Elliot’s Debates: Volume 1

Edmund Randolph’s Letter

A LETTER OF HIS EXCELLENCY, EDMUND RANDOLPH, ESQ.,
ON THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION;
ADDRESSED TO THE HONORABLE THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES, VIRGINIA.

Richmond, Oct. 10, 1787.

Sir: The Constitution, which I enclosed to the General Assembly in a late official letter, appears without my signature. This circumstance, although trivial in its own nature, has been rendered rather important, to myself at least, by being misunderstood by some and misrepresented by others. As I disdain to conceal the reasons for withholding my subscription, I have always been, still am, and ever shall be, ready to proclaim them to the world. To the legislature, therefore, by whom I was deputed to the Federal Convention, I beg leave now to address them; affecting no indifference to public opinion, but resolved not to court it by an unmanly sacrifice of my own judgment.

As this explanation will involve a summary but general review of our federal situation, you will pardon me, I trust, although I should transgress the usual bounds of a letter.

Before my departure for the Convention, I believed that the Confederation was not so eminently defective as it had been supposed. But after I had entered into a free communication with those who were best informed of the condition and interest of each state; after I had compared the intelligence derived from them with the properties which ought to characterize the government of our Union,—I became persuaded that the Confederation was destitute of every energy which a constitution of the United States ought to possess.

For the objects proposed by its institution were, that it should be a shield against foreign hostility, and a firm resort against domestic commotion; that it should cherish trade, and promote the prosperity of the states under its care.

But these are not among the attributes of our present union. Severe experience under the pressure of war, a ruinous weakness manifested since the return of peace, and the contemplation of those dangers which darken the future prospect, have condemned the hope of grandeur and safety under the auspices of the Confederation.

In the exigencies of war, indeed, the history of its effects is but short; the final ratification having been delayed until the beginning of the year 1781. But however short, this period is distinguished by melancholy testimonies of its inability to maintain in harmony the social intercourse of the states, to defend Congress against encroachments on their rights, and to obtain, by requisitions, supplies to the federal treasury, or recruits to the federal armies. I shall not attempt an enumeration of the particular instances, but leave to your own remembrance, and the records of Congress, the support of the assertions.

In the season of peace, too, not many years have elapsed; and yet each of them has produced fatal examples of delinquency, and sometimes of pointed opposition to federal duties. To the various remonstrances of Congress I appeal for a gloomy but unexaggerated narrative of the injuries which our faith, honor, and happiness, have sustained by the failure of the states.

But these evils are past; and some may be led by an honest zeal to conclude that they cannot be repeated. Yes, sir, they will be repeated as long as the Confederation exists, and will bring with them other mischiefs springing from the same source, which cannot yet be foreseen in their full array of terror.

If we examine the constitution and laws of the several states, it is immediately discovered that the law of nations is unprovided with sanctions in many cases which deeply affect public dignity and public justice. The letter, however, of the Confederation does not permit Congress to remedy these defects; and such an authority, although evidently deducible from its spirit, cannot without violation of the second article, be assumed. Is it not a political phenomenon, that the head of the confederacy should be doomed to be plunged into war, from its wretched impotency to check offences against this law, and sentenced to witness, in unavailing anguish, the infraction of their engagements to foreign sovereigns?

And yet this is not the only grievous point of weakness. After a war shall be inevitable, the requisitions of Congress for quotas of men or money will again prove unproductive and fallacious. Two causes will always conspire to this baneful consequence.

1. No government can be stable which hangs on human inclination alone, unbiased by coercion; and, 2, from the very connection between states bound to proportionate contributions, jealousies and suspicions naturally arise, which at least chill the ardor, if they do not excite the murmurs, of the whole. I do not forget, indeed, that, by one sudden impulse, our part of the American continent has been thrown into a military posture, and that, in the earlier annals of the war, our armies marched to the field on the mere recommendations of Congress. But ought we to argue, from a contest thus signalized by the magnitude of its stake, that, as often as a flame shall be hereafter kindled, the same enthusiasm will fill our legions, or renew them, as they may be thinned by losses?

