafting the Declaration of Independence and regretted not being part of the Virginia Convention. He drafted a constitution for the convention, but submitted it too late for it to be considered by the delegates.

On June 29, the convention adopted a constitution guided by revolutionary principles. The different branches of government were separated and consisted of a bicameral General Assembly, an executive, and judiciary. The House of Delegates was the most representative of the people and were elected annually. The two houses of the legislature voted for the governor and curtailed the power of the executive who was elected annually and could not serve more than three terms consecutively. The principles of 1776 and great suspicion of executive power because of the experience under the king and his royal governors underpinned the weakening of executive power.

The Virginia Constitution was one of the first modern constitutions and represented the republican and revolutionary principles of 1776. The state constitutions created republican governments and helped shape the experiences and principles that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

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In the fall of 1779, John Adams was home in Massachusetts during a respite from his diplomatic responsibilities in Europe. While he was there, Adams drafted the state constitution that built on the constitutions and experiences of other states, using them as a model of success and failure. The resulting Massachusetts Constitution was a balanced constitution.

Royal authority had collapsed in Massachusetts in 1775, and the state was governed by a provincial congress under the 1691 colonial charter. The legislature had drafted a constitution in 1778, but the sovereign people of local townships had rejected it.

The people of Massachusetts concurred with other Americans that written constitutions were perpetual fundamental law made by the representatives of the people at popular conventions called for that purpose. The Massachusetts legislature, however, was an ordinary lawmaking body that was not invested with the authority to create such a constitution.

In early 1779, all free men over 21 were eligible to vote for delegates to a special constitutional convention which began meeting in September. The constitution would need ratification by two-thirds of those same men to become fundamental law. This was an expression of the principle of popular sovereignty, or the will of the self-governing people.

The convention called a drafting committee which then appointed a subcommittee of James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams to write the constitution. Bowdoin and Samuel Adams deferred to John Adams to complete the task. Adams finished his assigned work and submitted it to the convention which made revisions and submitted it to the people for ratification in March 1780. It was adopted in June.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was comprised of the familiar principles of the American Founding especially those found in the Declaration of Independence. The preamble asserted that the sovereign people formed a social compact with each other to create a republican government whose purpose was to protect the natural rights of the people. They had a right to alter that government for one that best protected their safety and happiness.

The first part of the constitution was a declaration of rights. All men were born free and equal with inalienable rights including life, liberty, and property. The constitution stated that worshipping God was a right of conscience as well as a duty. In order to promote ordered liberty, virtue, morality, and happiness, the constitution simultaneously instituted a limited establishment of the Christian religion. Public money would support the Congregationalist Church, but dissenters could allocate their taxes to their own denominations.

Other principles of the Massachusetts Constitution were popular sovereignty, free and regular elections, and no taxation without consent. Fundamental rights that were protected included the rights of the accused, property rights, and the right to bear arms.

The text of the constitution was rooted upon the principles of separation of power and checks and balances. Those principles found expression in three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. The bicameral legislature was divided into two houses based upon the negative experience of Pennsylvania with only one house. The governor and lieutenant governor ruled with the advice of a nine-member council. The governor could veto laws, but the legislature could override the veto by a two-thirds vote. The third branch was an independent judiciary.

The representatives and senators of the General Court legislature and the governor were elected annually. All free men over 21 could vote if they held a certain amount of property because of the prevailing view that propertyless men were dependent upon others and could not render an independent vote. The state judges served for life and during good behavior. Although the state constitutional convention removed a religious test for office, legislative and executive officials had to take an oath to the Christian religion.

The Massachusetts Constitution was predicated on the belief that, “wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, [was] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” Therefore, the public would support public schools, literature, seminaries, science, agriculture, arts, and trades. This public encouragement would “countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.”

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was drafted and adopted with the aid of examples and experience in other states. It contained its share of paradoxes such as religious liberty coexisting with religious establishment and broad democratic principles but property requirements for voting and officeholding. The constitution, however, represented the republican principles of the American Revolution and Founding as fundamental law.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

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In June 1776, George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. It declared natural rights, the essential liberties of the people, and republican government by consent of the people. The delegates to the Fifth Virginia Convention—the government after the royal governor had fled from Williamsburg—voted to accept the Declaration of Rights and a state constitution rooted upon revolutionary principles of rights and popular government.

When writing about religious liberties in the Declaration of Rights, Mason, influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, wrote, “All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.” This principle of religious toleration seemed liberal-minded during the time of the Enlightenment, or age of reason.

A young James Madison disagreed and offered an amendment that fundamentally altered the principle of toleration to a new and revolutionary one—religious liberty. The Declaration of Rights read: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

Madison’s fellow delegates accepted that freedom of religion was an inalienable right (and a duty to God), but they were unwilling to accept that Madison’s amendment disestablished the official Anglican Church as part of the constitution-making. Nevertheless, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans began flooding the House of Delegates with petitions calling for disestablishment. The legislature responded to the demands of their constituents, relieving dissenters of paying taxes for the support of the Anglican Church.

In early 1777, Thomas Jefferson joined the cause of religious liberty in Virginia. Jefferson believed that the Virginia constitution had a variety of shortcomings and won appointment to the committee to revise the state laws with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton. Jefferson’s object was to eradicate “every fiber…of ancient or future aristocracy.”

As an Enlightenment thinker, Jefferson believed that religion was a matter of reason and equated religious liberty with a free mind. Jefferson penned a bill for disestablishment in 1777 but did not present it to the legislature. Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was introduced in the House of Delegates in June 1779.

The preamble asserted that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and thus was free from restraint by the civil government. The bill would enact disestablishment as Jefferson affirmed, “The opinions of man are not the object of civil government.”

The bill, however, was soundly defeated. Many Virginia founders including Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall, Pendleton, and initially, George Washington, supported a general assessment, or tax money, to be allocated to a denomination of a person’s choice or to schools and education rather than religion. They argued that republican government depended on the virtue of the citizenry and leaders, and that virtue was primarily encouraged by religion. The general assessment bill did not establish a particular denomination or even Christianity broadly as the state religion, but rather sought to support religion to inculcate virtue for republican self-government. The House passed a resolution for the bill in 1784, and Henry chaired the committee to draft it.

Jefferson and Madison (neither of whom was especially known for his piety) formed an improbable alliance with an array of dissenting religious groups including Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians to fight the general assessment. Both sides of the debate wrote petitions to the House to influence the outcome.

Madison weighed in on the debate, anonymously writing the highly influential “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” He wrote: “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom passed into law on January 6, 1786. The Assembly enacted the idea into law that:

No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or beliefs….We are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind.

Jefferson and the legislature then made the law and the principle of religious liberty a fundamental right that could never be revoked by a future legislature, binding future generations to the rights of man. “If any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”

Most states pursued religious liberty as a fundamental right and disestablished their churches, though not all did, because of principle of federalism in the U.S. Constitution. In the 1830s, Massachusetts became the last state to disestablish. But, the American Revolution and founding advanced both civil and religious liberty for the American people.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.


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James Madison, the “father of the Bill of Rights”

As we celebrate the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, American politics and civic life seems more and more divided. The founding generation often saw a political environment that was just as divided as ours, if not even more so. Virginia statesman James Madison gives us an example of principled compromise to achieve the principles of limited government and inalienable rights as he became the “father of the Bill of Rights.”

The origins of Madison’s work creating the Bill of Rights was rooted in his experience in the 1780s. In Virginia, he witnessed the established Anglican Church violating the freedom of conscience of religious dissenters. As a result, he became the primary advocate for Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In early 1787, Madison was preparing for the Constitutional Convention and wrote an essay entitled “Vices of the Political System” detailing the flaws of the Articles of Confederation. One of the main problems in his view was that tyrannical majorities in the states passed unjust laws violating the rights of minorities.

