The American Founding

Prior to the Revolutionary War, the tradition of self-government in America was nurtured by the English common law tradition and the original charters of the American colonies, no less than by the constraints of geography. The debates in the colonies regarding representation and taxation grew out of the larger practical and theoretical debates in England on the nature and extent of the principle of sovereignty, the power and authority of the monarch in relation to Parliament, and the rights of citizens and natural rights, in the wake of the social and political changes resulting from the Glorious Revolution. 

Below you'll find a list of Hillsdale's best resources from Imprimis, the Kirby Center's lectures, and the College's faculty; key primary sources from The U.S. Constitution: A Reader; a selection of books for further reading; and a timeline of critical events in American history.

 

Latest Videos

 


Fundamental Writings and Videos  |  Primary Sources  |  Further Reading  |  The American Founding in History

 

The American Founding: Revolutionary or Conservative?

 

This lecture is  part of Hillsdale College's free, 10-part online course, Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution.

 

FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES

 
The American Founding arrow
Paul A. Rahe  |  2014  |  History 102: American Heritage—From Colonial Settlement to the Reagan Revolution

America's Foundational Principles arrow
David J. Bobb  |  January 30, 2010  |  Constitution Town Hall

"All Honor to Jefferson"
Jean Yarbrough  |  May/June 2009  |  Imprimis

James Madison: Father of American Politics arrow
Richard Brookhiser |  February 4, 2011  |  Lecture

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

 

Jefferson

The Declaration of Independence

With the War for Independence over a year old and hope for a peaceful resolution nonexistent, the Continental Congress appointed a Committee of Five—including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin— to draft a document "declar[ing] the causes which impel [the American colonies] to the separation." Thirty-three-year-old Jefferson composed the initial draft, completing it in seventeen days. The committee submitted its draft to Congress on June 28, 1776, and on July 2, Congress voted for independence. Two days later, after numerous edits, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence by unanimous vote.

Madison

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.

Lincoln

Fragment on the Constitution and the Union

Abraham Lincoln

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.

Jefferson

A Summary View of the Rights of British America

Thomas Jefferson

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."

Hamilton

The Farmer Refuted

Alexander Hamilton

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.

Paine

Common Sense

Thomas Paine

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.

George Washington

First Inaugural Address

George Washington

Washington felt summoned. This is the only presidential inaugural address that states the republican idea: "I would rather be at home tending my gardens." Since 1783 he had been president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former officers of the Continental Line devoted to protecting the liberty for which they had fought. Like Cincinnatus, Washington wanted to return to the plow. The people's call brought him back to duty, the "preservation of the sacred fire of liberty."

George Washington

Farewell Address

George Washington

George Washington had first prepared a farewell address to be delivered in 1792, upon the colcusion 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.

 

FURTHER READING

 

The Founders Key Declaration Constitution STILL HOLD THESE TRUTHS Rediscovering  Vindicating the Founders

The Founders' Key

Larry P. Arnn

We Still Hold These Truths

Matthew Spalding

Vindicating the Founders

Thomas G. West

The Founders' Almanac Modern America and the Legacy of the Founding  

The Founders' Almanac

Matthew Spalding

 

Modern America and the Legacy of the Founding

Ronald J. Pestritto and Thomas G. West

 

 

THE AMERICAN FOUNDING IN HISTORY

 

Boston Massacre 1770 Boston Tea Party 1773

Boston Massacre
1770

The passage of the Townshend Acts by Parliament in 1767 prompted widespread unrest throughout the 13 colonies, centered in and around Boston. In 1770, a contingent of British regulars fired into an unruly crowd. Five civilians were killed.

Boston Tea Party
1773

Patriots in Boston were infuriated by the Tea Act of 1773. A group of colonists boarded East India Company ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor. In response, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts, punishing all of Massachusetts and expanding British authority in the colonies.

>Battles of Lexington and Concord 1775 Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown 1781

Battles of Lexington and Concord
1775

The shot heard ’round the world” marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown
1781

General Cornwallis surrendered to Washington after a three-week bombardment. This marked the end of fighting in the Revolutionary War.

Washington Resigns His Commission as Commander-in Chief 1783 >Shay's Rebellion 1786

Washington Resigns His Commission
as Commander-in Chief

1783

General George Washington waited until the last of the British troops had left the United States before resigning his military commission and returning to his estate in Virginia.

Shay's Rebellion
1786

The inability of the Articles of Confederation to address the nation’s economic and fiscal situation prompted an armed uprising in Massachusetts. “Shays’ Rebellion” culminated in an unsuccessful attempt to seize an armory in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Annapolis Convention 1786 Constitution Convention Convenes in Philadelphia 1787

Annapolis Convention
1786

Amid dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation, five states sent delegates to Maryland's capital, but their small number kept them from reaching a lasting accord. Alexander Hamilton, certain of the need for a new government, called for a second meeting the following year—what would become the Philadelphia Convention.

Constitution Convention Convenes in Philadelphia
1787

Originally tasked by the Continental Congress with drafting amendments to the Articles of Confederation, James Madison, George Washington, and other leading Founders convinced their fellow statesmen to abandon the Articles entirely, instead proposing a new form of government.

The Federalist Papers 1787 Whiskey Rebellion Supressed 1794

The Federalist Papers
1787

Published under the pen name “Publius” in three New York City newspapers beginning in October 1787, The Federalist was called by Thomas Jefferson “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.”

 

Whiskey Rebellion Supressed
1794

Rural farmers resented a tax levied on whiskey to pay off the war debt and attacked a Pennsylvania tax collector’s house. Washington raised a militia of 15,000, but the farmers dispersed peacfully before Washington’s arrival. The suppression illustrated that the new government had the power to enforce the rule of law.

Election of 1800  

Election of 1800
1800

This presidential election is dubbed the “Revolution of 1800” as it marked the first peaceful exchange of power between political parties in human history. In the election, fiercely contested between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, Thomas Jefferson succeeded his political rival John Adams as president of the United States.