The US Constitution: A Biography

How and why was the constitution written? What are its underlying principles? What does it do?
42 reviews
  • 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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The US Constitution: A Biography

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


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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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  • SECTION 1:
    Part I. Colonial and Revolutionary Constitutions
  • 1
    All Men Would be Tyrants if they Could
    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.
  • 2
    Readings on the Constitution
    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. 
  • 3
    Colonial Constitutions

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

  • 4
    Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, Governor of New York

    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. 

  • 5
    The Revolution as Constitutional Crisis

    How did resistance to British tax laws become a Revolution?

  • 6
    State Constitutions

    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. 

  • 7
    Religious Liberty

    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
  • 8
    Political Crises 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. 

  • 9
    Constitutional Convention

    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.

  • 10
    Franklin on Prayer

    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. 

  • 11
    Who should vote?

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

  • 12

    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
  • 13
    The New Government and the Bill of Rights

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

  • 14
    Who should advise the President?

    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. 

  • 15
    What to call the President?

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

  • 16
    Constitutionality of the Bank

    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
  • 17
    The French Revolution in America

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

  • 18
    Thomas Paine and the French Revolution

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

  • 19
    Indians, Taxes, and Whiskey

    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. 

  • 20
    Washington's Farewell Message

    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.  

  • 21
    Alien and Sedition Acts

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

  • SECTION 5:
    Part V. Jefferson and Madison in Power
  • 22
    The Revolution of 1800

    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. 

  • 23
    Jefferson and the Revolution of 1800

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

  • 24
    Marbury vs. Madison

    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. 

  • 25
    Impeachment of Judges

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

  • 26
    Aaron Burr--Treason?

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

  • SECTION 6:
    The Expanding Republic
  • 27
    The War of 1812

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

  • 28
    Fletcher vs. Peck--the Yazoo Land Fraud

    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?

  • 29
    Yazoo Land Fraud--Fletcher vs. Peck
  • 30
    Dartmouth College Case

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

  • 31
    The Bank, Again
    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?
  • 32
    Missouri and Slavery
    The Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821.
  • 33
    Election of 1824

    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.  

  • 34
    Jackson and the Bank
    Was the Bank constitutional?  You might have thought the issue resolved in 1791, 1816, 0r 1819, but President Jackson thought differently.
  • 35
    Calhoun, Jackson, the Tariff, and Nullification
  • 36
    Jackson and the Indians
  • 37
    Charles River Bridge Case
    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? 
  • 38
    The Dorr War
    Two rival governments are elected in Rhode Island in the 1840s.  Which is the legitimate government?  Who decides which one can hold power? 
  • 39
    A Special Thanksgiving Message
  • SECTION 7:
    Slavery and the Crisis of the Union
  • 40
    Slavery and the Union, Part 1
    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?
  • 41
    Prigg vs. Pennsylvania
       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? 
  • 42
    An additional thought on Prigg vs. Pennsylvania

    An additional thought on Prigg vs. Pennsylvania

  • 43
    Texas and Mexico

    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.

  • 44
    Crisis of the 1850s
  • 45
    Kansas Nebraska Act
    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.
  • 46
    Dred Scott
    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. 
  • 47
    Lincoln vs. Douglas, 1858
    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
  • 48
    Lincoln's Election and the Secession Winter
    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?
  • 49
    Lincoln's Inaugural Address
    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. 
  • 50
    Lincoln and Liberty: the Case of John Merryman

    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.

  • 51
    Copperheads and Treason: Clement Vallandigham and Lambdin Milligan
    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. 
  • 52
    The Emancipation Proclamation
    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.
  • 53
    Reconstructing the Union


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  • 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.

  • Patrick Toomey
    Car Ride Course

    I did this entire course on my way to and from work in about 2 months. I was eager to learn more as Prof. Allison continued to provide me with knowledge that was both historical and interesting. Most of the time you are only given one side of an event depending on the source, but I think this course presented the facts as rather neutral. I enjoyed it and I hope Prof Allison adds on to this or has another lecture about a different historical account. Thank You.

  • Terry Grapentine
    US Constitution: A Biography

    Excellent presentations; clear, well organized, and provides (for me anyway) a new perspective on how to think about our Constitution.

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