At the Constitutional Convention, Madison supported the constitutional principles that would limit government and protect individual liberties. However, he lost one central feature of his plan of government—a national veto over state laws to prevent majority tyranny in the states. Still, he became one of the greatest supporters of the Constitution.

During the ratification debate, the Federalists who supported the Constitution had to promise that they would pass a bill of rights if the Antifederalist opponents agreed to a bill of rights. Madison opposed a bill of rights because he thought that they were often just “parchment barriers” that overbearing majorities violated in the states. At this point, he thought “the amendments are a blemish.”

Madison conducted an extensive correspondence with his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris at the time. Jefferson lamented the absence of a bill of rights in the Constitution and asserted, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.” Madison began to change his mind.

Madison ran against Virginian James Monroe for a seat in the House of Representatives and made a campaign promise to support a bill of rights, particularly liberty of conscience. He also composed President George Washington’s Inaugural Address, which indicated support for a bill of rights in the First Congress.

Representative Madison became the champion for a bill of rights in the First Congress, but met a hostile reception for the idea. Most representatives and senators thought that the Congress had more important work to do setting up the new government. Madison was undeterred and dedicated to the cause of protecting the people’s liberties.

On June 8, 1789, Madison rose on the floor of the House to deliver a speech in favor of a bill of rights. His arguments were founded on a harmonious political order and the ideals of justice. A bill of rights would convince the Antifederalists of the “principles of amity and moderation” from the Federalists, especially when they fulfilled a sacred promise made during the ratification debate. Rhode Island and North Carolina, which had withheld their ratification of the Constitution, would also join the Union. Mostly, the Bill of Rights would “expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.”

Madison then skillfully guided the amendments through the Congress. He reconciled all the various proposals for amendments from the state ratifying conventions and kept the amendments protecting essential liberties. He wanted them to be woven into the text of the Constitution, and sought a key amendment to protect religious freedom, a free press, and a trial by jury against violation by state governments. He lost both these provisions but still guided the Bill of Rights through Congress. Congress approved twelve amendments, and President Washington sent them to the states.

On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the last state to ratify the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights fulfilled Madison’s goals of reconciling the opponents of the Constitution and protecting individual liberties. He did not get everything he wanted but compromised often along the way to secure limited government and the essential rights of the people.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and the author of Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America and the forthcoming Hamilton: An American Biography.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Americans are deeply polarized in this country but often incorrectly attribute it to growing partisanship and the strength of political parties. In fact, the opposite is true. Some scholars have argued that the growing polarization in Congress and in politics more generally is a symptom of a declining two-party system and identification of Americans with one of the two major parties.

Political parties have experienced a long-term decline in our political system and society over the past forty or fifty years. During the middle of the twentieth century, political parties were strong and played an important role in representing broad swaths of the American population, the majority of whom registered and identified with one of the major parties even if they did not always agree with every position.

However, Americans have increasingly identified themselves as independents and not beholden to one party or the other.  The phrase that people use in conversation that they vote for the candidate rather than the party is revealing and indicative of a very important sea change in American politics. Moreover, primaries have replaced the proverbial smoke-filled rooms with party bosses who exercised a great deal of power. Special interests often control a great deal more money than do party organizations who are unable to control party members the way they did formerly that encouraged party loyalty.

Therefore, the lens through which we view politics today is really often clouded by liberal and conservative ideologies and our uncompromising allegiance to them rather than Republican and Democratic lenses. The unfortunate result for our political system is gridlock and an inability to compromise to accomplish reasonable laws and policies that are supported by most Americans rather than just one side. Perhaps even more unfortunate has been the inability of Americans to speak to each other constructively, if at all, about politics without name-calling, labeling, or abiding by a modicum of civility, particularly on social media.

The result of weak political parties for Congress and weak partisan leadership has been quite significant. Congress has become more decentralized as the power of the old committee chairs has been greatly weakened. Representatives are often beholden to their own districts or special interests and lobbyists more than their political party. How many people would seriously argue that Speakers of the House John Boehner or Paul Ryan could control the members of their own party? They were party leaders who struggled to contain the more ideologically-driven members of their party as much as they contended against the rival party within Congress and in the White House.

The ironic solution for gridlock in Congress and an inability to compromise for the common good may be the strengthening of political parties rather than decreasing their influence. However, with the rise of television, the internet, YouTube, and Twitter over the past fifty years and structural changes that challenged the organization and strength of parties (not to mention increasing distrust in party institutions), it does not seem that parties will recover and that our ideological polarization may continue and even increase.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


In the early republic, the founding generation took the treaty-making provisions of the Constitution seriously even as they sought to define the parameters of those constitutional powers. As the first president, George Washington, in particular, tried to set the right constitutional precedents and observe the proper balance of powers with relation to the legislative branch. Although the battles over the treaty-making authority could be highly contentious, the fights took place within a constitutional framework and helped establish the principles of American foreign policy.

The treaty-making power was derived in part from the experiences of the successes and failures of the Continental Congress during the war and the Articles of Confederation. Upon declaring independence, the Americans sent commissioners to various nations and achieved its most notable success with military and commercial treaties with France in 1778. At the end of the war, the peace commissioners secured a 1783 treaty with Great Britain recognizing American independence. The precedent was set for treaties negotiated by a few individuals subject to approval by the people’s representatives in Congress. In the wake of the war, however, several states challenged national authority and sought to make their own treaties due to state sovereignty.

The treaty-making power was additionally derived from the principles of the American founding and incorporated into the Constitution.  In Article I, section 10, the Constitution banned states from making treaties because it was a power of national sovereignty. In the executive power of Article II, section 2, the Constitution authorized the president to make treaties: “He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  This provided for the energy and dispatch in the executive branch to make treaties, subject to the approval of a supermajority of representatives of the states in the deliberative and wise upper house less subject to popular passions. In addition to the principle of checks and balances, this supported federalism by allowing the states to have a say in approving or rejecting treaties.

If the constitutional boundaries of the treaty-making power were relatively clear-cut, they were anything but clear in the partisan squabbles of the new nation.  Washington was a scrupulous constitutionalist and tried to follow it to the letter when he brought instructions for a commission to make peace with the Creek Indians to the Senate personally in the summer of 1789.  When the Senate bickered over the details and sought to appoint a time-consuming committee to study the matter, Washington fumed, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here.” The discontented president stormed off and would later submit completed treaties to the Senate for their consideration after the fact.

After a great struggle in 1793 over whether the president or Congress could issue a proclamation of neutrality in the wars raging across Europe (settled in favor of the president, while Congress retained its power to declare war), the treaty-making power became the center of controversy over the Jay Treaty in 1795 and 1796.  John Jay negotiated a treaty with Great Britain to stop the impressment of American sailors and resolve several unsettled issues from the Revolutionary War.  While Jay wrangled as many concessions as he could on the latter, he failed on the former.

In the spring of 1795, Washington reluctantly submitted the treaty to the Senate and asked that it be considered in secret.  The Senate narrowly ratified the treaty by a vote of 20-10 only after an unpopular clause limiting American trade with the British West Indies was removed.  After Washington signed the treaty, the House tried to control the treaty and demanded Jay’s papers from the negotiations.  Washington refused and asserted executive privilege. The House then tried to block the treaty with its appropriations power, but then finally passed the money to implement the treaty in early 1796.

The Pinckney Treaty with Spain was also ratified during the Washington administration and gave the United States access to the Mississippi River and duty-free trade with New Orleans that was much less controversial.

