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

  • Gouverneur Morris

    Anticipated Opposition to the Constitution

    As the Constitutional Convention neared the end of its proceedings, most Americans were encouraged to accept whatever might be proposed. Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris, however, warned his fellow delegates that the process of ratification should be hurried because opposition to the Constitution would steadily increase. Two other delegates—George Washington and Alexander Hamilton— took a more positive approach and encouraged states and private individuals not to oppose the Constitution merely because some of its provisions did not favor them.

  • His Most Brittanic Majesty — King George III

    A Titled President?

    One of the most difficult tasks facing the Constitutional Convention was the creation of a strong national executive. Recent experience under the Articles of Confederation without a separate federal executive and the expectation that George Washington would be the first President encouraged the formation of a strong executive. In fact, during the ratification debate, Thomas Jefferson in France, and Antifederalists “Federal Farmer” and Hugh Ledlie of Connecticut suggested that Washington was the most dangerous man in America because the Constitutional Convention had given too much power to the President expecting that Washington would fill that office. Although everyone felt confident that Washington would not abuse those powers, Jefferson, Ledlie, and “Federal Farmer” worried about subsequent administrations under a President Slushington.

  • CSAC logo

    Better Late Than Never: Connecticut Ratifies the U.S. Bill of Rights, 12–13 April 1939

    Eighty-two years ago in 1939, three states belatedly ratified the U.S. Bill of Rights in a symbolic action commemorating Congress’ proposal of the amendments 150 years earlier in September 1789. In December 1789, Georgia was the only state that rejected all twelve of the amendments proposed by Congress, stating that the amendments were premature. Connecticut and Massachusetts also failed to ratify in 1789–1791 because their bicameral legislatures disagreed on how many of the twelve amendments should be ratified and neither state submitted an exemplification of what they had adopted.

  • Portrait of American Peace commissioners by Benjamin West, 1783

    Preceding Marbury: Confederation Congress Endorses the Concept of Judicial Review

    A quarter century before the landmark decision of Marbury v. Madison enunciated the concept of judicial review, the Confederation Congress advocated the authority of courts to rule unconstitutional acts to be null and void. It was part of the process of making the Articles of Confederation into a viable uniquely-American parliamentary system of government.

  • James Wilson

    The Goals of the Constitutional Convention

    Americans looked upon the Constitutional Convention with great anticipation. They hoped for much; but, with such high expectations, they feared the consequences of a lost opportunity. In two excerpts, written before and after the Convention sat, James Madison and James Wilson, two of the most important delegates, described what the Convention saw as its goal. According to Wilson: “The magnitude of the object before us filled our minds with awe and apprehension.”

  • Colonel David Humphreys by Gilbert Stuart

    Ratification of the U.S. Constitution: An Overview of the Process

    The procedure established in ratifying the proposed new Constitution of 1787 was critical. Previous attempts to amend the Articles of Confederation had failed because of the requirement in the Articles for the unanimous approval of the state legislatures. Without an alternative method of ratification, it was unlikely the Convention’s proposal would be adopted. Consequently, politically astute alternatives were proposed and utilized in ratifying the new Constitution.

  • Rhode Island Freemen Vote on the Constitution Referendum Results by Town, 24 March 1788

    Rhode Island Democracy Rejects the Constitution

    Throughout the colonial and Revolutionary eras, Rhode Island was the epitome of democracy. The legislature usually met for weekly sessions six times a year in five different towns within the tiny state. The state’s thirty towns held formal meetings on average nine times each year and regularly used the initiative and referendum. Rhode Island’s democratic proclivities often angered its neighbors. Such was the case when on three occasions in 1787 the legislature refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, when it repeatedly refused in 1788 and 1789 to call a state ratifying convention, and when in 1788 it submitted the Constitution directly to the people in a referendum conducted in town meetings. Ironically, Rhode Island’s referendum was condemned as anti-democratic even though it was the only time in the ratification process that the people actually voted on the new Constitution that began “We the People.”

  • Alexander Pope

    The Founders’ Poet: Alexander Pope

    Alexander Pope was the most commonly cited author in America’s Revolutionary era. Often simply referred to as “the poet,” Pope was regularly cited in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution. He viewed Mankind as an integral part of God’s universe forming part of a “Great Chain of Being” composed of inanimate objects, beasts of the wild, human beings, angels, and God. All were inter-connected, Pope wrote, in a system devised by God in which “Order is Heaven’s first law.” His most famous poem, An Essay on Man, popularized the optimistic philosophy of the Revolutionary era.

  • Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis

    The Confederation Congress Calls a Constitutional Convention, 21 February 1787

    Although all Americans believed that the Articles of Confederation were defective, the procedure for amending the Articles that required the proposal by Congress and the unanimous approval of the state legislatures made it impossible to obtain amendments. Only through a special constitutional convention was a revision of the Articles achieved. The congressional resolution of 21 February 1787 calling for the states to appoint delegates to the convention served as the springboard for the new Constitution.

