This month we highlight Constitution Day, celebrated annually on September 17. We’ve collected a variety of resources to help you mark this event.
Among American historians and political scientists over the past century there has been a broad and enduring consensus that The Federalist represents the single most authoritative and comprehensive articulation of the political thought of the American founding. A work begun to meet an urgent political necessity, this collection of newspaper essays published between the fall of 1787 and the summer of 1788 now stands as the classic explanation of the provisions and purposes of our Constitution.
The Constitution had been hammered out in four months of intense argument and careful compromise during the summer of 1787, but it would not become the basis of a new federal government until ratified by nine of the thirteen states. Criticism from antifederalist opponents of the Constitution began pouring into the public press even before the Constitution was made public. Alexander Hamilton, who had been a delegate from New York to the Constitutional Convention, recruited fellow New Yorker John Jay and fellow Convention delegate James Madison (from Virginia) to answer the antifederalist criticism. Under the pseudonym “Publius,” the three of them (mainly Hamilton and Madison) published 85 essays in New York newspapers defending and explaining the Constitution. Even before they were all published in newspapers, the essays were gathered in two volumes, giving them a more permanent form while their urgent immediate purpose–to secure ratification of the Constitution–still hung in the balance.
The editors of the two most widely used modern editions of The Federalist echo one another in affirming the importance of The Federalist. Clinton Rossiter (in the 1961 New American Library edition) calls it “the most important work in political science that has ever been written, or is likely ever to be written, in the United States. It is, indeed, the one product of the American mind that is rightly counted among the classics of political theory…. It would not be stretching the truth more than a few inches to say that The Federalist stands third only to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself among all the sacred writings of American political history.” Jacob Cooke (in the 1961 Wesleyan University Press edition) writes, “The United States has produced three historic documents of major importance: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist.”
This scholarly opinion is in agreement with authoritative political opinion of the founding generation. Writing to Hamilton in the midst of the ratification struggle, George Washington asserted that “When the transient circumstances and fugitive performances which attended this Crisis shall have disappeared, That Work [The Federalist] will merit the notice of posterity; because in it are candidly and ably discussed the principles of freedom and the topics of government, which will always be interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society.” Thomas Jefferson, writing a few months later to Hamilton’s collaborator Madison, joined in this high appraisal. The Federalist was “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Jefferson’s respect for The Federalist endured, even through the party struggles of the 1790s and the Revolution of 1800 to the end of his life. In the course of his last great life’s work, the establishment of the University of Virginia, Jefferson listed The Federalist second only to the Declaration of Independence as one of the “best guides” to “the distinctive principles of … the United States,… being an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the United States, on questions as to its genuine meaning.”
Christopher Flannery, Professor of History and Political Science at Azusa Pacific University
Read the Founders’ comments on The Federalist:
George Washington, Letter to Alexander Hamilton (August 28, 1788)
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison (November 18, 1788)
Thomas Jefferson, Report to the President and Directors of the Literary Fund (extract), Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia (March 4, 1825)
Complementing the sites on The Constitutional Convention and The Ratification of the United States Constitution, this exhibit explains the terms of the debate over ratification. Gordon Lloyd provides succinct introductions to the arguments of both the Federalists and the Antifederalists, explaining the persisting relevance of these arguments to the theory and practice of democracy. He gives special attention to The Federalist papers in particular, outlining the argument of the essays. Resources provided at the site include the full text of The Federalist as well as texts and summaries of other primary documents written to support or oppose ratification, lists broken down by date and by state of essays for and against ratification published between May 1787 and December 1788, and biographies of key proponents and opponents of ratification.
Professor Chris Burkett of Ashland University and high school teacher Patricia Dillon produced this three-part unit on the challenges that faced the authors of the Constitution. Starting with the Founders’ realization that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate to the task of governing the new nation, the lesson plan covers steps taken to authorize the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia, the main issues that divided delegates at the Convention, and the compromises that were necessary for the Convention to fulfill its task of improving the American political system.
The teaching unit uses primary documents throughout, and lesson plans include worksheets to help students analyze this reading as well as instructions for role-playing games to simulate the issues contended at the Constitutional Convention.
Find the lesson plan at http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=726.
Colleen Sheehan’s study of James Madison, recently published by Cambridge University Press, traces the evolution of Madison’s conception of the politics of communication and public opinion throughout the Founding period, demonstrating how “the sovereign public” would form and rule in America. Sheehan is Associate Professor of Political Science at Villanova University. She will speak at the Ashbrook Center on Friday, September 18, at 3 p.m. For more information on this event, go to: http://www.ashbrook.org/events/constitution/sheehan.html
In cooperation with the Cincinnati Lawyers Chapter of The Federalist Society, the Ashbrook Center last year sponsored a conference on The Presidency and the Courts. A range of distinguished speakers from academia, public office and public affairs advocacy offered analyses of the Constitutional separation of powers, particularly between the executive and judicial branches. Besides the keynote address, delivered by President George W. Bush, highlights of the conference included the following speeches, available as audio files at ashbrook.org:
Edwin Meese III, Former U.S. Attorney General, who argues for reviving the Constitutional vision of the Founders;
Jeffrey Sikkenga, Associate Professor of Political Science, Ashland University, who offers a historical critique of the idea of judicial supremacy;
Louis D. Bilionis, Dean and Nippert Professor of Law, University of Cincinnati College of Law, who outlines the Constitutional visions of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan;
Michael J. Gerhardt, Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor in Constitutional Law, University of North Carolina School of Law, who argues that Constitutional law is a construct and consequence not only of the words of the Constitution but also of the ever-growing body of judicial precedent; and
Paul Clement, Former U.S. Solicitor General, who describes the challenge facing advocates arguing cases before a Supreme Court whose justices are divided in their interpretive methodologies.
Washington and Lee University
September 25-26, 2009
Register now to attend this conference featuring Lincoln biographers Michael Burlingame and Allen Guelzo, literary biographer Fred Kaplan, political historian Joseph Fornieri, military historian Mackubin Owens, and other scholars offering perspectives on Lincoln’s character, statesmanship, and handling of civil-military affairs. The opening address will be delivered by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas. The conference is coordinated by Lucas Morel, Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee and author of Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government.
Registration Deadline: September 1, 2009. The cost for the conference is only $30, which includes admission to all sessions and the luncheon. For registration form and more information, click here or email MorelL@wlu.edu.
A pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. Copies of the booklet are available for $1.00 each. A 10% discount is available for purchases of 25 or more.
To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit our website.
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