President John Adams dispatched three negotiators to France when that country seized hundreds of American vessels, but foreign minister Talleyrand demanded substantial bribes and loans to the country.  Outraged Americans demanded war and after mobilizing for the Quasi-War in the late 1790s, Adams also tried for peace and his negotiating team secured the Convention of 1800 that settled the issues between the two countries and negated the 1778 alliance.

President Thomas Jefferson shared Washington’s constitutional scruples when deliberating over the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.  He was greatly concerned that the president did not have the constitutional authority to purchase land and considered asking for a constitutional amendment.  Finally, he instead reasonably found the authority under the treaty-making power, and the Senate quickly agreed and ratified the popular purchase that doubled the size of the United States.

In the new nation, the standard of diplomacy was generally the constitutional procedure of the executive signing formal treaties subject to Senate ratification by a two-thirds vote.  A century later, even President Woodrow Wilson submitted the highly controversial Treaty of Versailles to the Senate despite the fierce opposition he anticipated from “irreconcilable” Republicans, and it went down to predictable defeat.  In recent times, however, presidents have evaded partisan opposition and defeat by making agreements not subject to the same constitutional standard and have contributed to the “imperial presidency” by avoiding the checks and balances that mark constitutional government.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Leadership styles can often impact how political leaders and statesmen are remembered. FDR and Reagan were excellent communicators and exhibited great charm, Harry Truman was a man of the people and tough, JFK wrapped himself up in the myth of Camelot, Lyndon Johnson was a political operator and a master of the Senate.

Senator Robert A. Taft had none of these characteristics and is largely forgotten today. He seemed distant because he was often a master of facts and statistics rather than a masterful politician.  As a result, he could seem cold and aloof.  Yet, he was an important political figure of the mid-twentieth century whose career and political philosophy helped define the Republican Party of that era.

Taft was a scion of a leading Cincinnati family and the son of William Howard Taft who served as a Governor of the Philippines, Secretary of War, President, and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  They established a minor political dynasty, though not quite that of the Roosevelts, Kennedys, or Bushes.

Taft was raised in a life of affluence in Cincinnati and around the country and world. He may have inherited many opportunities but worked hard to succeed in becoming the valedictorian at Yale University and Harvard Law School.  He became a corporate lawyer, married, and engaged in local philanthropic activities. He never tried to win over friends and political allies with a congenial personality but was more interested in a good character and strong work ethic.

World War I was a defining event in Taft’s life and his political philosophy. He opposed American intervention but wanted to defend American neutral rights and national security. He served with Republican Herbert Hoover in the Food Administration during the war and the American Relief Administration in Europe helping to feed the shattered and starving populations there after the war.  During his time in Europe, he developed an antipathy to becoming involved in European affairs and hated both the collective ideologies of bolshevism and fascism that took hold in Europe.  Above all, he opposed the unlimited global commitment that seemed to come with the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations. He developed a lifelong aversion to the crusading foreign policy spirit of Wilsonianism to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Despite being a relative introvert, Taft ran for public office out of a sense of family and personal duty to serve the public.  He served in the Ohio state legislature from 1920 to 1926, where he was interested in tax reform and resisted the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Great Depression that gripped the nation and the New Deal that FDR conceived to battle the economic crisis continued to shape Taft’s thinking and serving in public office. He opposed the New Deal political philosophy that expanded the federal welfare state and powers of executive agencies. He thought that the New Deal was substituting “an autocracy of government for a government of law.” He feared that the growth of government would negatively impinge upon personal liberty, upset the balance of federalism, and create a massive state with huge budget deficits.

Nevertheless, Taft was a midwestern conservative Republican who was often equally suspicious of Wall Street as he was of Washington, D.C.  While he opposed massive regulatory intrusion in the private market and confiscatory taxes, he fought against monopoly and was not a believer in laissez-faire.  He supported reasonable regulation, higher taxes (and lower spending) to balance budgets, and a basic social safety net.

Taft was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938, and quickly established himself as a hardworking, if somewhat dull and lackluster, member. Characteristically, he studied hard to become an expert on the issues rather than spending time making backroom deals and pressing the flesh. He served on several committees including the Education and Labor Committee.

As tyrannies marched their war machines across Asia, Africa, and Europe during the 1930s, the New Deal gave way to foreign policy issues.  Unsurprisingly, Taft adopted a thoughtful and relatively flexible isolationist stance.  He did not want to get involved in the coming war, but supported preparedness to defend American shores. He supported selling other countries arms so that they could defend themselves without American intervention. He feared that the wily FDR was leading the country into war and opposed the peacetime draft because of its impact on individual liberty.

Taft supported American entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war.  During the war, he was just as concerned about the rise of the warfare state with its budget deficits, wage and price controls, huge government spending, and threats to civil liberties as he was in peacetime with the New Deal welfare state.  Taft consistently defended the principles of limited government to protect individual liberty in a democracy.

During the war, Senator Taft had presidential aspirations but always seemed to lack the political skills necessary to win the Republican nomination or attain the highest office.  Moreover, FDR was simply too popular as commander-in-chief even if Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats began chipping away at the New Deal electoral coalition.

Taft entered the postwar world with his persistent doubts about liberal internationalism and government programs at home. Taft opposed the United Nations much as he had the League of Nations and was a voice against American commitments abroad during the early Cold War. He did not want to impose democracy on any nation or tell them how to govern their foreign policy decisions. Indeed, he was a strong anti-imperialist who warned against America putting “Our fingers…in every pie” with unlimited global interventions.

In 1947, Taft was the co-sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act that is synonymous with his historical reputation.  Contrary to historical opinion, he was not antilabor and even supported the right to strike.  Even President Truman called for controls on strikes and federal power to intervene during a wave of postwar strikes across the nation.  Taft’s expertly guided his bill through Congress.  It banned the closed shop in which workers were forced to join the union as a condition of employment, banned secondary boycotts, and allowed both employers and unions to seek federal injunctions.  Truman vetoed the bill, but the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress after the 1946 elections, and overrode the veto.

After his reelection for a third term in the Senate, Taft reached the height of his power as he nearly won the Republican presidential nomination in 1952 and was elected Senate majority leader. True to his principles, he denounced Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist smear tactics and American intervention to save the French war effort in Vietnam. However, in 1953, he discovered he had cancer and was dead within the year.

Taft was known as “Mr. Republican” because of his allegiance to limited government at home and a non-interventionist foreign policy that represented mainstream Republican thinking during the mid-twentieth century.  While not the most gregarious politician, he was a well-respected, diligent statesman who dedicated his life to an ideal of public service.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.


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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


“Breaking the Heart of the World”  –  Henry Cabot Lodge and Constitutional Objections to the Treaty of Versailles


World War I was fought from 1914-1918 and claimed the lives of nearly 9.5 million combatants.  The United States entered the war in April, 1917, when Congress voted to declare war based upon President Woodrow Wilson’s war message arguing for American intervention with the expansive and idealistic foreign policy goal to “make the world safe for democracy.”  The armistice was signed in November, 1918, and the war concluded on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of that month.

The Allies of Great Britain, France, and Italy sought a punitive peace against Germany and blamed that nation for starting the war.  President Wilson, on the other hand, argued in his “Fourteen Points” for a lenient peace settlement that would prevent future wars by promoting international freedoms and self-determination.  At the core of his proposal was destroying the old balance-of-power diplomacy by establishing a League of Nations that would help prevent war through deliberation as well as an Article X that would commit member nations to go to war to stop an “aggressor nation.”

