First Inaugural Address by Ronald Reagan – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Breaking with historical precedent, Reagan’s first inauguration was held on the Capitol’s West Front, allowing him to refer in his speech to the presidential memorials and to Arlington National Cemetery in the distance. The first post-New Deal president to challenge the principles of the New Deal, Reagan presents his opposition in terms of reviving the idea of consent of the governed.

January 20, 1981

Senator Hatfield, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Vice President Mondale, Senator Baker, Speaker O’Neill, Reverend Moomaw, and My Fellow Citizens:

To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle. Read more

A Time for Choosing by Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In this nationally televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican Party presidential candidate, Reagan challenges the Progressive principles behind President Johnson’s Great Society. The speech propelled Reagan to national prominence.

October 27, 1964

I am going to talk of controversial things. I make no apology for this. I have been talking on this subject for ten years, obviously under the administration of both parties. I mention this only because it seems impossible to legitimately Read more

Commencement Address at Howard University by Lyndon B. Johnson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In this commencement address, President Johnson calls for a redefinition of equality.

June 4, 1965

Dr. Nabrit, my fellow Americans:

I am delighted at the chance to speak at this important and this historic institution. Howard has long been an outstanding center for the education of Negro Americans. Its students are of every race and color and they come from many countries of the world. It is truly a working example of democratic excellence. Read more

Remarks at the University of Michigan by Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In this commencement address, President Johnson introduces his Progressive idea of a “Great Society.”

May 22, 1964

President Hatcher, Governor Romney, Senators McNamara and Hart, Congressmen Meader and Staebler, and other members of the fine Michigan delegation, members of the graduating class, my fellow Americans:

It is a great pleasure to be here today. This university has been coeducational since 1870, Read more

Commencement Address at Yale University by John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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President Kennedy’s New Frontier policies were consistent with the policies of his Progressive predecessors. Current problems, he suggests in this speech, call for technical expertise rather than old ideas.

June 11, 1962

President Griswold, members of the faculty, graduates and their families, ladies and gentlemen:

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor that you have conferred upon me. As General de Gaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so I am pleased to come to Yale, Read more

Annual Message to Congress by Franklin D. Roosevelt – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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As victory in the Second World War looked more and more likely, President Roosevelt turned his attention to postwar America. In this speech he proposes a “second Bill of Rights.”

January 11, 1944

…It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people–whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth–is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. Read more

What Good’s a Constitution? by Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Written soon after Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Convention Address of 1936, this article by British statesman Winston Churchill points to the wide gulf between Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s economic views, even if five years later they would forge a close wartime alliance. Beyond their differences on economics, Churchill sees the American Constitution as an enduring source of strength for the American republic, not an obstacle to be overcome.

August 22, 1936

No one can think clearly or sensibly about this vast and burning topic without Read more

Democratic Convention Address by Franklin D. Roosevelt – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Having launched the New Deal, an ambitious program of political and economic re-engineering aimed at ending the Great Depression, President Roosevelt accepted his party’s nomination to run for a second term. In this speech at the 1936 Democratic Convention, he defends his programs–some of which had been struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court–and tags opponents as “economic royalists.”

June 27, 1936

Senator Robinson, Members of the Democratic Convention, my friends:

Here, and in every community throughout the land, we are met at a time of great moment to the future of the Nation. It is an occasion to be dedicated to the simple and sincere expression of an attitude toward problems, the determination of which will profoundly affect America. Read more

Commonwealth Club Address by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Delivered by Roosevelt to California’s Commonwealth Club during his first run for the White House, this speech was penned by Adolf Berle, a noted scholar and a member of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” who drew deeply upon earlier Progressive thought, especially that of John Dewey.

September 23, 1932

…I want to speak not of politics but of Government. I want to speak not of parties, but of universal principles. They are not political, except in that larger sense in which a great American once expressed a definition of politics, that nothing in all of human life is foreign to the science of politics. Read more

The Inspiration of the Declaration by Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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President Coolidge delivered this speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Rejecting Progressivism root and branch, he defends America’s founding principles.

July 5, 1926

We meet to celebrate the birthday of America. The coming of a new life always excites our interest. Although we know in the case of the individual that it has been an infinite repetition reaching back beyond our vision, that only makes it the more wonderful. Read more

Progressive Democracy by Herbert Croly (1869-1930) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In this book, Croly, a leading Progressive theorist and founder of The New Republic magazine, criticizes the Founders’ fear of tyranny of the majority and rejects their idea that government exists to protect individual rights.

