What We're Talking About: A MAHG Reading Roundup

BySarah Morgan Smith
On June 25, 2019

Every summer, TeachingAmericanHistory brings together scholars and teachers from around the nation to our campus in Ashland to enjoy week-long seminars on focused topics in American history and government. These courses can be taken for graduate credit, or simply for your personal enrichment — some participants describe the experience as an “intellectual retreat” where they can enjoy both conversation and collegiality.

If you aren’t able to join us in person this summer, we hope you’ll consider joining us in spirit by checking out some of the myriad texts we’ll be discussing. If you’re reading along, we invite you to join the conversation using #TAHreading to share your thoughts!


This summer I am teaching Great Texts: Frederick Douglass, which is a course devoted to reading Douglass’s autobiographies. In fact he published his life story four different times, under three different titles. I would recommend all three of them because they’re all very much worth reading, but I doubt our teachers, busy as they are, would take me up on that recommendation! So I’ll choose my favorite of the three, which is not the most commonly assigned of them. The first one, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), is the earliest and also the most commonly assigned, but my favorite is the middle one, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). This one is my favorite because it’s the most philosophic. While narrating the unforgettable story of how he rose from the very bottom to (nearly) the very top of American society, Douglass reflects on what it means to be human, on the natures of slavery and of freedom, on the basis of natural rights, on legitimate and illegitimate government, on the importance of family connections, on the possibility of redemption, on the problem of race in America, and much more. Douglass was a living, breathing argument for republican government and equal liberty in America. His story should be an inspiration to all who read it—and it’s a great pleasure besides, because he was a very gifted writer. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion:  Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001).

Dew examined the speeches and writings of Southern secession commissioners during the so-called Secession Winter.  As Southern states called secession conventions to consider withdrawing from the Union, other Southern states sent commissioners or representatives to speak at the conventions and advocate secession.  Dew had been raised in the South and educated to believe that a principled commitment to states’ rights motivated and animated the secession movement.  What he found in the speeches of secession zealots was instead an emphasis on maintaining slavery and white supremacy.  He noted that speakers stressed the alleged horrors of racial “amalgamation” and of race war.  Hence, Dew has done a great service by revealing the true rationale of the secession movement. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Jurgen Heideking, The Constitution Before the Judgment Seat: The Prehistory and Ratification of the American Constitution, 1787-1791Edited by John P. Kaminski and Richard Leffler. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

This book was originally published in German in 1988 but was then significantly revised in translation by the author and John Kaminski and Richard Leffler at the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution project in Madison, Wisconsin. Before the project was completed, Heideking died tragically in a 2000 automobile accident. Kaminski and Leffler completed the revised project, and after bouncing around from press to press, it was finally published by Virginia in 2012. By then, Pauline Maier’s 2010 book, Ratification, had appeared and Heideking’s volume never received the attention of book reviewers or scholars that it deserved.

That is a shame because this is a work filled with brilliant insights and key interpretations of the ratification debate, grounded in deep primary source research. The Constitution Before the Judgment Seat (which takes its title from a phrase George Washington used in a letter) reads like a series of connected essays, presented mostly in chronological order, on aspects of the debate. It hits all the major highlights and headline events that Maier covered in her fine study but offers, to my mind, a series of highly significant linked arguments about the ratification contest. It is particularly strong on the role of the press and the significance of political tactics in the debate. Taken together, the chapters comprising this book represent a masterful work of historical scholarship, crucial to all who work on this topic. It deserves a wide audience. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Stephen Knott: The document I have selected for the summer reading round-up is a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, the President of the Continental Congress in 1779, urging the enlistment of slaves to fight for the “Glorious Cause.” The essence of Hamilton’s plan, hatched in concert with his friend Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, the son of one of the largest slaveholders in South Carolina, was to “give them [slaves] their freedom with their muskets.” Hamilton rejected the notion of the supremacy of the white race, noting that arguments claiming that blacks are “too stupid to make soldiers” was a faulty one, “for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours.”

Alexander Hamilton would go on, along with John Jay, to become a founding member of the “New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves” in 1785 and a supporter of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution in Haiti, a rare instance of a successful slave uprising. Ironically, many members of the Federalist Party, who are frequently portrayed as elitists and enemies of the “common man,” were the strongest advocates for abolition during the early years of the republic.

David TuckerThomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address ranks among the very best. After one of the bitterest and most divisive election campaigns in our history, he offered a high-minded conciliatory speech, intended to unite all Americans by reminding them of the blessings of self-government and the advantages of American life. America was “a rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of [its] industry.” In Jefferson’s view, America was “advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye.” This was an account of American greatness that made America, as Jefferson put it, “the world’s best hope,” and would instill pride and fellow feeling among Americans.

Perhaps the most variously talented and intelligent man to hold our highest office, Jefferson spoke in humble terms of his own abilities, recognizing that this was another way to unify the divided country, because it made the assistance of all parties, and all branches of government, a requirement for success.

Jefferson’s emphasis in the Inaugural Address on what united Americans was not pious compliance with conventional niceties, or required only by the immediate political circumstances. It addressed the most fundamental and ever-present problem of democratic self-government: the majority rules, but what about the minority? If, before they divide into parties, the people who rule are not unified in some way, if they do not share some things in common or share some good, then it would mean that majority rule must benefit only the majority and majority-rule would be indistinguishable from tyranny. Jefferson addressed this issue by listing “the essential principles of our Government,” which all Americans shared. Americans held different opinions certainly. “But,” he reminded his fellow-citizens, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” He did it above all in words that are the most important he wrote after the statement that “all men are created equal.” In these words, which he called a sacred principle, Jefferson left us at once our most important political principle and our most important political aspiration:

“Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.”

After announcing this principle and aspiration, Jefferson wrote “Let us, then, fellow-citizens unite with one heart and mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.” See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


This week in our MAHG class on the Supreme Court we will be looking at how the Court has understood the constitutional powers of the President, especially in foreign affairs and national security. One of our key primary documents is the public debate between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison over the justice, wisdom, and constitutionality of George Washington’s 1793 Proclamation declaring America’s neutrality in the then ongoing war between Britain and France. Writing as “Pacificus,” Hamilton defended Washington’s Proclamation while Madison attacked it under the pen name “Helvidius”. The Pacificus-Helvidius debate reflected not only differences on the constitutional powers of the presidency but also the intense partisan divide that was growing in the 1790s. Madison opened Helvidius #1 by declaring that Hamilton’s argument in favor of executive power would be applauded only by “foreigners and degenerate citizens among us, who hate our republican government.” See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Summer Reading Recommendations from Our Staff


What We're Talking About: A MAHG Reading Roundup 2

Join your fellow teachers in exploring America’s history.