Interesting Documents from the Founding Era

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This blog on interesting documents of the Founding Era will host short essays by Dr. John Kaminski, along with materials from our Document of the Month & Founder of the Month pages. Besides being interesting reads for any curious reader, the essays and the documents which are discussed in the essays could form the basis of fruitful classroom discussions on the Founding Era.

Interesting Documents from the Founding Era

  • Elkanah Watson (1782) by John Singleton Copley

    Disrupting an Election: Hertford County, N.C.

    Politics nowadays often turn nasty as opposing political parties seek to discredit their opponents. Although more common today, political shenanigans occasionally occurred when Americans debated whether to adopt or reject the newly proposed Constitution in 1787–1788. A good example of such trickery occurred in Hertford County, N.C., in March 1788.

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    Rioting in Dobbs County, N.C.

    Free, frequent, and honest elections are essential in republics. Between 1787 and 1790, more than 1,600 delegates were elected to the state conventions to ratify the Constitution. Most of these elections were uneventful, but a few were disputed and some were fraught with intimidation or violence.

  • John Adams by Mather Brown (1788)

    Happy Birthday John Adams

    October 30 is the 285th anniversary of the birth of John Adams. Most historians believe that it was fortuitous that Adams, serving in London as U.S. minister to Great Britain, did not attend the Constitutional Convention because he would have been a disruptive force who would have opposed compromise. Although physically not present in the Convention, Adams was there in spirit, and he had a profound impact on the shape of the new Constitution proposed in September 1787.

  • John Adams

    Midnight Appointments in Judiciary Politics

    Increasingly, federal judicial appointments have become enmeshed in partisan politics. The first significant partisanship over judicial appointments occurred during the waning days of the administration of John Adams as the lame duck Federalist Congress and President tried to stifle the anticipated radicalism of the incoming Jefferson administration. Within his last three weeks in office, President Adams made many judicial appointments that were confirmed by the Senate. Denounced as Adams’s “midnight appointments,” they set the stage for a persistent conflict between the judiciary and the other branches of the federal government as well as a growing conflict between the jurisdiction of the federal and state judiciaries.

  • George Washington

    How to Pick a Judge

    Judicial appointments are critically important, especially appointments to the Supreme Court. In implementing the Constitution, President George Washington nominated all of the Supreme Court justices and all of the federal district judges. He developed criteria that helped him to select “the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice” because “the happiness of our country and the stability of its’ political system” depended on it.

  • John Adams

    Order: Republics and Democracies

    After declaring their independence from a despotic British monarchy, Americans strongly supported the creation of democratic republics with most authority given to state assemblies. Within a decade, however, most Americans believed that the Articles of Confederation, the country’s first constitution proposed by the Continental Congress in November 1777, needed to be revised. A Constitutional Convention met for four months and proposed a new Constitution that contained many anti-democratic provisions that inspired an intense public debate over the nature of government and how best to preserve liberty.

  • James Wilson

    Single Most Important Speech in the Debate over Ratifying the Constitution

    On 6 October 1787, James Wilson, a prominent Philadelphia attorney and a former delegate to the Constitutional Convention, delivered perhaps the single most important speech in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Wilson asserted that a bill of rights was unnecessary because Congress possessed only delegated powers, none of which could violate long-cherished personal rights and the authority of state governments. Furthermore, Wilson suggested that republics did not need bills of rights to protect the people from their own representatives. Reprinted throughout the country, Wilson’s position became the standard Federalist argument.

  • A Necessary Evil?

    Cato and the Fugitive Slave Clause

    Even before the Constitution was ratified, the fugitive slave clause caused runaway slaves to fear capture and return. To avoid permanent enslavement, some runaways voluntarily returned to their masters and slavery for a year in exchange for the promise of manumission and permanent freedom.

  • James Madison

    The Obscurity of Language

    Language is the vehicle used by human beings to communicate with each other. Unfortunately no language can guarantee successful communications. In his “The Federalist” #37, James Madison examined the problem of using language to accurately explain (perspicuity) the meaning of various parts of the newly proposed Constitution.

  • Ebenezer Hazard

    “New Arrangements” at the Post Office

    Rarely involved in partisan politics, the U.S. Post Office has become controversial in the 2020 elections. In 1788, “new arrangements,” said by some to introduce “new & scandalous Regulations,” also involved the post office in a national controversy over the dissemination of mail and newspapers in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution.

  • George Washington

    Covering the Constitution

    In concluding its business on 17 September 1787, the Constitutional Convention approved a cover letter to the Constitution that explained the challenges the Convention faced. Signed by George Washington and addressed to the president of the Confederation Congress, the letter acknowledged that the Constitution would not satisfy every state completely, but would “promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness.” With Washington’s signature, the letter became an invaluable political asset in ratifying the Constitution.

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