1915

Chapter XII: The Advent of Direct Government

…If economic, social, political and technical conditions had remained very much as they were at the end of the eighteenth century, the purely democratic political aspirations might never have obtained the chance of expression. Some form of essentially representative government was at that time apparently the only dependable kind of liberal political organization. It was imposed by the physical and technical conditions under which government had to be conducted. Direct government did not seem to be possible outside of city or tribal states, whose population and area was sufficiently small to permit the actual assemblage of the body politic at some particular place, either at regular intervals or in case of an emergency. Read more

The Right of the People to Rule by Theodore Roosevelt – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Roosevelt relinquished the presidency in 1908, believing that his Progressive legacy lay safely in the hands of his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. Although Taft expanded many of Roosevelt’s policies and succeeded in passing through Congress the Sixteenth Amendment, permitting a national income tax, Roosevelt challenged Taft in the 1912 Republican primary. Losing the nomination, he announced an independent candidacy under the banner of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. In this campaign speech, he urges more direct power to the people through recall elections, referenda and initiatives, and direct primaries.

March 20, 1912

The great fundamental issue now before the Republican party and before our people can be stated briefly. It is, Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not. Read more

The Study of Administration by Woodrow Wilson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Writing a year before Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first independent regulatory agency, Wilson argues in this article that it is only through such agencies–separate from the political process and independent of the electorate–that government can pursue its necessary ends.

November 2, 1886

I suppose that no practical science is ever studied where there is no need to know it. The very fact, therefore, that the eminently practical science of administration is finding its way into college courses in this country would prove that this country needs to know more about administration, were such proof of the fact required to make out a case.  Read more

The Presidency: Making an Old Party Progressive by Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Roosevelt’s ascension to the presidency in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley marked the emergence of Progressivism on the national scene. From trust busting to railroad regulation, Roosevelt sought to expand federal power over a large swath of the American economy. In this excerpt from his autobiography, he offers a view of the Constitution that is compatible with his Progressive politics.

1913

…The most important factor in getting the right spirit in my Administration, next to the insistence upon courage, honesty, and a genuine democracy of desire to serve the plain people, was my insistence upon the theory that the executive power was limited only by specific restrictions and prohibitions appearing in the Constitution or imposed by the Congress under its Constitutional powers. Read more

The President of the United States by Woodrow Wilson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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For Wilson, constitutional checks and balances and the separation of powers are indicative of the flawed thinking of America’s Founders. They are means of limiting government, when the fact is that government alone can provide the people’s needs. Wilson looks to the presidency–the singular voice of the people–as the best hope for overcoming the old order.

1908

It is difficult to describe any single part of a great governmental system without describing the whole of it. Governments are living things and operate as organic wholes.  Moreover, governments have their natural evolution and are one thing in one age, another in another. The makers of the Constitution constructed the federal government upon a theory of checks and balances which was meant to limit the operation of each part and allow to no single part or organ of it a dominating force; but no government can be successfully conducted upon so mechanical a theory. Read more

Socialism and Democracy by Woodrow Wilson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Wilson makes clear in this article the consequences of rejecting the idea of inherent natural rights for the idea that rights are a positive grant from government.

August 22, 1887

Is it possible that in practical America we are becoming sentimentalists? To judge by much of our periodical literature, one would think so. All resolution about great affairs seems now “sicklied o’er with a pale cast of thought.” Our magazine writers smile sadly at the old-time optimism of their country; are themselves full of forebodings; expend much force and enthusiasm and strong (as well as weak) English style in disclosing social evils and economic bugbears; are moved by a fine sympathy for the unfortunate and a fine anger against those who bring wrong upon their fellows: but where amidst all these themes for the conscience is there a theme for the courage of the reader? Where are the brave plans of reform which should follow such prologues? Read more

What is Progress? by Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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After earning a Ph.D. in both history and political science at Johns Hopkins University, Wilson held various academic positions, culminating in the presidency of Princeton University. Throughout this period, he came to see the Constitution as a cumbersome instrument unfit for the government of a large and vibrant nation. This speech, delivered during his successful campaign for president in 1912 and included in a collection of speeches called The New Freedom, puts forward the idea of an evolving, or “living,” constitution.

1913

In that sage and veracious chronicle, “Alice Through the Looking-Glass,” it is recounted how, on a noteworthy occasion, the little heroine is seized by the Red Chess Queen, who races her off at a terrific pace. Read more

The American Conception of Liberty by Frank Goodnow (1859-1939) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Progressive political science was based on the assumption that society could be organized in such a way that social ills would disappear. Goodnow, president of Johns Hopkins University and the first president of the American Political Science Association, helped pioneer the idea that separating politics from administration was the key to progress. In this speech, given at Brown University, he addresses the need to move beyond the ideas of the Founders.

1916

The end of the eighteenth century was marked by the formulation and general acceptance by thinking men in Europe of a political philosophy which laid great emphasis on individual private rights. Read more

Liberalism and Social Action by John Dewey (1859-1952) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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As a leading Progressive scholar from the 1880s onward, Dewey, who taught mainly at Columbia University, devoted much of his life to redefining the idea of education. His thought was influenced by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, and central to it was a denial of objective truth and an embrace of historicism and moral relativism. As such he was critical of the American founding.