If not, where shall we find protection? Impressions like those which prevent a compliance with requisitions of regular forces, will deprive the American republic of the services of militia. But let us suppose that they are attainable, and acknowledge, as I always shall, that they are the natural support of a free government. When it is remembered, that in their absence agriculture must languish; that they are not habituated to military exposures, and the rigor of military discipline; and that the necessity of holding in readiness successive detachments carries the expense far beyond that of enlistments,—this resource ought to be adopted with caution.

As strongly, too, am I persuaded that the requisitions for money will not be more cordially received; for, besides the distrust which would prevail with respect to them also, besides the opinion entertained by each state of its own liberality and unsatisfied demands against the United States, there is another consideration, not less worthy of attention—the first rule for determining each quota by the value of all lands granted or surveyed, and of the buildings and improvements thereon. It is no longer doubted that an equitable, uniform mode of estimating that value is impracticable; and therefore twelve states have substituted the number of inhabitants, under certain limitations, as the standard according to which money is to be furnished. But under the subsisting articles of the Union, the assent of the thirteenth state is necessary, and has not yet been given. This does itself lessen the hope of procuring a revenue for federal uses; and the miscarriage of the impost almost rivets our despondency.

Amidst these disappointments, it would afford some consolation, if, when rebellion shall threaten any state, an ultimate asylum could be found under the wing of Congress. But it is at least equivocal whether they can intrude forces into a state rent asunder by civil discord, even with the purest solicitude for our federal welfare, and on the most urgent entreaties of the state itself. Nay, the very allowance of this power would be pageantry alone, from the want of money and of men.

To these defects of congressional power, the history of man has subjoined others, not less alarming. I earnestly pray that the recollection of common sufferings, which terminated in common glory, may check the sallies of violence, and perpetuate mutual friendship between the states. But I cannot presume that we are superior to those unsocial passions which, under like circumstances, have infested more ancient nations. I cannot presume that, through all time, in the daily mixture of American citizens with each other, in the conflicts for commercial advantages, in the discontents which the neighborhood of territory has been seen to engender in other quarters of the globe, and in the efforts of faction and intrigue,—thirteen distinct communities, under no effective superintending control, (as the United States confessedly now are, notwithstanding the bold terms of the Confederation,) will avoid a hatred to each other deep and deadly.

In the prosecution of this inquiry, we shall find the general prosperity to decline under a system thus unnerved. No sooner is the merchant prepared for foreign ports, with the treasures which this new world kindly offers to his acceptance, than it is announced to him that they are shut against American shipping, or opened under oppressive regulations. He urges Congress to a counter-policy, and is answered only by a condolence on the general misfortune. He is immediately struck with the conviction that, until exclusion shall be opposed to exclusion, and restriction to restriction, the American flag will be disgraced; for who can conceive that thirteen legislatures, viewing commerce under different points of view, and fancying themselves discharged from every obligation to concede the smallest of their commercial advantages for the benefit of the whole, will be wrought into a concert of action, and defiance of every prejudice? Nor is this all. Let the great improvements be recounted which have enriched and illustrated Europe; let it be noted how few those are which will be absolutely denied to the United States, comprehending within their boundaries the choicest blessings of climate, soil, and navigable waters; then let the most sanguine patriot banish, if he can, the mortifying belief, that all these must sleep until they shall be roused by the vigor of a national government.

I have not exemplified the preceding remarks by minute details, because they are evidently fortified by truth and the consciousness of the United States of America. I shall, therefore, no longer deplore the unfitness of the Confederation to secure our peace, but proceed, with a truly unaffected distrust of my own opinions, to examine what order of powers the government of the United States ought to enjoy; how they ought to be defended against encroachments; whether they can be interwoven in the Confederation, without an alteration of its very essence, or must be lodged in new hands;—showing, at the same time, the convulsions which seem to await us, from a dissolution of the Union, or partial confederacies.

To mark the kind and degree of authority which ought to be confided to the government of the United States, is no more than to reverse the description which I have already given of the defects of the Confederation.