On November 19, 1919, the Senate was abuzz with activity from an early hour since all observers expected a critical debate and vote to take place after a twelve-hour debate the previous day. Spectators flooded the gallery, jockeying for a good vantage point to view the historic event.  Members of the press eagerly awaited news to report for their newspapers and spoke to their contacts about what to expect.  The Senators gradually entered the chamber and exchanged pleasantries in a civil manner before the day’s vigorous debate ensued.  Most eyes focused on sixty-eight-year-old Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

The Senate was considering the Treaty of Versailles.  The Senators did not disappoint the spectators and debated the treaty through lunch and dinner. After a ten-hour marathon debate in which they heard the arguments of their supporters and opponents, the Senators prepared to vote on the treaty.  President Woodrow Wilson needed an affirmative two-thirds vote according to the Constitution to win ratification of the treaty he had personally negotiated for six months in France.  On the first vote, the Senators rejected the treaty with reservations by a vote of 55-39.  Another vote was taken on the treaty without reservations as the Wilson administration wanted and it was also defeated by a nearly identical vote of 53-38.

Lodge had reason to be satisfied with the defeat of the treaty.  He was furious when President Wilson did not consult with him in his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before heading to Paris.  Moreover, Wilson had made blatantly partisan appeals in the congressional elections of 1918 in which Republicans had won control of both houses and Lodge became the Senate Majority Leader.  Wilson also did not include any Republicans on the peace delegation.

President Wilson had traveled to France to make peace in December, 1918, and Lodge questioned Wilson’s idealistic goals by asserting that the treaty should only focus on making it “impossible for Germany to break out again upon the world with a war of conquest.”  The president briefly returned briefly in February, 1919, and on the evening of February 26, Senator Lodge and other members of the Foreign Relations Committee attended a dinner at the White House.  Lodge sat impassively while the President spoke about a League of Nations to keep the peace.  Lodge did not like what he heard.  He peppered the president with a series of questions, and the answers confirmed many of Lodge’s fears that Article X of the League of Nations in the treaty would commit the United States to a war against any aggressor and bypass the constitutional requirement of a congressional declaration of war.  After the dinner, Lodge told the media, “We learned nothing,” meaning that nothing new was presented.  He was opposed to the United States being forced to “guarantee the territorial integrity and political independence of every nation on earth.”

Lodge believed in American constitutional principles and not committing U.S. troops to every conflict around the world.  He was not opposed to a postwar treaty or even to a League of Nations, but he could not abide international commitments that violated the Constitution.  He had the integrity to speak courageously and consistently to oppose the treaty with an international body that would compel America to go to war.

On the evening of Sunday, March 2, Lodge invited two other senators to his home to draft a resolution for their fellow senators to sign expressing their opposition to the League of Nations.  Thirty-nine Republicans would sign the resolution and even some Democrats would express support.

On March 3, Lodge gave an important speech expressing his opposition to the League of Nations.   Two weeks later, Lodge spoke in Boston and focused his attention on opposing Article X for violating American sovereignty, Congress’s prerogative to declare war, and the danger  that Americans would be forced “to send the hope of their families, the hope of the nation, the best of our youth, forth into the world on that errand [to stop aggressor nations].”  He continued, “I want to keep America as she has been – not isolated, not prevent her from joining other nations for these great purposes – but I wish her to be master of her fate.”  In the Senate, Lodge made sure that any new members of the Foreign Relations Committee were opposed to the League of Nations.

When President Wilson returned to the United States with the signed Treaty of Versailles, he broke with precedent and presented the treaty to the Senate in person.  As the president walked into the chamber with the bulky treaty under his arm, Lodge joked with Wilson and asked, “Mr. President, can I carry the treaty for you?” Wilson retorted, “Not on your life.”  It was funny but revealed a truth that Lodge was the Senator who would determine the fate of the treaty and that Wilson would not entrust it to anyone and not accept any changes.  During his address, President Wilson asked the Senate rhetorically, “Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?”

In August, Lodge reiterated to the Senate that Article X violated the principles of the Constitution.  He stated that no American soldier or sailor could be sent overseas to fight a war “except by the constitutional authorities of the United States.”  In addition, Lodge thought that the United States could not fight in every war around the globe and only needed to protect American interests.  He said, “Our first ideal is our country . . . . We would not have our country’s vigor exhausted or her moral force abated, by everlasting meddling and muddling in every quarrel, great and small which affects the world.”

President Wilson had probably suffered a small stroke while in he was negotiating in Paris, and his health troubles caused him to be uncompromising.  In September, Wilson further angered Lodge and the other opponents by taking the case for the League of Nations directly to the American people on a train-stop speaking tour.  That tour was soon cut short when the president suffered a massive, debilitating stroke on October 2 back at the White House that incapacitated him for months.  When the vote on his beloved League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles took place in the Senate, the president could not even get out of bed and walk.

Throughout the debate over the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations, Senator Lodge stood firmly for the American Constitution and its principles.  He did support world peace and hoped to avert another world war, but he would not sacrifice American principles in an attempt to achieve it.  He sought to do what was right according to the Constitution.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.


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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


“Am I gagged?” –  John Quincy Adams and His Struggle Against Slavery and the Gag Rule

In December 1835, Massachusetts Representative William Jackson presented a petition to end slavery and the domestic slave trade in the District of Columbia where Congress had constitutional authority over slavery. Outraged southern representatives protested any consideration of the provocative petition. They felt that abolitionists had insulted southern institutions by sending hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery pamphlets through the mail to the South. South Carolinian James Henry Hammond complained he would not “sit there and see the rights of the Southern People assaulted day after day, by the ignorant fanatics.” Many southerners defended their “peculiar institution” against the barrage of assaults and developed the idea that slavery was a “positive good” that was beneficial for slaves, masters, and the country because it preserved a natural order rooted in the inequality of the races. They blocked abolitionist literature from reaching southern states and were preparing to block consideration of any abolitionist petitions in Congress.

John Quincy Adams was an unlikely member of the House of Representatives. He was a statesman and a former one-term president who had decided it would hardly be a demotion to represent the people in the Congress. Elected for the first time in 1830, he would eventually serve nine terms in the House and became a firm advocate for justice, constitutional rights, and natural rights.

In February 1836, South Carolinian Henry Laurens Pinckney offered a resolution stating that the House of Representatives would table any petition mentioning slavery and ban any discussion or referral to committees. In effect, the resolution was a “gag rule” that would prevent the reception and consideration of any petition protesting slavery. In May, the House soon passed the resolution by a vote of 117 to 68. Adams immediately rose from his seat to protest the gag rule.  When shouted down by colleagues and not recognized by the Speaker of the House, James Polk, Adams was exasperated and yelled, “Am I gagged?”  He argued that the gag rule was a “direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents.”  He declared the gag rule a threat to free, deliberative government: “The freedom of debate has been stifled in this House to a degree far beyond anything that ever has happened since the existence of the Constitution.”

While he did not embrace radical abolitionism, Adams did think that slavery was a grave moral evil that contradicted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.  For Adams, the right to petition was essential to republican self-government by the consent of the governed and was a sacred, traditional right.  He asserted, “The right of petition . . . is essential to the very existence of government; it is the right of the people over the Government; it is their right, and they may not be deprived of it.”  Adams would persist in battling the gag rule and defending the just cause of a right to petition for the rights of others.

In January 1837, the House renewed the gag rule, and Adams quickly protested the rule by introducing hundreds of petitions including those from women and even free blacks and slaves.  The southerners in the House were irate and declared their honor insulted.  The House moved to censure (a formal reprimand) Adams for his supposed outrages.  Adams seized the opportunity to attack the gag rule and defend the right of petition.  It belonged not merely to the rich and powerful, but most especially to the powerless.  The right of petition was not the exclusive provenance of the “virtuous, the great, and the mighty,” he averred. “The right of petition belongs to all.” The attempt to censure Adams failed.