1935

1. The History of Liberalism

…The natural beginning of the inquiry in which we are engaged is consideration of the origin and past development of liberalism. It is to this topic that the present chapter is devoted. Read more

Second Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The South’s surrender was a month away when Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural. Lincoln looks back on the war and ahead to the task of rebuilding the nation. A little over a month later, he was assassinated.

March 4, 1865

Fellow Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. Read more

Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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From July 1 to 3, 1863, 160,000 men from the Union and Confederate armies met at Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania. It would prove to be the turning point of the war, but with more than 50,000 casualties from both sides it was among the most costly of battles. President Lincoln’s speech, delivered four months later, lasted only two minutes. But it said as much or more about the Civil War than any book written since.

November 19, 1863

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.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. Read more

The Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, promised emancipation for slaves residing in the Confederacy, unless the rebellious states returned to the Union by January 1 of the following year. The three-month deadline came and went, and slavery ceased to have legal sanction in much of the South. Although complete emancipation did not occur until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, Lincoln’s actions earned him the nickname “The Great Emancipator.” Read more

Message to Congress in Special Session by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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On April 12, 1861, a Confederate commander informed the Union forces stationed at Fort Sumter, in the Charleston harbor, of his plans to attack. The Civil War began an hour later. President Lincoln immediately called for 75,000 volunteers. Four states from the upper South seceded over the following month. With Congress out of session, Lincoln led the military effort without congressional approval for nearly three months. In this speech to Congress, which convened on Independence Day, he depicts the Confederacy as a section of the Union in insurrection rather than a foreign nation requiring a declaration of war. Read more

First Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, delivered a month after the formation of the Confederacy, served as a final plea for Americans to reunite. Lincoln makes clear that he has no intention to change the status of slavery in the states where it exists, having no constitutional authority to do so. He makes equally clear that secession is not a constitutional option.

March 4, 1861

Fellow citizens of the United States:

In compliance with a custom as old as the government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly, and to take, in your presence, the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, to be taken by the President “before he enters on the execution of his office.” Read more

Farewell Address to the Senate by Jefferson Davis – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Most Southern members of Congress followed their states into secession. In this farewell speech, Senator Davis expresses admiration for the late Senator John C. Calhoun, author of the nullification doctrine, and surprisingly invokes the Declaration of Independence in his cause.

January 21, 1861

I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Read more

Cornerstone Speech by Alexander Stephens (1812-1883) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Former Senator Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederate government, while former Georgia Congressman Alexander Stephens became vice president. Three weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, Stephens delivered this speech in Savannah, identifying the cornerstone of the Confederacy as an idea opposite to the equality principle of the American founding.

March 21, 1861

At half past seven o’clock on Thursday evening, the largest audience ever assembled at the Athenaeum was in the house, waiting most impatiently for the appearance of the orator of the evening, Read more

South Carolina Secession Declaration – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In December 1860, South Carolina announced its departure from the United States of America, citing Abraham Lincoln’s election as a primary cause. Six states quickly followed South Carolina’s lead, and on February 4, 1861, they banded together to form the Confederate States of America.

December 24, 1860 Read more

Reply in the Senate to Stephen Douglas by Jefferson Davis – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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A month before this speech, the Democratic National Convention had convened in Charleston, South Carolina. When the delegates failed to adopt an explicitly pro-slavery platform, the Convention dissolved. Rival Southern and Northern Conventions reconvened in June 1860, each nominating their own presidential candidate: Stephen Douglas for the North and John Breckinridge for the South. With the Democratic vote thus divided, the Republican candidate was widely expected to win the 1860 election. Here Davis laments the Kansas-Nebraska solution, explaining how Douglas, once a Southern hero, had become a villain.

May 17, 1860

…It is this confusion of ideas, it is this confounding of terms, this changing of language, this applying of special meanings to words, out of which, I think, a large portion of the dispute arises. Read more

Reply in the Senate to William Seward by Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The Senate of 1860 looked little like the Senate of 1790, its proceedings having degenerated into unbridled partisanship. Several years before this debate, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks savagely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner following anti-slavery remarks on the Senate floor. The South had few defenders more tenacious than Mississippi’s Senator Jefferson Davis. He had opposed the Compromise of 1850 and hoped for the annexation of much of northern Mexico, which he believed a natural place to expand Southern interests. Here, in response to New York Senator William Seward, Davis makes clear that, like John C. Calhoun, he rejects the equality principle of the Declaration. Read more

Address at Cooper Institute by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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With an eye to the Republican presidential nomination of 1860, Lincoln campaigned vigorously across the North. Responding to Stephen Douglas’s “Dividing Line” speech, he used this address to claim the mantle of America’s Founders for the Republican Party. Employing original research on the anti-slavery views of “our fathers,” Lincoln cast himself as a conservative. The speech caught the attention of the Eastern political establishment, while at the same time distinguishing him from the radical abolitionists.