From thence it will follow that the operations of peace and war will be clogged without regular advances of money, and that these will be slow indeed, if dependent on supplication alone; for what better name do requisitions deserve, which may be evaded or opposed without the fear of coercion? But although coercion is an indispensable ingredient, it ought not to be directed against a state, as a state, it being impossible to attempt it except by blockading the trade of the delinquent, or carrying war into its bowels. Even if these violent schemes were eligible in other respects, both of them might perhaps be defeated by the scantiness of the public chest; would be tardy in their complete effect, as the expense of the land and naval equipments must be first reimbursed; and might drive the proscribed state into the desperate resolve of inviting foreign alliances. Against each of them lie separate, unconquerable objections. A blockade is not equally applicable to all the states, they being differently circumstanced in commerce and in ports; nay, an excommunication from the privilege of the Union would be vain, because every regulation of prohibition may be easily eluded under the rights of American citizenship, or of foreign nations. But how shall we speak of the intrusion of troops? Shall we arm citizens against citizens, and habituate them to shed kindred blood? Shall we risk the inflicting of wounds which will generate a rancor never to be subdued? Would there be no room to fear that an army, accustomed to fight for the establishment of authority, would salute an emperor of their own? Let us not bring these things into jeopardy. Let us rather substitute the same process by which individuals are compelled to contribute to the government of their own states. Instead of making requisitions to the legislatures, it would appear more proper that taxes should be imposed by the federal head, under due modification and guards; that the collectors should demand from the citizens their respective quotas, and be supported as in the collection of ordinary taxes.

It follows, too, that, as the general government will be responsible to foreign nations, it ought to be able to annul any offensive measure, or enforce any public right. Perhaps, among the topics on which they may be aggrieved or complain, the commercial intercourse, and the manner in which contracts are discharged, may constitute the principal articles of clamor.

It follows, too, that the general government ought to be the supreme arbiter for adjusting every contention among the states. In all their connections, therefore, with each other, and particularly in commerce, which will probably create the greatest discord, it ought to hold the reins.

It follows, too, that the general government ought to protect each state against domestic as well as external violence.

And, lastly, it follows that through the general government alone can we ever assume the rank to which we are entitled by our resources and situation.

Should the people of America surrender these powers, they can be paramount to the constitutions and ordinary acts of legislation only by being delegated by them. I do not pretend to affirm, but I venture to believe, that, if the Confederation had been solemnly questioned in opposition to our Constitution, or even to one of our laws posterior to it, it must have given way; for never did it obtain a higher ratification than a resolution of Assembly in the daily form.

This will be one security against encroachment. But another, not less effectual, is, to exclude the individual states from any agency in the national government, as far as it may be safe, and their interposition may not be absolutely necessary.

But now, sir, permit me to declare that, in my humble judgment, the powers by which alone the blessings of a general government can be accomplished, cannot be interwoven in the Confederation without a change in its very essence; or, in other words, that the Confederation must be thrown aside. This is almost demonstrable, from the inefficacy of requisitions, and from the necessity of converting them into acts of authority. My suffrage, as a citizen, is also for additional powers. But to whom shall we commit these acts of authority—these additional powers? To Congress? When I formerly lamented the defects in the jurisdiction of Congress, I had no view to indicate any other opinion, than that the federal head ought not to be so circumscribed; for, free as I am at all times to profess my reverence for that body, and the individuals who compose it, I am yet equally free to make known my aversion to repose such a trust in a tribunal so constituted. My objections are not the visions of theory, but the result of my own observations in America, and of the experience of others abroad.

1. The legislative and executive are concentrated in the same persons. This, where real power exists, must eventuate in tyranny.

2. The representation of the states bears no proportion to their importance. This is an unreasonable subjection of the will of the majority to that of the minority.

3. The mode of election, and the liability of being recalled, may too often render the delegates rather partisans of their own states than representatives of the Union.

4. Cabal and intrigue must consequently gain an ascendency in a course of years.

5. A single house of legislation will sometimes be precipitate, perhaps passionate.

6. As long as seven states are required for the smallest, and nine for the greatest votes, may not foreign influence, at some future day, insinuate itself, so as to interrupt every active exertion?

7. To crown the whole, it is scarce within the verge of possibility that so numerous an assembly should acquire that secrecy, despatch, and vigor, which are the test of excellence in the executive department.

My inference from these facts and principles is, that the new powers must be deposited in a new body, growing out of a consolidation of the Union, as far as the circumstances of the states will allow. Perhaps, however, some may meditate its dissolution, and others, partial confederacies.

