The US Constitution: A Biography

How and why was the constitution written? What are its underlying principles? What does it do?

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  • Lectures 52
  • Video 12.5 Hours
  • Skill Level All Levels
  • Languages English
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Course Description

A Faculty Project Course - Best Professors Teaching the World

Since its adoption in 1788, the United States Constitution has provided a stable framework of government for a dynamic and growing society.  How was this framework created?  Why was the constitution written?  What are its underlying principles?  In this Constitution class, we will discuss the Constitution's origins in a century of political turmoil, and come to understand how it was intended to work and what problems it was meant to resolve. 


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  • Over 52 lectures and 12.5 hours of content!

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Section 1: Part I. Colonial and Revolutionary Constitutions
Our first lecture--what is the background to the U.S. Constitution? We look at 17th and 18th century England, and the political conflicts and political ideas of those tumultuous centuries.
4 pages
Here is a reading list for our course--the standard textbook (Kelly, Harbison, and Belz) and some links to other online sources, as well as questions to consider as you make your way through the course. 

How did the American colonists develop governments, and what kinds of governments did they create?


Colonial Governors represented the Monarch--or the Empire.  The story of Edward Hyde Lord Cornbury, Governor of New York in the first decade of the 18th century, illustrates this.  Or at least it used to. 


How did resistance to British tax laws become a Revolution?


We have it in our power to create the world over again, Thomas Paine wrote in 1776.  People in the American states began creating new constitutions of government--one of the most extraordinary moments in world history for creating systems of government.  We will discuss two of these constitutions--of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts--and the fundamental principles guiding their authors. 


How did the founders develop the idea of separating church and state?  Whom should we thank for this remarkable achievement?  

Section 2: Part II. Formation of the Constitution--Crisis of the 1780s

With Independence achieved, the people of the United States still had severe problems.  The most pressing was the enormous debt incurred in fighting the war--how to pay it?  The debt brought to the surface other problems, on the frontier and on the high seas, which would require extraordinary political will and wisdom to solve. 


Fifty-five delegates met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.  Instead, they came up with a new system of government.


June 28.  The Convention is breaking down over the issue of representation.  The delegates talk past one another.  At this moment, Franklin has a speech read that brings the delegates to their senses. 


The convention considered the qualifications of voters.  Should the right to vote be restricted to freeholders?  


The American people debated the Constitution in an extraordinary public political debates.  During the course of this debate they argued about the Constitution's meaning.  

Section 3: Part III. Forming the New Government

The new government took shape in March and April of 1789;  Congress created executive departments, and proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution.  


The Constitution is not clear on who should advise the President.  In his first term, Washington came to rely on his executive officers--the secretaries of State, Treasury, War, and the Attorney General, for advice, after the Senate and Chief Justice refused to advise him. 


The Senate took up the serious issue--what to call the President?  


In late 1790, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton proposed chartering a national bank.  Congress did so--and touched off a debate on whether Congress had the power to do this.  Hamilton said yes, Jefferson said no.  The debate was about more than a bank--it was about the powers of the federal government, and about the limits the Constitution placed on Congress. 

Section 4: Part IV. Crises of the 1790s--Indians, Taxes, and France

The French Revolution had a profound impact on American poitics in the 1790s. 


What was Paine doing in the French Assembly?  An answer to a student's question. 


The Washington Administration confronted several problems--on taxes, Native American relations, and control of the frontier.  Out of these conflicts emerge different ideas on the role of government and the relationship of the governors to the governed. 


In his farewell message, September 1796, President Washington announced he would not be a candidate for re-election (he would have won unanimously) and also warned his countrymen about the dangers of political factions, about foreign entanglements, and, again, about the dangers of political factions.  


War with France in 1798 provoked Congress to suspend civil liberties--what happened?

Section 5: Part V. Jefferson and Madison in Power

One of the most vicious and contentious elections in the history of the United States--with some Federalists trying to subvert the Constitution in order to prevent the election of Jefferson.  Some Federalists block this, and in the end, President Jefferson articulates an enduring vision of how the American Constitution would work. 


What did Jefferson mean when he called the election of 1800 a "Revolution?"  Was his administration the end of history?  Find out. . . .


For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down an act of Congress as unconstitutional.  But judiicial review was not the main point of this case--instead, it was a power struggle between the very popular President Thomas Jefferson, and a weak Supreme Court.  Find out who won. 


The Republicans in Congress tried to impeach Justice Samuel Chase in 1804--why?  What would have been the outcome if they had succeeded?


Former Vice President Burr, charged with treason in 1807--why?  What would have happened had he been convicted?  

Section 6: The Expanding Republic

The War of 1812 nearly destroyed the United States--instead the country emerged stronger and more united.


When the Georgia legislature was bribed in 1794 to sell 35 million acres, Georgians reacted by voting out their faithless legislators and voting in more honest men, who rescinded the sale.  Was this legal?

Yazoo Land Fraud--Fletcher vs. Peck

 Can the State of New Hampshire take over Dartmouth College and turn it into a state university?

The State of Maryland in 1819 tried to tax the Bank of the United States.  Did it have the power to do this?  Was the Bank Constitutional, or not?
The Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821.

