Skip to Main Content


UE: POL 110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times: American Revolution

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

Overview - The American Revolution & the Founding

The Colonial Army on the March

The American Revolution constitutes a tipping point in world history.  Those colonialists who fought against Great Britain for independence did so in the name of securing the universal right of human kind to live free under governments of their own devising.  Indeed, the war proceeded amid a flurry of constitution writing, as each former colony scrambled to establish and perfect some form of republican government.   Significant innovations in self-government were tried, including Pennsylvania’s supreme representative and responsible legislature (proclaimed by Thomas Paine as “the most democratic government the world ever saw”), Virginia’s Bill of Rights and Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Massachusetts’ mixed regime of  legislative checks and balances, and New York’s unitary chief executive. 

The difficulties of financing and coordinating activities during the war and securing a prosperous peace thereafter, under the Articles of Confederation, led to a constitutional convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, where a new, hybrid species of government was devised: namely, a partly federal, partly national, extended democratic republic, which contained a number of safeguards, many borrowed from the contemporary state governments, such as separation of powers, a bicameral legislature, an independently elected chief executive, a supreme court with the power of judicial review, and a national bill of rights.  With few amendments, perhaps the most significant among abolishing slavery, the Constitution of the United States has lasted almost intact to the present day and continues to spread its gospel of liberty throughout American society and around the world.

Essential Question

Were the principles of self-government proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence actualized in the U.S. Constitution?

Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.

The Articles of Confederation - Franklin's Plan for National Unity is Followed

Articles of Confederation - Lessons Learned

The first constitution in our nation's history was the U.S. Articles of Confederation. Under the U.S. Articles of Confederation we took "baby steps" as a nation. The government conducted the affairs of the country during the last two years of the Revolutionary War, helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and produced two monumental pieces of legislation in the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

While the U.S. Articles of Confederation was a plan of government based upon the principles fought for in the American Revolutionary War, it contained crucial flaws. It had no power of national taxation, no power to control trade, and it provided for a comparatively weak executive. Therefore, it could not enforce legislation. It was a "league of friendship" which was opposed to any type of national authority. The Articles of Confederation's greatest weakness, however, was that it had no direct origin in the people themselves–it knew only state sovereignty. Each state, therefore, had the power to collect its own taxes, issue currency, and provide for its own militia. The government could not govern efficiently because of a general lack of power to compel states to honor national obligations. The government's main activity was to control foreign policy and conclude treaties. Economic credibility was a major problem because the government owed $42 million (more than $40 billion today) after the Revolutionary War, and the debt was mainly owed to American patriots. This financial obligation was not paid off until the early part of the 1800's.

It would have been very difficult for our country to have created a stronger second constitution without learning from the mistakes of the first. The Articles of Confederation served as a "transition" between the Revolutionary War and the Constitution.

Copied from (9/10/13)

VIDEO: the Articles of Confederation - Lessons Learned

The Declaration of Independence - A Revolutionary Document

Declaration of Independence - Background

The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the American political tradition. It articulates the fundamental ideas that form the American nation: All men are created free and equal and possess the same inherent, natural rights. Legitimate governments must therefore be based on the consent of the governed and must exist “to secure these rights.”

As a practical matter, the Declaration of Independence announced to the world the unanimous decision of the thirteen American colonies to separate themselves from Great Britain. But its true revolutionary significance—then as well as now—is the declaration of a new basis of political legitimacy in the sovereignty of the people. The Americans’ final appeal was not to any man-made decree or evolving spirit but to rights inherently possessed by all men. These rights are found in eternal “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” As such, the Declaration’s meaning transcends the particulars of time and circumstances.

The circumstances of the Declaration’s writing make us appreciate its exceptionalism claims even more. The war against Britain had been raging for more than two years when the Continental Congress, following a resolution of Richard Henry Lee on June 7, 1776, appointed a committee to explore the independence of the colonies from Great Britain. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston turned to their colleague Thomas Jefferson to draft a formal declaration which they then submitted, with few corrections, to Congress. On July 2 Congress voted for independence and proceeded to debate the wording of the Declaration, which was, with the notable deletion of Jefferson’s vehement condemnation of slavery, unanimously approved on the evening of July 4. Every Fourth of July, America celebrates not the actual act of independence (proclaimed on July 2) but rather the public proclamation of the principles behind the act.

The Declaration has three parts—the famous preamble, a list of charges against King George III, and a conclusion. The Preamble summarizes the fundamental principles of American self-government. The indictment against the king presents examples of the violation of those principles. The stirring conclusion calls for duty, action, and sacrifice.