The first is an idea awful indeed, and irreconcilable with a very early, and hitherto uniform conviction, that without union we must be undone; for, before the voice of war was heard, the pulse of the then colonies was tried, and found to beat in unison. The unremitted labor of our enemies was to divide, and the policy of every Congress to bind us together. But in no example was this truth more clearly displayed, than in the prudence with which independence was unfolded to the sight, and in the forbearance to declare it until America almost unanimously called for it. After we had thus launched into troubles never before explored, and in the hour of heavy distress, the remembrance of our social strength not only forbade despair, but drew from Congress the most illustrious repetition of their settled purpose to despise all terms short of independence.

Behold, then, how successful and glorious we have been, while we acted in fraternal concord. But let us discard the illusion, that, by this success and this glory, the crest of danger has irrecoverably fallen. Our governments are yet too youthful to have acquired stability by habit. Our very quiet depends upon the duration of the Union. Among the upright and intelligent, few can read without emotion the future fate of the states, if severed from each other. Then shall we learn the full weight of foreign intrigue. Then shall we hear of partitions of our country. If a prince, inflamed by the lust of conquest, should use one state as the instrument of enslaving others; if every state is to be wearied by perpetual alarms, and compelled to maintain large military establishments; if all questions are to be decided by an appeal to arms, where a difference of opinion cannot be removed by negotiation; in a word, if all the direful misfortunes which haunt the peace of rival nations are to triumph over the land, for what have we to contend? Why have we exhausted our wealth? Why have we basely betrayed the heroic martyrs of the federal cause?

But dreadful as the total dissolution of the Union is to my mind, I entertain no less horror at the thought of partial confederacies. I have not the least ground for supposing that an overture of this kind would be listened to by a single state; and the presumption is, that the politics of the greater part of the states flow from the warmest attachment to a union of the whole. If, however, a lesser confederacy could be obtained by Virginia, let me conjure my countrymen well to weigh the probable consequences, before they attempt to form it.

On such an event, the strength of the Union would be divided in two, or perhaps three parts. Has it so increased, since the war, as to be divisible, and yet remain sufficient for our happiness?

The utmost limit of any partial confederacy, which Virginia could expect to form, would comprehend the three Southern States, and her nearest northern neighbor. But they, like ourselves, are diminished in their real force, by the mixture of an unhappy species of population.

Again may I ask, whether the opulence of the United States has been augmented since the war? This is answered in the negative, by a load of debt, and the declension of trade.

At all times must a southern confederacy support ships of war and soldiery? As soon would a navy move from the forest, and an army spring from the earth, as such a confederacy, indebted, impoverished in its commerce, and destitute of men, could, for some years at least, provide an ample defence for itself.

Let it not be forgotten that nations, which can enforce their rights, have large claims against the United States, and that the creditor may insist upon payment from any of them. Which of them would probably be the victim? The most productive and the most exposed. When vexed by reprisals of war, the Southern States will sue for alliance on this continent or beyond the sea. If for the former, the necessity of a union of the whole is decided; if for the latter, America will, I fear, react the scenes of confusion and bloodshed exhibited among most of those nations, which have, too late, repented the folly of relying on auxiliaries.

Two or more confederacies cannot but be competitors for power. The ancient friendship between the citizens of America being thus cut off, bitterness and hostility will succeed in its place. In order to prepare against surrounding danger, we shall be compelled to vest, somewhere or other, power approaching near to military government.

The annals of the world have abounded so much with instances of a divided people being a prey to foreign influence, that I shall not restrain my apprehensions of it, should our Union be torn asunder. The opportunity of insinuating it will be multiplied in proportion to the parts into which we may be broken.

In short, sir, I am fatigued with summoning up to my imagination the miseries which will harass the United States, if torn from each other, and which will not end until they are superseded by fresh mischiefs under the yoke of a tyrant.

I come, therefore, to the last, and perhaps only refuge in our difficulties,—a consolidation of the Union, as far as circumstances will permit. To fulfil this desirable object, the Constitution was framed by the Federal Convention. A quorum of eleven states, and the only member from the twelfth, have subscribed it; Mr. Mason, of Virginia, Mr. Gerry, of Massachusetts, and myself, having refused to subscribe; also Robert Yates, and John Lansing, of New York.