  • James Madison

    The Impact of the Three-fifths Clause on Representation in U.S. House of Representatives, 1793

    One of the most difficult problems faced by the Constitutional Convention was how to apportion representation of the states in Congress. The Great Compromise settled the controversy between the large and the small states by providing that the House of Representatives would be apportioned based on population, while the states would be equally represented in the Senate. Debate persisted over how to count the slave population when apportioning representatives. Another compromise determined that three-fifths of the total slave population should be counted in apportioning both representatives and direct taxes. After the first U.S. Census in 1790, Congress re-apportioned the House of Representatives. Four Southern States received a total of eleven additional representatives because of the three-fifths clause.

  • John Jay

    John Jay: Abolitionist and Slave Owner

    When fighting for their liberty from Great Britain, most Americans denounced slavery. Many slaves escaped to freedom during the war—some by serving in the army and navy, others by running away, and others by manumission. In wrestling with their consciences, slaveowners had to determine whether or not to free their slaves. Many slaveowners freed their slaves, but far more found ways to rationalize their continued ownership of human beings. John Jay, a staunch opponent of slavery, bought a slave in 1779. Was Jay a hypocrite?

  • Lafayette

    Lafayette’s Emancipation Proposal

    Shortly after the end of the war for independence, the Marquis de Lafayette proposed a plan emancipating some slaves. Lafayette asked Washington to join in the proposal. Lafayette instituted his plan alone in the French West Indies. Had Washington joined Lafayette in the proposal it could have contributed to a more general emancipation movement throughout America.

  • Jefferson

    Public Protests in Early America

    Americans throughout their history have protested their government’s actions and inaction. In the mid-1780s, a wave of violent protests swept through half a dozen states, the most significant being Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. Most Americans condemned this violence with one notable exception. Thomas Jefferson, serving as U.S. minister to France and thus separated from the political maelstrom occurring in America, praised “a little rebellion now and then” as a means to preserve liberty against the inevitable oppression of government.

  • Benjamin Russell

    The Federal Pillars

    Thousands of metaphors and similes filled the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. On January 16, 1788, these metaphors took on an actual visual image as the Massachusetts Centinel, a Boston weekly newspaper published by Benjamin Russell, printed a woodcut entitled “The Federal Pillars.”

  • George Washington

    The Transfer of Presidential Power

    The Constitution provides that the President and Vice President have four-year terms and are eligible to be re-elected. Starting with George Washington as the first President, no person ever attempted to serve more than two terms as President until in 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a third term and then a fourth term in 1944. In response to Roosevelt’s longevity, Republicans proposed the Twenty-second Amendment which was adopted in 1951 limiting the President to no more than two terms. Consequently, the transference of presidential power occurs frequently and has generally gone smoothly, if not always cordially. Each of the first three transfers of power was unique.

  • George Mason

    Pardons and Reprieves

    At the end of every President’s term of office we’ve come to expect a flurry of pardons and reprieves to be granted. Some of these dispensations arouse public outrage, some praise, while most receive unnoticed acquiescence. The President’s unlimited power to grant pardons and reprieves (except in cases of impeachment) stimulated a limited though forceful debate during the year-long struggle to ratify the Constitution.

  • James Madison

    Bill of Rights

    December 15 has long been celebrated as the anniversary of the U.S. Bill of Rights. On that day in 1791, Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify ten amendments proposed by Congress to the newly-implemented Constitution, thus satisfying the three-quarters requirement in Article V of the Constitution. The history of a bill of rights stretched far back to ancient Greece and Rome. Colonial Americans embraced bills of rights in their charters and other fundamental laws. In debating whether to ratify a new federal Constitution, Americans demanded that it should contain a bill of rights. Only with such assurances was the Constitution adopted. Within six months, the first federal Congress proposed twelve amendments, and two and a half years later Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson informed the states that ten of the amendments had been adopted.

  • Arthur St. Clair

    The Northwest Ordinance, 13 July 1787

    The Northwest Ordinance is one of the great American Founding documents. Often it is considered as the single most important accomplishment under the Articles of Confederation. The Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory northwest of the Ohio River, but a fugitive slave clause provided for the return of runaway slaves. That clause—nonexistent in the Articles of Confederation—was copied into the draft Constitution in 1787 and was supported by Southerners and opposed by some Northerners during the debate over ratification. The clause provided the constitutional justification for federal fugitive slave acts in 1793 and 1850. The former was largely ignored, but the latter became an important step in the coming of the Civil War.

  • Alexander Hamilton

    Manipulating the Electoral Vote: Echoes of 1800

    The results of the presidential election in Wisconsin have now been certified. But now lawsuits are attempting to overturn the results of both the popular election and the anticipated vote of the electoral college. Federal courts have consistently rejected these attempts to change the outcome of the current presidential election. A similar attempt to undermine the will of the people occurred in 1800 when New York’s Governor John Jay refused to participate in a bit of legislative chicanery orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton that would have manipulated the electoral college and perpetuated the incumbent President John Adams and defeated his challenger Thomas Jefferson.

  • 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.

  • CSAC logo

    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.