February 27, 1860

…But enough! Let all who believe that “our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now,” speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it.  Read more

The Dividing Line between Federal and Local Authority: Popular Sovereignty in the Territories by Stephen Douglas – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In September 1857, pro-slavery forces in Kansas drafted the Lecompton Constitution. Their anti-slavery opponents declared the document invalid, as they had not participated in its creation. Adhering to the principle of popular sovereignty, Douglas rejected the Lecompton Constitution and called for Kansans to draft a new document. Northern Democrats, dismayed by the armed conflict in Kansas, supported his position; Southern Democrats looked on it as an act of betrayal. Douglas took every opportunity to explain his position in hopes of re-unifying his party. This speech was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Read more

Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Lincoln and Douglas agreed to debate in all nine of the state’s congressional districts, with their recent speeches in Chicago and Springfield counting as the opening salvos. Seven debates ensued, each lasting three hours. This seventh and last debate, held in Alton, drew more than 5,000 spectators. Local and national papers–most in the service of one of the two main parties–reprinted each speech, leading to widespread circulation. After the debates concluded, Lincoln published an edited version. The book’s popularity throughout the North paved the way for his eventual presidential campaign. Read more

Speech at Chicago by Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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As the primary author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the most vocal defender of the Dred Scott decision, Douglas traveled extensively promoting the concept of popular sovereignty, which he equated with republican self-government. The national reputation he garnered in the process would, he hoped, serve him well in a future presidential bid. Read more

A House Divided by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Lincoln delivered this speech upon his nomination as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, where he would square off against incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas. Drawing the leading metaphor from a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, Lincoln held that pro-slavery forces–Douglas, Franklin Pierce (president when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was adopted), Roger Taney, and James Buchanan (president when Dred Scott was decided)–were working in concert to effect a national policy legalizing slavery in all states and territories. Papers throughout the North reprinted the text of the speech, propelling Lincoln to new prominence. Read more

Speech on the Dred Scott Decision by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Lincoln argues that Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford violated America’s founding principles and rewrote American history.

June 26, 1857

…And now as to the Dred Scott decision. That decision declares two propositions–first, that a negro cannot sue in the U.S. Courts; and secondly, that Congress cannot prohibit slavery in the Territories. It was made by a divided court–dividing differently on the different points. Read more

Dred Scott v. Sandford by Roger Taney (1777-1864) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Like Stephen Douglas, Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney believed that his response to the slavery controversy would resolve the issue. His ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford had the opposite result, throwing the country into even greater turmoil. The case was brought by a slave, Dred Scott, who was taken by his master into territory in which slavery was illegal. Asked to rule simply on whether Scott’s residency in a free territory meant that he should be granted freedom, the Court ruled that Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories and that persons of African descent could not be citizens, rendering both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 unconstitutional. Read more

Republican Party Platform of 1856 – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Northern anger toward the Kansas-Nebraska Act reached its zenith in the late spring of 1854, when various anti-slavery forces coalesced in Jackson, Michigan. Organized around the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Republican Party was born out of this meeting. It would adopt a platform two years later that called for repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and restoration of the Missouri Compromise. Read more

Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act by Abraham Lincoln – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Supporters of the Compromise of 1850 lauded it as a continuation of the Missouri Compromise, which had helped maintain peace for thirty years. But four years later, the Missouri Compromise was eviscerated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Authored by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, it was in fact two provisions, one providing for the territory of Nebraska and the other for the new territory of Kansas. Breaking with the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery in this part of the country, it established the policy of “popular sovereignty”: Slavery would be voted on by the citizens of each territory, and made legal or illegal according to the will of the majority. For Lincoln, this policy struck at the very heart of free government. Read more

Alabama Slave Code of 1852 – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Growth in the slave population and threats from abolitionists led Southern states to adopt new slave codes in the mid-nineteenth century. Alabama’s revised code, adopted in 1852 and in effect until the end of the Civil War, built on a previous code from 1833.

1852

Chapter III. Patrols.

§983. All white male owners of slaves, below the age of sixty years, and all other free white persons, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years, who are not disabled by sickness or bodily infirmity, except commissioned officers in the militia, and persons exempt by law from the performance of militia duty, are subject to perform patrol duty…. Read more

The Constitution and the Union by Daniel Webster (1782-1852) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Webster began representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate in 1813, and by the 1830s had attained a national reputation–in part as a result of his Senate debates with nullification proponent Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina. Webster spent the final decade of his life attempting to avert the growing sectional divide, never wavering in his defense of the Union. In this speech he restated his longstanding conviction that “Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.” He died two years later, in 1852, with the nation divided.

March 7, 1850

Mr. President:

I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. Read more

The Wilmot Proviso – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Early on in the Mexican-American War, America gained control over a vast swath of new territory extending from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. In 1846, Congressman David Wilmot proposed a ban on slavery across the region, angering those who advocated on behalf of slavery’s westward expansion.