Why I refused will, I hope, be solved to the satisfaction of those who know me, by saying that a sense of duty commanded me thus to act. It commanded me, sir; for believe me, that no event of my life ever occupied more of my reflection. To subscribe seemed to offer no inconsiderable gratification, since it would have presented me to the world as a fellow-laborer with the learned and zealous statesmen of America.

But it was far more interesting to my feelings that I was about to differ from three of my colleagues, one of whom is, to the honor of the country which he has saved, embosomed in their affections, and can receive no praise from the highest lustre of language; the other two of whom have been long enrolled among the wisest and best lovers of the commonwealth; and the unshaken and intimate friendship of all of whom I have ever prized, and still do prize, as among the happiest of all acquisitions. I was no stranger to the reigning partiality for the members who composed the Convention, and had not the smallest doubt, that from this cause, and from the ardor for a reform of government, the first applauses, at least, would be loud and profuse. I suspected, too, that there was something in the human breast which for a time would be apt to construe a temperateness in politics into an enmity to the Union. Nay, I plainly foresaw that, in the dissensions of parties, a middle line would probably be interpreted into a want of enterprise and decision. But these considerations, how seducing soever, were feeble opponents to the suggestion of my conscience. I was sent to exercise my judgment, and to exercise it was my fixed determination; being instructed by even an imperfect acquaintance with mankind, that self-approbation is the only true reward which a political career can bestow, and that popularity would have been but another name for perfidy, if to secure it I had given up the freedom of thinking for myself.

It would have been a peculiar pleasure to me to have ascertained, before I left Virginia, the temper and genius of my fellow-citizens, considered relatively to a government so substantially differing from the Confederation as that which is now submitted. But this was, for many obvious reasons, impossible; and I was thereby deprived of what I thought the necessary guides.

I saw, however, that the Confederation was tottering from its own weakness, and that the sitting of the Convention was a signal of its total insufficiency. I was, therefore, ready to assent to a scheme of government which was proposed, and which went beyond the limits of the Confederation, believing that, without being too extensive, it would have preserved our tranquillity until that temper and that genius should be collected.

But when the plan which is now before the General Assembly was on its passage through the Convention, I moved that the state conventions should be at liberty to amend, and that a second General Convention should be holden, to discuss the amendments which should be suggested by them. This motion was in some measure justified by the manner in which the Confederation was forwarded originally, by Congress, to the state legislatures, in many of which amendments were proposed; and those amendments were afterwards examined in Congress. Such a motion was, then, doubly expedient here, as the delegation of so much more power was sought for. But it was negatived. I then expressed my unwillingness to sign. My reasons were the following:—

1. It is said, in the resolutions which accompany the Constitution, that it is to be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each state by the people thereof, for their assent and ratification. The meaning of these terms is universally allowed to be, that the convention must either adopt the Constitution in the whole, or reject it in the whole, and is positively forbidden to amend. If, therefore, I had signed, I should have felt myself bound to be silent as to amendments, and to endeavor to support the Constitution without the correction of a letter. With this consequence before my eyes, and with a determination to attempt an amendment, I was taught by a regard for consistency not to sign.

2. My opinion always was, and still is, that every citizen of America, let the crisis be what it may, ought to have a full opportunity to propose, through his representatives, any amendment which, in his apprehension, tends to the public welfare. By signing, I should have contradicted this sentiment.

3. A constitution ought to have the hearts of the people on its side. But if, at a future day, it should become burdensome after having been adopted in the whole, and they should insinuate that it was in some measure forced upon them, by being confined to the single alternative of taking or rejecting it altogether,—under my impressions, and with my opinions, I should not be able to justify myself, had I signed.

4. I was always satisfied, as I have now experienced, that this great subject would be placed in new lights and attitudes by the criticism of the world, and that no man can assure himself how a constitution will work for a course of years, until at least he shall have the observations of the people at large. I also fear more from inaccuracies in a constitution, than from gross errors in any other composition; because our dearest interests are to be regulated by it, and power, if loosely given, especially where it will be interpreted with great latitude, may bring sorrow in its execution. Had I signed with these ideas, I should have virtually shut my ears against the information which I ardently desired.

