essential readings 


The Constitution

Philosophers and scholars have been writing about the philosophical sources and intellectual origins of the U.S. Constitution since Jefferson, Hamilton and all their colleagues created the Constitution that summer in 1777. Many, many excellent source materials can be included here. For now, here are two of the best.

Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution: Forrest McDonald is widely considered as one of the foremost historians of the Constitution. In Novus Ordo Seclorum, he reconstructs the intellectual world of the Founding Fathers — including their understanding of law, history political philosophy, and political economy, and their firsthand experience in public affairs — and then analyzes their behavior in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in light of that world. No one has attempted to do this on such a scale before. McDonald's principal conclusion is that, though the Framers brought a variety of ideological and philosophical positions to bear upon their task of building a "new order of the ages," they were guided primarily by their own experience, their wisdom, and their common sense.

A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution: For the newly independent United States, the years just after the Revolution were the best and the worst of times: though the states celebrated their newfound freedom, they did not have a strong central government that would bind them together. Between 1776 and 1787, America faced economic crisis, military weakness, and interstate conflict—problems so enormous they almost crushed the founding father hopes for a unified nation. Yet, as Carol Berkin illustrates how James Madison, George Washington and a handful of others met in Philadelphia in 1787 to frame a creative answer to the political impasse. In A Brilliant Solution, she describes the conflicts and compromises that characterized the drafting of the Constitution. She chronicles the development of the document itself, recording the details of each of the articles of the Constitution, demonstrating the framers' belief in the primacy of the legislative branch. She also portrays the deep disagreements between Madison's Federalists and the states' rights advocates like George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, both of whom refused to sign the Constitution and swore to fight against its ratification. Most importantly, Berkin emphasizes that the framers saw the Constitution as a working document, one that would require revision as the country grew.

The Center for Civic Education: This center is established to provide interested people access to documents that describe and explain the essential documents that established and support this country’s constitutional democracy. The center’s documents are crisp, easy to read syntheses of America’s foundational documents