August 8, 1846

Provided, That, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated Read more

The Missouri Compromise – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The sectional struggle over slavery came to a head in 1820. With eleven free states and eleven slave states, if Missouri entered the Union as a slave state, the balance of power would shift toward the South. After several months of debate, a compromise emerged: Maine would enter the Union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state. Additionally, slavery was prohibited in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern border.

March 6, 1820

An Act to authorize the people of the Missouri territory to form a constitution and state government, and for
the admission of such state into the Union Read more

Letter to Edward Everett by James Madison – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In this 1830 response to Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett, Madison maintains that a state does not possess the authority to strike down as unconstitutional an act of the federal government. The contrary doctrine, known as nullification, would take on later significance.

August 28, 1830

I have duly received your letter in which you refer to the “nullifying doctrine,” advocated as a constitutional right by some of our distinguished fellow citizens; and to the proceedings of the Virginia Legislature in 98 and 99, as appealed to in behalf of that doctrine; and you express a wish for my ideas on those subjects. Read more

Letter to John Holmes by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Awakened to the looming crisis over slavery by the Missouri Compromise, Jefferson foresees in this letter that the Compromise was far from the final word on the matter.

April 22, 1820

I thank you, dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. Read more

Speech on the Oregon Bill by John C. Calhoun – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Even worse than political errors such as the Northwest Ordinance, Calhoun argues here, are theoretical errors, chief of which is the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence.

June 27, 1848

…I turn now to my friends of the South, and ask: What are you prepared to do? If neither the barriers of the constitution nor the high sense of right and justice should prove sufficient to protect you, Read more

Speech on Reception of Abolition Petitions by John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The number of slaves in America had grown from 700,000 in 1790 to over two million in 1830. Northern opposition to slavery was growing in the 1820s and 1830s, as it became clear that hopes for a withering away of slavery were unrealistic. This elicited a similarly strong response Read more

Letter to Henri Gregoire by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The Constitution specified that Congress could not prohibit the importation of slaves until 1808. President Jefferson signed the bill to bring about this prohibition in March 1807 and it went into effect on January 1, 1808. Writing here a year later, he maintains hopes for an end to slavery itself. Read more

Letter to the English Anti-Slavery Society by John Jay (1745-1829) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In 1777, Jay’s first attempt to abolish slavery in New York failed. In 1788, the state banned the importation of slaves. By 1799, the New York Manumission Society advocated for a bill, signed into law that year by then-Governor Jay, specifying that as of July 4, all children born to slave parents would be freed by a certain age. Less than a year after the Constitutional Convention, Jay addresses concerns from his British counterparts that anti-slavery progress in America is too slow.

June 1788

Gentlemen:

Our society has been favored with your letter of the 1st of May last, and are happy that efforts so honorable to the nation are making in your country to promote the cause of justice and humanity relative to the Africans. Read more

Letter to John Jay by Alexander Hamilton – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Hamilton, a founder of the New York Manumission Society, writes to John Jay, a co-founder of the Society and then-president of the Continental Congress, arguing that slaves should be allowed to fight for the American cause in the War for Independence, earning their “freedom with their muskets.” Eventually, some 5,000 blacks served as soldiers in the war.

March 14, 1779

Dear Sir:

Colonel Laurens, who will have the honor of delivering you this letter, is on his way to South Carolina, Read more

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was well aware that his ownership of slaves violated the principles he espoused.

1784

The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that State?

It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the manners of a nation may be tried, whether catholic or particular. Read more

George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison on Slavery – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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None of the leading Founders ever declared slavery to be a just or beneficial institution. In fact, they hoped to see the slave trade eradicated, and eventually the entire institution of slavery made illegal.

George Washington
Letter to Robert Morris 1
April 12, 1786

“…[T]here is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it….” Read more

The Northwest Ordinance by Congress of the Confederation – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Passed when only a single state outlawed slavery, the anti-slavery stance of the Northwest Ordinance–barring slavery in the territories, and thus in future states–gave weight to Abraham Lincoln’s later argument that the Founders sought to place slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.”

July 13, 1787

Article VI

…There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, Read more

Draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a critique of King George III’s involvement in the slave trade. Although not approved by the entire Second Continental Congress, it indicates that the leading Founders understood the slavery issue in moral terms.

1776

…He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Read more

Essay XI by Brutus – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Here Brutus criticizes the power granted by the Constitution to an independent judiciary.