5. I was afraid that, if the Constitution was to be submitted to the people, to be wholly adopted or wholly rejected by them, they would not only reject it, but bid a lasting farewell to the Union. This formidable event I wished to avert, by keeping myself free to propose amendments, and thus, if possible, to remove the obstacles to an effectual government. But it will be asked whether all these arguments were not well weighed in Convention. They were, sir, with great candor. Nay, when I called to mind the respectability of those with whom I was associated, I almost lost confidence in these principles. On other occasions, I should cheerfully have yielded to a majority; on this, the fate of thousands yet unborn enjoined me not to yield until I was convinced.

Again, may I be asked why the mode pointed out in the Constitution, for its amendment, may not be sufficient security against its imperfections, without now arresting its progress? My answers are—1. That it is better to amend, while we have the Constitution in our power, while the passions of designing men are not yet enlisted, and while a bare majority of the states may amend, than to wait for the uncertain assent of three fourths of the states. 2. That a bad feature in government becomes more and more fixed every day. 3. That frequent changes of a constitution, even if practicable, ought not to be wished, but avoided as much as possible. And, 4. That in the present case, it may be questionable whether, after the particular advantages of its operation shall be discerned, three fourths of the states can be induced to amend.

I confess that it is no easy task to devise a scheme which shall be suitable to the views of all. Many expedients have occurred to me, but none of them appear less exceptionable than this; that if our convention should choose to amend, another federal convention be recommended; that, in that federal convention, the amendments proposed by this or any other state be discussed; and if incorporated in the Constitution, or rejected,—or if a proper number of the other states should be unwilling to accede to a second convention,—the Constitution be again laid before the same state conventions, which shall again assemble on the summons of the executives, and it shall be either wholly adopted, or wholly rejected, without a further power of amendment. I count such a delay as nothing, in comparison with so grand an object; especially, too, as the privilege of amending must terminate after the use of it once.

I should now conclude this letter, which is already too long, were it not incumbent on me, from having contended for amendments, to set forth the particulars which I conceive to require correction. I undertake this with reluctance, because it is remote from my intentions to catch the prejudices or prepossessions of any man. But as I mean only to manifest that I have not been actuated by caprice, and now to explain every objection at full length would be an immense labor, I shall content myself with enumerating certain heads in which the Constitution is most repugnant to my wishes:—

The two first points are the equality of suffrage in the Senate, and the submission of commerce to a mere majority in the legislature, with no other check than the revision of the President. I conjecture that neither of these things can be corrected, and particularly the former, without which we must have risen perhaps in disorder.

But I am sanguine in hoping that, in every other justly obnoxious cause, Virginia will be seconded by a majority of the states. I hope that she will be seconded; 1. In causing all ambiguities of expression to be precisely explained; 2. In rendering the President ineligible after a given number of years; 3. In taking from him the power of nominating to the judiciary offices, or of filling up vacancies which may there happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session; 4. In taking from him the power of pardoning for treason, at least before conviction; 5. In drawing a line between the powers of Congress and individual states; and in defining the former, so as to leave no clashing of jurisdictions nor dangerous deputies; and to prevent the one from being swallowed up by the other, under cover of general words and implication; 6. In abridging the power of the Senate to make treaties supreme laws of the land; 7. In incapacitating the Congress to determine their own salaries; and, 8. In limiting and defining the judicial power.

The proper remedy must be consigned to the wisdom of the Convention; and the final step which Virginia shall pursue, if her overtures shall be discarded, must also rest with them.

You will excuse me, sir, for having been thus tedious. My feelings and duty demanded this exposition; for through no other channel could I rescue my omission to sign from misrepresentation, and in no more effectual way could I exhibit to the General Assembly an unreserved history of my conduct.

I have the honor, sir, to be, with great respect, your obedient servant,

EDMUND RANDOLPH.

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Contents

General Overview

In 1787 and 1788, following the Constitutional Convention, a great debate took place throughout America over the Constitution that had been proposed.

In-Doors Debate

View in-depth studies of the Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York state ratifying conventions.

The Federal Pillars

View drawings of the federal pillars rising published by the Massachusetts Centinel during the ratification debate.

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The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

View the six stages of the ratification of the Constitution with links to many other features on this site.

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Interactive Ratification Map

View interactive maps showing the breakdown of Federalist-Antifederalist strength at the state level during the Ratification debate.

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