In early 1838, when the House voted to renew the gag rule yet again, Adams stood and argued that it violated “my right to freedom of speech as a member of the House.”  He also made the courageous stand to fight for women’s right of petition even though they could not vote.  “Are women to have no opinions or action on subjects relating to the general welfare?” he asked.

Adams continued to present hundreds of petitions with signatures from citizens opposed to slavery, and still his fellow representatives shouted him down.  Later that year, he resorted to a parliamentary trick by avoiding the word “petition” and stated he was introducing a “prayer” that all would enjoy their God-given rights.  “Petition was prayer,” he argued.  “It was the cry of the suffering for relief; of the oppressed for mercy.”  Therefore, to the great shock of Southerners, he asserted that he would therefore “not deny the right of petition to a slave.”

When he stated that summer that slavery was “a sin before the sight of God,” Adams received several death threats.  “I promise to cut your throat from ear to ear,” read one.  Another had a picture of a large Bowie knife, threatening, “Vengeance is mine, say the South!”  Finally, one warned of a “hangman to prepare a halter for John Quincy Adams.”  He confided to his diary that, “I walk on the edge of a precipice in every step that I take.”  Sometimes, he felt overwhelmed by the burden he was assuming for the cause of justice.  “I stand in the House of Representatives . . . alone.”  But he was not deterred from his path and only fought harder against the gag rule and for the right to petition against slavery.

Over the next two years, Adams introduced thousands of petitions. All were tabled without debate.  Pro-slavery representatives even instituted a harsher gag rule in 1840 to shut Adams up.  The House agreed that it would not even receive the petitions, but the new gag rule only passed by a narrow majority of six votes. Adams saw that his perseverance was bearing fruit. Still, in 1842, he saw a “conspiracy in and out of Congress to crush the liberties of a free people of the Union.”

Adams revered the Declaration of Independence (which his father, John Adams, had helped create) because of the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  It also asserted the principle of popular sovereignty, that all authority in a popular government resides in the people.  Consequently, Adams had the clerk of the House read the Declaration.  Adams then stated that, “I rest that petition on the Declaration of Independence.”

On December 3, 1844, Adams’s diligent efforts were finally rewarded when the House voted to abolish the gag rule.  He had fought and won a long struggle for constitutionalism and for the rights of others.  Even his enemies grudgingly admitted his diligence to the cause of justice.  Henry Wise of Virginia called Adams “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”  He had fought the gag rule, pursuing the ideal of justice and fighting to preserve American ideals: the right of petition for all Americans and the natural rights of enslaved Americans.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.


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Hamilton v. Jefferson: Taking the Constitution Seriously 

The First Congress was deeply divided over policies at the very start of the new nation. The debates generally centered around the economic policies and financial plans of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The contention about the National Bank in particular generally revealed a sectional and increasing partisan divide between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. While the debates revealed the tensions in the new nation, they also properly took place regarding interpretation of the Constitution.

In August 1790, Hamilton was preparing to move the treasury department to the new capital at Philadelphia. He had recently won the battle over the federal assumption of state debts and helped establish the soundness of the public credit. That month, Congress asked him to prepare a report on a National Bank. In December, he submitted a masterful blueprint for the National Bank and focused on its contribution to the growth of the American economy.

The National Bank would provide a means of taking deposits and lending out money for investment in business ventures, which would in turn stimulate the economy. Hamilton wrote, “By contributing to enlarge the mass of industrious and commercial enterprise, banks become nurseries of national wealth.” Hamilton believed that a bank was necessary not only to economic growth but to national security by funding armies in times of war.

The proposed bank encountered immediate opposition in both houses of Congress. Opponents were primarily southerners and those who feared centralized power and aristocracy—those who would become Jeffersonian Republicans. One member of Congress predicted, “This bank will raise in this country a moneyed interest at the devotion of government; it may bribe both states and individuals.” James Jackson of Georgia argued the bank was “calculated to benefit a small part of the United States, the mercantile interest.” Senator William Maclay predicted it would become “an aristocratic engine” and a “machine for the mischievous purposes of bad ministers.”

Despite the fierce opposition, the Senate easily passed the bill on January 20, 1791. James Madison led the opposition to the bank in the House. On February 2, Madison delivered a lengthy speech questioning the constitutionality of the proposed bank. Madison objected that it was not an enumerated power of Congress, nor was it a power Congress could legitimately exercise under the Necessary and Proper Clause in Article I, section 8. Madison’s arguments were to no avail. The House passed the bill by an overwhelming margin of 39 to 20.

President George Washington was a firm advocate of a stronger national government and economy, and usually sided on policy with Hamilton. However, the objections of Madison, and Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph in the cabinet, troubled the president. He also took the Constitution seriously when considering signing bills into law, and he was concerned about the absence of a specific constitutional clause allowing Congress to create a National Bank. Therefore, he solicited opinions from the members of his cabinet to help him decide whether to sign the bill into law.

Jefferson produced a stronger paper arguing against the bank than Randolph’s rambling opinions. Jefferson argued for limited government when he stated that to “take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.” The power to establish a bank was not one of the delegated powers of Congress, nor did the Necessary and Proper Clause apply because he thought the powers of the bank were unrelated to any other powers in Article I, Section 8. Jefferson argued that it was neither strictly necessary nor proper: “A bank therefore is not necessary, and consequently not authorized by this phrase.” He advised Washington to veto the bill because it was an “invasion of the legislature.”

On February 16, Washington weighed the arguments contained in the papers and then forwarded them to Hamilton for consideration while composing his paper. Five days later, Hamilton produced a brilliantly-crafted tour de force, burying his opponents in an avalanche of words and logic. Hamilton argued that the federal government had implied powers based upon having the means to execute the ends of its authority under enumerated powers. Moreover, Hamilton articulated numerous powers that Congress had that were related to the powers of a National Bank and therefore it was a constitutional exercise of power under the Necessary and Proper Clause. President Washington agreed with Hamilton’s constitutional reasoning and signed the bill into law on February 25.

The debate over the National Bank would be one of the disputes that helped create the Democratic-Republican and Federalist political parties. The differing perspectives on constitutional interpretation divided the Democratic-Republicans who had a strict construction of the Constitution from the Federalists who had a loose construction of the Constitution.  The 1790s were consequently characterized by a wide partisan divide over economic policies, constitutional interpretation, and foreign policy.

Whatever the divisions caused by the debate over the National Bank, the quarrel was ultimately rooted in the Constitution. Members of Congress considered the constitutionality of the bank bill during its passage. President Washington carefully weighed the Constitution when deciding to sign the bill, and its supporters and opponents made constitutional arguments for their rival views. The politicians and statesmen of the early republic took the Constitution seriously.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America fellow, a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute, and the author of six books including Hamilton: An American Biography and Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.


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James Madison and the Bill of Rights

On June 8, 1789, a few months after the convening of the First Congress, Representative James Madison arose on the floor and made a speech introducing amendments that would come to be known as the Bill of Rights.  Madison delivered a masterpiece of rhetorical statesmanship that attempted to persuade the Congress to pass a Bill of Rights to protect liberty and produce unity in the new government.

Madison had surprisingly opposed a Bill of Rights when it was introduced at the Constitutional Convention by George Mason and advocated by the Anti-Federalists throughout the ratification debate in the states.  During a long exchange with Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris, Madison privately articulated his reasons for opposing a Bill of Rights.