The presidential election of 1824 is the only time the system worked the way the framers intended--with the electoral college nominating candidates, and the House of Representatives then choosing among them.  It was a disaster.  

Was the Bank constitutional?  You might have thought the issue resolved in 1791, 1816, 0r 1819, but President Jackson thought differently.
Calhoun, Jackson, the Tariff, and Nullification
Jackson and the Indians
The Massachusetts legislature charters two different companies to build bridges across the Charles River.  Does the second company's contract destroy the value of the first's contract?  Does this violate the Constitution? 
Two rival governments are elected in Rhode Island in the 1840s.  Which is the legitimate government?  Who decides which one can hold power? 
A Special Thanksgiving Message
Section 7: Slavery and the Crisis of the Union
Why would people who could not become slaves, care about the institution of slavery?  Why did slavery localized in one section of the country limit the freedom of people in the rest of the country?
   When Margaret Morgan and her children fled from Maryland, where the law regarded them as slaves, into Pennsylvania, where they lived as free people, did the slave law of Maryland follow them?  When Edward Prigg tried to return them to Maryland, was he kidnapping them, or was he exercising the power vested in him by the Congress of the United States in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793? 

An additional thought on Prigg vs. Pennsylvania


The war with Mexico brought new territories into the United States--the area that is now Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California.  It also made the Civil War inevitable.  Find out how.

Crisis of the 1850s
All Senator Stephen A. Douglas wanted to do, was allow a railroad to be built across Kansas.  His Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, though, provoked a civil war.  Find out how.
Chief Justice Roger Taney, and President James Buchanan, thought that the Court's decision in Dred Scott vs. Sandford would end the national agitation over slavery in the territories.  But instead of solving the problem, the Court made the problem worse. 
With civil war erupting in Kansas, Republicans in Illinois nominate Abraham Lincoln, a former Congressman, to run for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas.  Douglas had introduced "popular sovereignty," to allow the people in the territories to vote on slavery;  Lincoln and the Republicans argued that Congress should prohibit slavery in federal territories.  The entire Senate campaign in Illinois focused on the issue of slavery in the territories, and both candidates argued about the nature of the Constitution and the future of the union. 
Section 8: The Civil War and the Constitution
When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, seven states declared that since the people in the other states had elected a Republican, who advocated something the Supreme Court said violated the Constitution, they considered the Constitutional union broken.  They seceded from the United States.  Was this the end of the constitutional experiment?
In his inaugural address, President Lincoln appealed to the people of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri--slave states that had not yet taken action on secession--to remain within the Union. 

Historian James McPherson, probably the foremost scholar of the Civil War, wrote a wonderful essay, "How Lincoln won the war with metaphors."  He suggests that part of the Union's victory rested on Lincoln's superb ability to frame issues and use language to explain the United States' position.  Lincoln did this better than any other President--but he was also able to use force in achieving his end.  John Merryman, a Maryland secessionist, discovered this in April 1861, when Lincoln had him arrested.

Clement Vallandigham, running for Governor of Ohio, wanted to negotiate an end to the war.  He also helped draft the Democratic party's platform in 1864, calling for the United States to stop fighting a war against slavery.  When General Ambrose Burnside had Vallandigham arrested for treason, and tried by a military tribunal, President Lincoln faced a dilemma. 
Slavery  brought on the war.  But the United States fought the war to save the Union, not to end slavery;  the end of slavery, however, came about during the war.  Find out how.

Instructor Biography

Robert J. Allison, Professor and Chair of the History Department - Suffolk University

Robert J. Allison is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. He also teaches at the Harvard Extension School and in 1997 received the Petra T. Shattuck Excellence in Teaching Award.

He is the author of The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World 1776-1815Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero 1779-1820A Short History of Boston; and The Boston Massacre.  His most recent work is The American Revolution: A Concise History.

Mr. Allison is the president of the South Boston Historical Society, a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and vice president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

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  5. 1 Star
    • Don Astor

    Super Job by Prof "Robert"

    He walks on water, and delivers a Knock out Punch of US Government, Rules, and Policies. He explains HOW our Courts use Precedence to make new Rulings. Outstanding !

    • Trudy Messingham

    Packed with facts and references

    Professor Allison's engaging manner and knowledge makes this course, with its refreshingly neutral point-of-view, a great source for anyone wishing to obtain a solid foundation in this subject.

    • Jeffrey E. Sams

    Wonderful, Edifying Course, Great Instructor

    I was thrilled with this course and its instructor. I found it very informative, covering all the bases required to give one a solid foundation in our Constitution.
    I found Prof. Allison's manner of teaching to be very engaging and I look forward to learning more from him. I now intend to acquire some of the books that the has written so that I may continue to delve into the solid scholarship that he presents in such a compelling fashion.

    • WilliamMcKeithan

    Excellent Lectures on the History of the US Constitution

    Dr Allison has produced some really great lectures here that cover the political background of the Constitution and its interpretation and development over time. I watched them almost from beginning to end once I started.

    My only fault is that there is still more to come and I have to wait until he can resume his project. I hope it will be soon.
    Thank you, Professor Allison

    • Joseph Frusci

    Professor Allison is the best!

    Hard to find an academic as knowledgeable and articulate as Professor Allison. His ability to convey this information in each video is superb.

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