American political history is defined by three great crises. The first crisis was the American Revolution, which was declared on July 4, 1776 but whose roots can be traced back at least to 1763. That period of crisis ended with the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in what has become known as the “Revolution of 1800.”

The second crisis was the crisis over slavery that culminated in the Civil War. While the Founders had opposed slavery in principle, but had been forced to compromise with the institution in practice for the sake of the Union, the rise of the “positive good” school of slavery in the South marked a turn away from the Founders’ principles and their practice. In response, Abraham Lincoln explained and defended the Founder’s approach.

The third great crisis, which continues today, is the challenge of Progressivism, a movement founded by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt and championed by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. The Progressives rejected the Founders’ principles, including their notions of a fixed human nature and inalienable natural rights. Instead, they believed in a dynamic human nature, using that belief to justify their efforts to expand the size and scope of government.

The past century has witnessed a transformation in the understanding of the purposes of American government. The political, academic, and media consensus today upholds the necessity and legitimacy of the Progressive project, making a return to the principles of the Founders difficult, if not impossible. However, the resonance among voters of appeals made to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan highlights the enduring character of those self-evident truths upon which the Founders built the American political order.

 

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Fundamental Writings and Videos  |  Primary Sources  |  Further Reading  |  Elections and Political Institutions in History

 

Restoring Constitutional Government

 

 This lecture is a part of Hillsdale College's free, 10-part online course, Constitution 201: The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despostism.

 

 
 

FUNDAMENTAL WRITINGS AND VIDEOS

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left arrow
Yuval Levin  |  November 19, 2013  |  Lecture

How Did the Fourth Branch of Government Come to Be? arrow
Ronald J. Pestritto  |  January 28, 2012  |  Lecture

Is There a Place for Independent Regulatory Agencies in the Constitution? arrow
Kevin Portteus  |  January 28, 2012  |  Lecture

A Republic, If You Want It
Matthew Spalding  |  February 8, 2010  |  National Review Online

Roosevelt's America or Reagan's America? A Time for Choosing
John Marini  |  March 2007  |  Imprimis

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

 

The Constitution of the United States of America

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.

Abraham Lincoln 

A House Divided

Abraham Lincoln

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.

Abraham Lincoln

Second Inaugural Address

Abraham Lincoln

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.

Woodrow Wilson 

What Is Progress?

Woodrow Wilson

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.

Calvin Coolidge 

The Inspiration of the Declaration

Calvin Coolidge

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.

Franklin D. Roosevelt 

Commonwealth Club Address

Franklin D. Roosevelt

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.

Lyndon B. Johnson 

Commencement Address at Howard University

Lyndon B. Johnson

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

Winston Churchill

What Good's a Constitution?

Winston Churchill

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.

Ronald Reagan

A Time for Choosing

Ronald Reagan

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.

 

FURTHER READING

 

Churchills Trial Churchill Salvation Government ebook  STILL HOLD THESE TRUTHS Rediscovering  After People Vote Electoral College

Churchill's Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free of Government

Larry P. Arnn

We Still Hold These Truths

Matthew Spalding

After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College

John Fortier

The Founders' Key

Soft Despotism Democracys Drift Montesquieu

 

The Founders' Key

Larry P. Arnn

Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect

Paul A. Rahe

 

 

 
 

POLITICS AND POLITICAL REFORM IN HISTORY

 

The Federalist Papers 1787  Election of 1800

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.”

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.

Election of 1860 Election of 1912

Election of 1860
1860

The presidential election of 1860 was contested by four political parties. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate. Lincoln won forty percent of the popular vote and the electoral college by winning the majority of the Northern states.

Election of 1912
1912

In 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt, incumbent President William Howard Taft, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, and Socialist candidate Eugene Debs campaigned in a four-party election. Roosevelt was nominated by a new “Progressive Party,” known as the “Bull Moose Party.” Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, and Wilson won the presidency by a wide margin.

Election of 1932 The New Deal 1933

Election of 1932
1932

Following President Herbert Hoover’s failure to end the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the White House by a landslide. Democrats also gained control of both houses of Congress.

The New Deal
1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt promised the American people a 'new deal," designed to end the Great Depression through a series of new government agencies and commissions, most of which were passed by Congress between 1933 and 1935.

The Great Society 1964 Election of 1984

The Great Society
1964

As president, Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a series of domestic economic programs in pursuit of creating what he called the "Great Society." It included many new agencies and entitlement programs including the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Election of 1984
1984

Incumbent Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat Walter Mondale’s challenge for the presidency in 1984. Reagan won every electoral college vote except those of Minnesota, Mondale’s home state, and the District of Columbia. His 525 electoral votes are the most ever received by a presidential candidate.