January 31, 1788

The nature and extent of the judicial power of the United States, proposed to be granted by this constitution, claims our particular attention.Much has been said and written upon the subject of this new system on both sides, but I have not met with any writer, who has discussed the judicialpowers with any degree of accuracy. And yet it is obvious, that we can form but very imperfect ideas of the manner in which this government will work, or the effect it will have in changing the internal police and mode of distributing justice at present subsisting in the respective states, without a thorough investigation of the powers of the judiciary and of the manner in which they will operate. Read more

Letters I and II by Federal Farmer – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Alexander Hamilton acknowledged the Federal Farmer–believed to be either New Yorker Melancton Smith or Virginian Richard Henry Lee–as “the most plausible” Anti-Federalist. Here, the Federal Farmer argues that the federalism of the Constitution is a mirage, for it sets up a structure in which all power will flow to the center. Read more

Essay I by Brutus – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Supporters of the Constitution dubbed their opponents “Anti-Federalists.” Opponents resented the label, but it stuck. The Anti-Federalist author Brutus–most likely New York lawyer Robert Yates–penned this essay, the first of sixteen, a month after the Constitution was completed. Having attended the first month of the Constitutional Convention, Yates had left, disgusted with what he perceived as a plan that would give far too much power to the central government. Read more

Letter Transmitting the Constitution by George Washington – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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As they affixed their names to the new Constitution, the Framers understood that their work had just begun. Four months of debate and compromise paled in comparison to the challenge of convincing the states to ratify. Unanimity was not necessary for the Constitution to go into effect–only nine of thirteen states were needed–but they knew that without the approval of the largest of the states, including New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, their work would be for naught. Congress sent this letter to each state to begin the ratification process. Read more

Vices of the Political System of the United States by James Madison – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In this essay, Madison outlines the main issues that the Constitutional Convention should address. His early arrival in Philadelphia allowed him to incorporate his ideas into a recommended plan for the Convention–what came to be called the Virginia Plan–representing no mere revision of the Articles of Confederation, but the adoption of an entirely new Constitution.

April 1787

1. Failure of the States to comply with the Constitutional requisitions.

This evil has been so fully experienced both during the war and since the peace, Read more

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIII: Constitution by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIII: Constitution 1

Thomas Jefferson

Virginia, the most populous state, adopted its state constitution in 1776, a month before the Declaration of Independence passed Congress. Jefferson, Virginia’s governor from 1779 to 1781, addressed the problems that plagued the state’s first attempt at self-government in his 1784 book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Read more

Letter to James Madison by George Washington – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Washington writes here to Madison, two months before the Constitutional Convention was set to start in Philadelphia. A year earlier, only twelve men from five states attended a gathering held in Annapolis, Maryland, to amend the Articles of Confederation. Both men feared the consequences should this convention similarly fail.

March 31, 1787

My dear Sir:

At the same time that I acknowledge the receipt of your obliging favor of the 21st. Ult. from New York, Read more

Letter to John Jay by George Washington – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Washington writes here as a private citizen to Jay, who as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation witnessed firsthand the Articles’ shortcomings, as each state pursued a different foreign policy.

August 15, 1786

Dear Sir:

I have to thank you very sincerely for your interesting letter of the twenty-seventh of June, as well as for the other communications you had the goodness to make at the same time. Read more

Circular Letter to the States by George Washington – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, overseen by a national legislature that struggled to fund the War for Independence, General Washington was as familiar as anyone with the defects of the Articles of Confederation. In this, his last circular letter to the states, which he sent to the thirteen governors, Washington emphasizes the need for unity in the maintenance of the nation’s independence.

June 8, 1783

Sir:

The great object for which I had the honor to hold an appointment in the Service of my Country, being accomplished, I am now preparing to resign it into the hands of Congress, Read more

The Articles of Confederation – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Pennsylvanian John Dickinson–who declined to sign the Declaration of Independence because he believed that the states should be organized politically before declaring independence–wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation in 1777. Signed into effect that year and ratified in 1781, the Articles provided the structure of government for the states until the Constitution was ratified in 1788. During that period, the Articles’ deficiencies became increasingly obvious, and by the time of the Constitutional Convention, few Founders, including Dickinson, defended its continuation. Read more

On Property by James Madison – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution,” was elected from Virginia to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1788, where he served four terms. This essay, which then-Congressman Madison wrote for a New York newspaper, connects the idea of property rights as commonly understood to man’s natural rights, culminating in the right of conscience.

March 29, 1792

This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” Read more

Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The Danbury Baptist Association, aware of Jefferson’s earlier role in overturning the Anglican establishment in Virginia, expressed hope that as president he might help liberate them from the religious constraints in Connecticut. Jefferson’s response, in which he employs the famous “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor, is not a demand for the separation of religion and politics; rather, it addresses the principle of federalism. As president, Jefferson is unable to interfere in this state issue. Likewise, Congress is prohibited from doing so by the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The citizens of Connecticut must remedy their situation by amending their state constitution and statutes–as eventually they did. Read more

George Washington’s Farewell Address – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Washington had first prepared a farewell address to be delivered in 1792, upon the conclusion of his first term as president. Having been convinced to stand for a second term, he was unanimously re-elected. When he finally issued this address in 1796, it was his last public work. After nearly forty-five years of service, he retired to Mount Vernon.