Most of the Madison’s reasoning was based upon the fact that he believed, along with James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton, that the Founders had created a natural rights republic with enumerated powers in a written constitution.  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.  He also had witnessed that they were often just “parchment barriers” that overbearing majorities violated in the states.

Although he enumerated several reasons for his opposition, Madison then gave his friend hope when he stated that most important reason in favor of a Bill of Rights was that, “The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the National sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”  Madison thought the liberties would become engrained in the American character.

When he arose to give the speech on June 8, Madison faced hostility from several Federalists who thought the House of Representatives had more pressing business. Most representatives and senators thought that the Congress had more important work to do setting up the new government or passing tax bills for revenue. Many thought it was a “tub to the whale,” or a distraction, like the empty tub that sailors would use to draw away a whale’s attention. They were forgetting their promise during the ratification debate to add amendments safeguarding liberties while setting up the new government. Madison wanted to ensure that obligation was fulfilled because he knew that failing to do so sure would strengthen the Anti-Federalist push for a second Convention to alter the Constitution and that it would stir up continuing opposition to the new republic.

Madison began his speech by stating that a Bill of Rights would prove to the Anti-Federalists that the Federalists were “as sincerely devoted to liberty and a republican government.”  In an act of reconciliation and magnanimity, he also reached out to the Anti-Federalists because, “We ought not to disregard their inclination, but, on principles of amity and moderation, conform to their wishes, and expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.”

Madison magnanimously completed his lengthy speech by asserting, “If we can make the constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it, without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness, in the judgment of those who are attached to it, we act the part of wise and liberal men.”

Even though Madison had been one of the strongest opponents of the Bill of Rights, he became the “Father of the Bill of Rights” as he skillfully guided the amendments through the Congress during the summer of 1789.  He reconciled all the various proposals for amendments from the state ratifying conventions and discarded any that would alter the structure of the Constitution or new government. Keeping the amendments protecting essential liberties, Madison developed a list of nineteen amendments and a preamble. He wanted them to be woven into the text of the Constitution, and sought a key amendment to protect religious freedom, a free press, and a trial by jury against violation by state governments. The attempts to have the amendments inserted into the text and applied to the states lost, but he forged ahead anyway. On August 24, the House sent seventeen amendments to the Senate after voting by more than the required two-thirds margin. By September 14, two-thirds of the Senate approved twelve amendments, removing the limitations on state governments. President Washington sent them to the states endorsing the amendments even if he did not have a formal role in their adoption.

Over the next two years, eleven states ratified the Bill of Rights to meet the three-fourths constitutional threshold including North Carolina and Rhode Island. Virginia became the last state to ratify on December 15, 1791. While we rightfully celebrate the Bill of Rights as essential to our liberties, we should not forget that the Constitution created a limited government that is the best guarantee of individual liberties.

Tony Williams is Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute; a Constituting America Fellow; author of Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, and Hamilton: An American Biography.

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The People’s Branch

In the spring of 1789, several dozen representatives and senators from eleven states (North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution) traveled to New York for the first session of the First Congress. Most fundamentally, they were assembling because the United States had a constitutional republican form of government based upon the consent of the governed.

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The Constitutional First Congress

As Representative James Madison reflected on the task of the First Congress, he stated, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” Perhaps Madison was wrong for the representatives and senators had a few guides at their disposal. They had their experience in the state legislatures and the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation. In addition, they had their wisdom and prudence to pursue the public good in deliberative government. Most fundamentally, they had the new Constitution as the fundamental guide for all their actions.

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Republican President Dwight Eisenhower reputedly said that appointing Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William Brennan were among his biggest mistakes as president as they helped usher in a wave of liberal jurisprudence at odds with Eisenhower’s conservative philosophy.  Republican President George H.W. Bush might have said the same about Justice David Souter for the same reasons.  Finally, Republican President Ronald Reagan would have agreed that Justice Anthony Kennedy surprisingly became a swing vote who could lean left.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Before the 1960s, all states had stringent laws banning abortions.  The women’s movement of the 1960s demanded access to abortion as one of the rights of women. Abortion rights activists began working at liberalizing state laws on abortion since it was a state issue in the federal system.  The advocacy successfully chipped away at several laws, though by the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973, roughly forty states still had strong laws against abortion.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

“Almighty God, we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country:” Engel v. Vitale (1962)

In the Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), the Supreme Court decided that it was constitutional for the state of New Jersey to reimburse parents for the cost of bus transportation, even to a parochial school. In rendering the decision, the Court attempted to use evidence from the nation’s founding to prove that there was a “wall of separation between church and state.”

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

“A Puzzle Inside an Enigma: Untangling Affirmative Action”

In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court invalidated fixed quota systems for affirmative action as a remedy for historic racism, but decided that using race as a factor in college admissions was constitutional. It was a confusing decision with a 4-4-1 vote with the justices all concurring in part and dissenting in part (and resulting in a 5-4 decision). Bakke did very little to settle the constitutionality of affirmative action or even to clarify the issue—indeed, it only confused the issue further.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

In December 1952, African-American lawyer Thurgood Marshall appeared before the Supreme Court representing a seven-year-old black girl from Topeka, Kansas named Linda Brown who had to ride the bus to her segregated black school instead of walking to the neighborhood school.  Marshall and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers were there for three days of oral arguments in five consolidated cases dealing with segregated schools.  Three hundred spectators packed the hearing room while four hundred anxiously waited in the corridors.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower reputedly said that appointing Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William Brennan were among his biggest mistakes as president as they helped usher in a wave of liberal jurisprudence at odds with Eisenhower’s conservative philosophy.  Republican President George H.W. Bush might have said the same about Justice David Souter for the same reasons.  Finally, Republican President Ronald Reagan would have agreed that Justice Anthony Kennedy surprisingly became a swing vote who could lean left.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Roger B. Taney was born and raised on a southern Maryland tobacco plantation.  He attended Dickinson College and received a classical education before reading law under Jeremiah Chase, one of three judges on the state’s General Court.  He passed the bar exam and married the sister of his close friend, Francis Scott Key.  He entered politics and won a seat in the Maryland House as a Federalist.  He supported the War of 1812 and broke with the Federalists over their opposition to the war.  He adopted Jeffersonian views that would lay the foundation for the rise of the Democratic Party.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Arrogance & Injustice in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Case

In the 1850s, the United States was deeply divided over the issue of slavery and its expansion into the West. The northern and southern sections of the country 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 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. 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, southern talk of secession was in the air, and observers warned of civil war.
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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Making up Rights?: Lochner v. New York (1905)

In April 1901, Utica, New York bakeshop owner, Joseph Lochner, was arrested for allowing one of his few employees, baker Aman Schmitter, to work more than sixty hours in a week. A grand jury indicted Lochner for violating a New York bakeshop law regulating work hours. In February 1902, he was tried, convicted, and fined fifty dollars for his misdemeanor crime.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

The “Sick Chicken” Case: Schechter Poultry Corp v. U.S. (1935)

In 1933, the American economy was mired in the great depths of the Great Depression characterized by unprecedented unemployment and deflation of prices for business and farmers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors believed that the problems of the economy were rooted in excessive business competition resulting in low prices, faltering incomes, and underconsumption. In 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) to stimulate business recovery and economic growth as part of the New Deal. The legislation established National Recovery Administration (NRA) as an executive agency to work with business to craft a variety of industrial codes and regulations for entire industries to decrease competition by setting codes within industries. The goal was to set production quotas to increase prices and introduce labor regulations including a minimum wage to benefit workers. The Roosevelt administration sought to prevent “unfair competition,” ironically by allowing business to cooperate in a way that broke antitrust laws.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Federal Regulation and the Rise of Big Business: United States v. E.C. Knight (1895)

