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.</p>
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
Can the State of New Hampshire take over Dartmouth College and turn it into a state university?
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.
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.
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.
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 1776-1815; Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero 1779-1820; A 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.