September 19, 1796

Friends, and Fellow Citizens:

The period for a new election of a Citizen, to Administer the Executive government of the United States, being not far distant, Read more

George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The Constitution of 1787 said little directly about religion, with the notable exception of a ban on religious tests as a requirement for federal office. When Washington was elected president, the Bill of Rights had not yet been adopted. Despite this, in his response to a congratulatory note sent to him by a group of Jewish Americans, President Washington characterized religious liberty not as a gift of government or a matter of toleration, but as a natural right possessed by every human being. Read more

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom By Thomas Jefferson -Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Jefferson asked to be remembered on his tombstone as author of the Declaration of Independence, father of the University of Virginia, and author of this law. Long delayed because of the contentiousness of the subject and the powerful interests arrayed against it, the Virginia Statute was drafted in 1777, introduced as a bill in the 1779 legislative session, and adopted in 1786. Eventually the laws of all thirteen original states would prohibit an established church and guarantee religious liberty to all.

January 16, 1786

I. Well aware that the opinions and belief of men Read more

Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment by James Madison (1751-1836) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Madison circulated the Memorial and Remonstrance anonymously in 1785 as part of the effort to pass the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It appeals to Christian citizens by emphasizing that Christianity’s own teachings preclude politically coerced support for particular sects, and to all citizens based on reason. Read more

The Northwest Ordinance – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Adopted by the Congress of the Confederation in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance set forth a model for the expansion of the American republic. Providing a governing structure for the territory that would later become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, it prohibited slavery, protected religious liberty, and encouraged education. Following the adoption of the Constitution, the new Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance again in 1789. Read more

Fast Day Proclamation of the Continental Congress – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The petition of this Fast Day Proclamation was echoed repeatedly by Congresses in early American history.

December 11, 1776

Whereas, the war in which the United States are engaged with Great Britain, has not only been prolonged, but is likely to be carried to the greatest extremity; and whereas, it becomes all public bodies, as well as private persons, to reverence the Providence of God, and look up to him as the supreme disposer of all events, and the arbiter of the fate of nations; therefore, Read more

Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason (1725-1792) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason as a preamble to the Virginia Constitution, is–along with the Declaration of Independence that followed a month later–the clearest statement of the social contract theory of government found in major early American documents.

June 12, 1776

A declaration of rights made by the Representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free Convention; which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of Government.

Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, Read more

Letter to Roger Weightman by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Written just days before his death on July 4, 1826, this letter to the mayor of Washington, D.C., encapsulates the great cause of Jefferson’s life.

June 24, 1826

Respected Sir:

The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration on the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. Read more

Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1737-1809) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Published anonymously in January 1776 by an Englishman who had come to Philadelphia two years before, Common Sense became the most published work of the founding era. Printed over half a million times in a nation of three million people, it made a passionate case for liberty and against monarchy. Unpopular in later life for his attacks on Christianity, Paine will always be remembered for this pamphlet–a pamphlet often said to have launched the American Revolution.

January 10, 1776

On the Origin and Design of Government in General, With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution

Some writers have so confounded society with government, Read more

The Farmer Refuted by Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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When Loyalist writings began to appear in New York newspapers in 1775, nineteen-year-old Hamilton responded with an essay defending the colonists’ right of revolution. Still a student at King’s College, he followed up with this second pamphlet, expanding his argument on the purpose of legitimate government.

February 23, 1775

I shall, for the present, pass over to that part of your pamphlet, in which you endeavor to establish the supremacy of the British Parliament over America. After a proper eclaircissement of this point, I shall draw such inferences, as will sap the foundation of every thing you have offered. Read more

An Election Sermon by Gad Hitchcock (1718-1803) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Pastors and ministers were among the highest educated citizens in the American colonies, and often addressed politics from the pulpit. This sermon by Hitchcock was delivered on election day in 1774, in the presence of General Thomas Gage, the British military governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It decries British monarchical rule and celebrates the idea of the consent of the governed, appealing to reason as well as revelation.

1774

…In a mixed government, such as the British, public virtue and religion, in the several branches, though they may not be exactly of a mind in every measure, will be the security of order and tranquility–Corruption and venality, the certain source of confusion and misery to the state. Read more

A Summary View of the Rights of British America by Thomas Jefferson – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Jefferson began his public career in 1769 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature. British implementation of the Coercive Acts of 1774 (also known as the Intolerable Acts)–passed in response to the Boston Tea Party–prompted the “Summary View,” Jefferson’s first publication. Written for Virginians who were choosing delegates to the First Continental Congress, it laid the groundwork for later appeals by a “free people, claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature.”

July 1774

Resolved, that it be an instruction to the said deputies when assembled in General Congress with the deputies from the other states of British America to propose to the said Congress that an humble and dutiful address be presented to his majesty begging leave to lay before him as chief magistrate of the British empire the united complaints of his majesty’s subjects Read more

Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved by James Otis (1725-1783) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Otis rose to prominence in 1761, after he gave a courtroom speech opposing the Writs of Assistance–blanket warrants issued by the British for searching suspect property. He edited that speech into this essay three years later, after the passage of the Sugar Act. Its arguments contain the seed of the American Revolution–an appeal to natural rights applied against particular abuses of political power. Struck by lightning in 1783, Otis did not live beyond the Revolution. But John Adams remarked that he had never known a man “whose service for any ten years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.”