The late nineteenth century was a time of business consolidation as the American economy experienced a “great merger movement” with the rise of big business. Through means foul and fair, corporations formed trusts that dominated entire industries to combat competitive pressures that drove prices and at times to monopolize for control. The sugar industry was a part of this consolidation movement.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In 1832, Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, applied for an early renewal of the bank’s charter.  He feared that bank opponent, President Andrew Jackson, would move to destroy the bank after he was re-elected.  So, Biddle tried to outmaneuver the president before the election.  His opponent, Henry Clay, and other National Republicans (future Whigs), supported Biddle’s move because they wanted to make it a campaign issue. Both houses of Congress voted to re-charter the bank in July.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In the early 1830s, the city of Baltimore was developing as a bustling urban center and port.  The city diverted the streams around John Barron’s successful wharf and lowered the water level, which negatively impacted his business.  He sued the city to recover his financial losses.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

In May, 1818, James William McCulloch was a cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States.  McCulloch issued a series of bank notes on which the bank did not pay a Maryland state tax.  The state treasurer quickly sued to recover the money and won a judgment in Maryland’s highest court. The Supreme Court soon accepted the case, which would have a profound impact in defining the principle of federalism, the reading of the Necessary and Proper Clause in the Constitution, and the national vision of the Marshall Court.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


A Thousand Points of Light: George H.W. Bush and the 1988 Election

George H.W. Bush had three significant obstacles to overcome if he wanted to be elected president in 1988.  The first was that Bush’s election seemed to be a referendum on eight years of the Reagan presidency.  Americans were split over that legacy with conservatives wanting to build on his economic and foreign policy achievements in the Cold War, while liberals wanted to stop a third consecutive term by a conservative Republican.  The recent Iran-Contra hearings had damaged the Reagan presidency and fed the partisanship.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

Morning in America: Ronald Reagan & the 1984 Election

In his 1984 State of the Union Address, President Ronald Reagan laid out his principles and vision that had guided his first term and provided the foundation for his re-election campaign. He reminded voters that the economy was growing rapidly and was back on track after the horrific stagflation of the Carter administration. The “crisis of confidence” of the 1970s was conquered by a renewed American spirit.  Reagan was proud to report that, “There is renewed energy and optimism throughout the land.”  Indeed, he touted, “America is back, standing tall.”

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


JFK, Catholicism, and the 1960 Election

The American Founding ushered in a “new order for the ages” that included the unprecedented and remarkable natural right of liberty of conscience.  The First Amendment protected this universal right of all humans and banned Congress from establishing an official religion.  The Constitution also banned all religious tests for national office.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Global War and Peace: The 1944 Election

In his 1944 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a “Second Bill of Rights” that redefined the rights of the founding bill of rights. This radical pronouncement promised economic security and “positive rights” guaranteed by the federal government.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


In 1932, the U.S. economy reached its nadir during the Great Depression.  Unemployment had risen to more than 20 percent, or 11 million Americans, matched by a similar number of the underemployed as factories and businesses closed their doors.  Banks were closing at an alarming rates as people instantly lost their life savings.  Hundreds of thousands of farmers and urban dwellers alike were suffering forecloses and lost their homes.  Breadlines were long and strained the resources of private charities and local governments.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


“The Professor and the Bull Moose” 1912 Election

In June, 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt broke with the tradition of candidates not attending conventions and arrived at the Republican National Convention with great fanfare. He fervently announced, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” He then proudly labelled himself a “Bull Moose.”

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!

In the early 1840s, thousands of settlers from the Midwest traveled to Independence, Missouri, where they loaded hundreds of pounds of food, tools, and supplies on their oxen-drawn wagons.  They launched an epic overland trek 2,000 miles to the Oregon Territory and braved its dangers in order to participate in the fur trade in earlier decades, but now mostly for farm land.  The individual decisions of these ordinary Americans in search of opportunity in the West would have implications for international affairs and the election of 1844.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


The election of 1824 was eerily similar to the 2016 campaign.  It was characterized by fierce personal attacks launched by the surrogates of candidates and by the candidates who accused each other of corruption.  Several establishment candidates ran but failed to rouse the base.  One highly popular candidate ran as an anti-establishment, Washington outsider and was widely accused of being a demagogue.  The partisan media lined up for their favorite candidates.  Economic issues ruled the day with many concerned about government intervention in the economy while others railed against “the interests.”

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


On June 22, 1807, the American frigate USS Chesapeake set sail from Norfolk, Virginia for the waters of the Atlantic to join in a squadron heading to the Mediterranean to battle the Barbary Pirates.  The 50-gun British warship HMS Leopard immediately pounced upon the ship and sought to board her seeking deserters from the Royal Navy.  When American Commodore James Barron refused the demand, the Leopard fired a warning shot and then loosed a deadly broadside at the Chesapeake.  The thunderous barrage was followed by others, and the beleaguered American ship could only offer meager resistance.  As the smoke drifted around the opposing ships, three American sailors lay dead and eighteen writhed in agony from horrific wounds.  Barron had no choice but to surrender, and the British seized four seamen though only one was a British subject.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


In the summer of 1798, the capital of Philadelphia was gripped by several fevers.  Ships from the tropical West Indies brought Yellow Fever to several port cities including Philadelphia, causing thousands to flee for their lives as the number of victims escalated.  The epidemic, however, hardly compared to the political fever taking hold over the country.

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the progressives created numerous agencies in the executive branch of government that were supposed to bring more rationality, efficiency, and order to American society.  They were to be run by scientific experts who would oversee a civil service bureaucracy that would govern objectivity as they made decisions free of politics and partisanship.

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The Treasury is not simply executing its task of printing money for legal tender and updating its design to thwart counterfeiters.  It is pursuing an ideological agenda outside of its authority. 

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The cliché that America is a “nation of immigrants” is true as successive waves of immigrants throughout its history came to this country for its freedoms and opportunity.  The Statue of Liberty symbolically welcomes immigrants to America.  Over the past 150 years, American immigration policy has alternated between restriction and liberalization.  But, whatever vacillating nature of immigration laws, the unifying core was that constitutionalism generally guided the process of laws regarding immigration.

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On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and killed 2,500 American servicemen.  Japan’s ally, Germany, followed up the attack by declaring war on the United States.  Just after noon on the following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the shocked members of Congress and told them that the sneak attack was a “date which will live in infamy.”  The Congress declared war on Japan by an 82-0 vote in the Senate and nearly unanimous vote of 388-1 in the House.  When Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, Congress responded in kind on December 10.  World War II became the last war in which the United States declared war against a foe.

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Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

John F. Kennedy, “Commencement Address at Yale University”

Throughout the twentieth century, one of the most fundamental tenets of progressive ideology was what many historians called the “gospel of efficiency” that found salvation in scientific rather than republican government. Progressives believed that democratic, partisan politics based upon representative government was often corrupt but always too messy. The people were too uninformed, the Progressives believed, and political compromise did not always result in the “best solutions.”

The Progressives thought that they had a much better alternative. They believed that if policymaking were removed from the hands of the sovereign people and their representatives and placed in the hands of the academic experts in executive agencies, then scientific government could rationalize all areas of American life to bring order and efficiency out of democratic chaos. The gospel of efficiency became indisputable truth and worshipped as a creed by those who simply knew better than ordinary people.