1764

Let no Man think I am about to commence advocate for despotism, Read more

Fragment on the Constitution and the Union by Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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This never appeared in Lincoln’s public speeches, but it is possible that he composed it while writing his First Inaugural Address. It draws upon the King James translation of Proverbs 25:11–”A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”–to describe the relationship between the principles of the Declaration and the purpose of the Constitution.

January 1861

All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”– Read more

Marbury vs. Madison by John Marshall (1755-1835) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Thomas Jefferson’s election as president is often called the “Revolution of 1800,” because it marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. Despite its uniquely pacific character, the election’s aftermath was marked by partisan rancor. The day before Jefferson took office, President John Adams commissioned fifty-eight Federalist judges. Read more

The Constitution of the United States of America – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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The Constitution of the United States of America

Fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island declined to participate) traveled to Philadelphia to attend the Constitutional Convention, which began in May 1787. They quickly scrapped the existing Articles of Confederation, and after four months they concluded their business by adopting a new frame of government. On September 17, thirty-nine delegates signed the Constitution.
It was nine months before the requisite nine states ratified the Constitution, putting it into effect. The thirteenth state, Rhode Island, did not ratify it until 1790. Subsequently, it has been amended twenty-seven times.

September 17, 1787

Preamble

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,

Read more

Discourses Concerning Government by Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Involved in some of the same anti-monarchical causes as John Locke, Sidney was caught up in the conspiracy to oust King Charles II. He was beheaded on December 7, 1683, a martyr to the English Whig cause. Fifteen years after his death, his Discourses Concerning Government was published. A hero to John Adams and widely read in the American colonies, Sidney famously inscribed the following in the Visitor’s Book at the University of Copenhagen: “This hand, enemy to tyrants, by the sword seeks peace under liberty.” This inscription later inspired the state motto of Massachusetts.

1698

Chapter One

Section 17. God having given the Government of the World to no one Man, nor declared how it should be divided, left it to the Will of Man. Read more

The Second Treatise of Government by John Locke – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Locke’s Two Treatises of Government presented a critique of the divine right of kings and outlined the principles of natural rights and government by consent. Written during the 1670s, they were not published until after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the passage of the English Bill of Rights in 1689. Locke was the political theorist quoted most frequently by Americans in the 1770s.

1690

Chapter II. Of the state of nature.

4. To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom Read more

On the Commonwealth by Marcus Tullius Cicero – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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On the Commonwealth 1

Marcus Tullius Cicero (c. 106-43 B.C.)

Cicero was the great defender of the Roman republic and a master of oratory. The author of several books on politics, philosophy, and rhetoric, he was the first to speak of natural law as a moral or political law, and was an important influence on the Founders.

C. 54-51 B.C.

…[33] True law is right reason, consonant with nature, spread through all people. It is constant and eternal; it summons to duty by its orders, it deters from crime by its prohibitions. Its orders and prohibitions to good people are never given in vain; but it does not move the wicked by these orders or prohibitions. It is wrong to pass laws obviating this law; it is not permitted to abrogate any of it; it cannot be totally repealed. We cannot be released from this law by the senate or the people, and it needs no exegete or interpreter like Sextus Aelius. There will not be one law at Rome and another at Athens, Read more

The Politics by Aristotle, Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Thomas Jefferson began studying Greek at the age of nine, and later in life employed so many Greek phrases in his letters that John Adams, his frequent correspondent, complained of them. The Founders’ interest in classical languages was not academic, but political and philosophical. Among the ancient books that they drew upon was Aristotle’s Politics, a catalog of constitutions and a guide to understanding regimes.

The Politics 1

C. 335-322 B.C.

Book 1

Chapter 1. (1) Since we see that every city is some sort of partnership, and that every partnership is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good), Read more

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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Written in the tradition of Aristotle’s teacher, Plato–and of Plato’s teacher, Socrates–the Nicomachean Ethics addresses the question, “What is the best life for man?” An extended reflection on virtue, happiness, and friendship, it helped to inform the moral and political thought of America’s Founders. There are echoes of it, for instance, in President George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, when he states “that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”

C. 350 B.C.

Book 1

Chapter 1. Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim. Read more

Letter to Henry Lee by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

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In his later years, Jefferson answered hundreds of letters, including, in this instance, a query about the Declaration of Independence, explaining that it drew upon a long political and philosophical tradition and reflected principles widely understood by Americans of the founding era.

May 8, 1825

Dear Sir:

…That George Mason was the author of the bill of rights, and of the constitution founded on it, the evidence of the day established fully in my mind. Of the paper you mention, purporting to be instructions to the Virginia delegation in Congress, I have no recollection. Read more

The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America

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July 4, 1776

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,- Read more