The result of this for progressive liberals has been to believe arrogantly that they are acting scientifically and rationally while conservatives rest their arguments on platitudes and slogans. This was recently seen in the debate over gun control in the wake of several tragic mass shootings. The supporters of increased gun control described their reforms as “reasonable,” “common sense,” or “moderate,” implying that anyone who opposed them were irrational extremists. Progressives after all were academic experts – they simply knew better than everyone else, who should simply passively accept the policies handed down to them.

President John F. Kennedy clearly expressed his belief in the kind of progressive ideals described above. His 1962 Commencement Address at Yale University reads like a Progressive manifesto on the superiority of progressive over consensual government.

After some amusing digs at Yale from a Harvard Man, Kennedy tells the graduates that the central domestic issues of his administration were not based upon “basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals – to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.” Kennedy explains some of the hidden meaning behind his statement. The Republicans and conservatives, though without naming them, rest their arguments on “myths,” “clichés,” “repetition of stale phrases,” “illusions,” and “platitudes.” Instead, Kennedy offers a post-partisan, progressive solution. “We need not partisan wrangling, but common concentration on common problems,” he explains to his audience. If the Republicans would simply accepted Kennedy’s ideas about government, then there wouldn’t be a problem.

He uses the occasion to shatter three prevailing illusions that “prevent effective action.” The first myth is that government is too large and that government is bad. He seeks to demolish this myth with the argument that the size of the government bureaucracy and federal debt had grown less rapidly than the size of the economy and any other sector of national life. Moreover, he argues that the large size of government “can bring benefits.” For example, even though he proudly states that three out of every four dollars for medical and scientific research comes from the federal government, “American scientists remain second to none in their independence and in their individualism.”

The second myth is that the growing federal debt is a problem. As proof, Kennedy states that although the debt was growing, it was decreasing as per capita and relative to Gross National Product. Additionally, he maintains that the public debt is increasing at a slower pace than private debt or the debt of state governments. If Kennedy can be forgiven for not guessing that our debt would reach a staggering seventeen trillion dollars, he might have foreseen that his support of a much larger government with almost limitless responsibility might contribute mightily to an unsustainable federal debt.

The third myth that Kennedy debunks is that business lacked confidence in his administration leading to stagnation. The president argues instead that confidence is rooted upon institutions – business, labor, and government – all fulfilling their obvious “obligations to the public.” The “solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.” The national administrative state run by experts necessarily reaches into every aspect of American life to usher in a perfect society not just for the United States but the world. Indeed, he continues, arguing that, “The safety of all the world – the very future of freedom – depends as never before upon the sensible and clearheaded management of the domestic affairs of the United States.”

What is at stake, Kennedy avers, is not contending rival visions of liberals and conservatives who would debate as politicians in a republican system, but the “practical management of a modern economy” by experts who could solve “sophisticated and technical questions.” Political compromise and representative government may have been adequate in a bygone age but the modern era had more subtle challenges for which only “technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.”

Kennedy’s embrace of progressivism traced its lineage back to Woodrow Wilson and the early twentieth century. Kennedy advocates a government based upon the European model when he promotes a government by experts and an increasingly large government that manages society,. Just as Wilson admired the German model and philosophy, Kennedy thinks America should become more like Europe. “The example of Western Europe,” Kennedy explains, “shows that they are capable of solution – that governments . . . prepared to face technical problems without ideological preconceptions, can coordinate the elements of a national economy and bring about growth and prosperity.”

President John F. Kennedy sought to administer government by progressive experts rather than the people. He sought to bring efficiency and order to democratic politics and free enterprise. He sought to impose a European vision of statism on American institutions, and then promised that this was the way to protect and promote freedom. It would supposedly “demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and the strength of a free society.” Perhaps we are living with the illusion that one could live freely and enjoy prosperity in a managed society.

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, which teaches teachers American founding principles. Free downloads of its recently published WJMI Guide to the Constitution are available at He is the author of four books including American Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.


Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

On June 27, 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency.  Despite all of the success in getting Congress to pass New Deal legislation during his first administration and his excellent chances for re-election, FDR felt beleaguered.  Republicans in Congress and conservatives such as Herbert Hoover and the Liberty League continued to oppose the legislation he believed would solve the economic crisis and transform America.  Populist radicals such as Huey Long and Charles Townshend went even further than FDR in seeking to provide a guaranteed income for Americans and won some of his support.  Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

In 1932, the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the privileged scion of a wealthy family who ran a campaign that was committed to the Progressive vision of American society and government from the turn of the century.  In his “Commonwealth Club Address,” FDR embraced the Progressive idea that pitted the “interests” against the people.  He also promised the continued growth of the administrative state managed by enlightened bureaucratic elites in the name of the people.  Even more importantly, FDR maintained that the purpose of government under the social compact was to preserve rights, but he was bold enough to assert that a redefinition of rights was necessary in an industrial age.  Achieving this vision would usher in a secular utopia of progress and equality. Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA

Progressivism was a movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Whatever its different iterations, progressivism was rooted in the belief that the natural rights principles of the American founding were fine for an earlier age but no longer relevant in a mass, industrial society.  The modern age, as the Progressives saw it, was characterized by great inequality and concentrations of wealth.  The “interests” controlled the masses for their own self-interest rather than the public good. Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA

We’re No Longer Lockeans Now: John Dewey & the Rise of Modern Liberalism, by Tony Williams

In his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech, Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens argued that Thomas Jefferson and the Founders really meant all humans, including blacks, were created equal in the Declaration of Independence.  He just believed that they were wrong.  John Dewey, in his “Liberalism and Social Action,” does much the same thing.  He largely summarizes the ideas of John Locke correctly and notes his influence on the Founding.  Again, much like Stephens did, he rejects those ideas, this time because of his belief in the new liberalism of the modern Progressive administrative state.  Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

1859 was an ominous year for America as civil war between the sections threatened despite the attempts to avert it.  Back in 1854, Stephen Douglas had tried to quell sectionalism with the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would grant the seeming American principle of popular sovereignty regarding slavery in the territories, but Kansas became “bleeding Kansas” as a shooting war between pro and anti-slavery forces erupted after they flooded the state to institute their vision of popular sovereignty.  In 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney injected the Court into the political question and tried to help prevent civil war with the Dred Scott opinion, Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.  His opponent in the election would be Stephen Douglas.  Upon his nomination, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in the war of words of what would culminate in the Lincoln-Douglas debates later that year. Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

“Conscience is the Most Sacred of Property”: James Madison’s Essay on Property
by Tony Williams

On January 24, 1774, James Madison wrote to a college friend praising the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred only weeks before.  He praised the Boston patriots for their boldness in “defending liberty and property.”  Equating political and civil liberty, he warned that if the Church of England had established itself as the official religion of all the colonies, then “slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us.” Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a thirteen-foot mammoth cheese weighing some 1,200 pounds.  It was delivered by dissenting Baptist minister and long-time advocate of religious liberty, Reverend John Leland, who then preached a sermon to the president and members of Congress at the Capitol two days later.  Jefferson took the opportunity to compose a letter to the Danbury Baptists on the relationship between government and religion that would shape the course of twentieth-century jurisprudence. Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

The Constitution

When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights.  Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.

If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights. Read more

Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics & American Republican Government

After George Washington was sworn-in as the first president of the new American republic on April 30, 1789, he delivered his First Inaugural Address to the people’s representatives in Congress.  He started the speech with his characteristic humility, stating that although he wished to retire to Mount Vernon and did not have the requisite skill to govern a country, he was nevertheless answering the call of his country.  The address struck a distinctly Aristotelian chord in Washington’s wishes for his country.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, describes his understanding of the basic nature of man.  Humans are rational creatures, he maintains, and must use that reason to exercise self-restraint over their passions.  That same rationality allows humans to be ethical, Read more