Although a document justifying revolutionary war, the Declaration argues throughout on the basis of universal reason by paying “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” and appealing to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Self-Evident Truths. The Declaration bases America and its government on self-evident truths such as human equality and certain “unalienable rights.” The truths are self-evident, not in the sense of being immediately obvious to everyone, but rather in presenting the logical or evident conclusion of what enlightened humanity understands by a human being. Self-evident truths are also not restricted to any one era or nation; they are as true today as they were in 1776, as true in America as they are in contemporary China or in ancient Greece. To enforce those rights is the challenge of American politics.

Rights. Such rights are acknowledged and affirmed liberties inherent in human nature—the right to own property, for example. They are not merely powers, and neither are they simply wishes or desires. “[E]ndowed by their Creator,” these rights transcend the ability of any government to destroy them (though killing or enslaving the men and women who possess these rights is, of course, another matter). Thus, these inherent or natural rights produce legitimate government and deny the legitimacy of any government justified merely on, for example, heredity, religion, class, race, or wealth.

Equality. So conceived, American government is fundamentally about rights or liberty. But these rights follow from the equality of all men. This precedence of equality obviously does not mean an equality of strength, character, batting averages, or writing skill; nor does it demand a communistic equality of results or condition. In fact the Declaration’s idea of equality would forbid such an arbitrary leveling of the naturally diverse human condition. Whatever our differences, there exists a fundamental human identity—that no one is born to rule or be ruled. Equality in this sense therefore requires that legitimate government be based on “the consent of the governed.”

The Pursuit of Happiness. The purpose of such a legitimate government in turn is to protect “certain unalienable rights,” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Rights culminate in the pursuit (that is, the vocation, not the chase) of happiness. And happiness is not about self-satisfaction or stupefied pleasure but rather a life lived to its full potential—human flourishing.

The Right of Revolution. Politically, the most important right is the right of self-government, which the whole Declaration elaborates upon, in theory and practice. Violation of government by consent calls forth the right, if not the duty, of “the people” (not any angry individual or mob) to “alter or to abolish” a government destructive of rights and to “institute new government” that will bring about “their safety and happiness.” Throughout the Declaration we see attention to both life’s necessities (“safety” or the right to life) and highest aspirations (“happiness”).


The 27 charges against the king list in increasing severity his violations of American colonists’ civil, political, and natural rights. The Declaration lays out a “long train of abuses” culminating in “absolute tyranny.” Legitimate revolutions—those that protect the natural rights of the people—require more than “light and transient causes.” The king has interfered with our rights not only to our pursuit of happiness but also to liberty and to life itself.


The king is a tyrant, “unfit to be the ruler of a free people,” deaf to the pleas of justice and humanity. The Congress is forced to proclaim the colonies free and independent states, and the delegates pledge to each other their “Lives, … Fortunes and … sacred Honor.”

Almost fifty years later, Jefferson described the Declaration as “an expression of the American mind…. All its authority rests … on the harmonizing sentiments of the day….” The Declaration weaves together philosophy, theology, and political history, both the American mind and American experience. A secular document, the Declaration nonetheless needs religion for its authority. Thus, God is mentioned or referred to four times, in three capacities: legislator (Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God), Creator (or executive), Supreme Judge of the world, and as guardian (divine Providence).

The first of the four organic laws of the United States, the Declaration may lack legal force but remains nonetheless the source of all legitimate political authority. No wonder the Declaration’s greatest expositor, Abraham Lincoln, referred to it as more than “a merely revolutionary document.” For the first time a nation constituted itself on what it has in common with all other people throughout geographic place and history and thus gave hope and inspiration to the whole world. The Declaration created America and with it a “new order of the ages” (novus ordo seclorum) in the history of human self-government.

-- copied from <> 
[Conservative Think Tank] (10/16/13)

James Madison's Federalist #10 - Explaining the Constitution

Examining Federalist #10

"In Federalist #10 Madison offered two ideas for how to limit the damage to fledgling American government caused by factions. The first idea was to remove the troubled factions or reduce their ability to participate in the system. Madison argued that such an approach was everything the New World stood against and such a move would destroy the very idea of a democracy. Instead, Madison argued that what was needed was a Republic, one that was big enough where the various factions could find commonality and solutions, rather that partisanship. Madison believed that what made the American Experiment different from any other one in the past was the process by which the government would solve the biggest problems of the day. Various parties and factions would debate vigorously, try to persuade others to agree with their solutions, but at the end of the day, compromising for the good of the country and getting the best deal possible. Madison’s idea of coalition building around a particular issue, instead of partisan fighting, has proven successful. For over 300 years, we’ve abolished slavery, provided Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, passed the Civil Rights Act; the list goes on and on. The President can build a coalition around his plan incorporating various and divergent factions like Wall Street, defense contractors, poverty advocates, etc., groups who have a direct and vested interest in avoiding the Fiscal Cliff at all costs.

As the Euro-Crisis in Europe has shown, solving the nation’s fiscal challenges is of paramount importance to the health and wellbeing of a nation. But the Fiscal Cliff is about something even bigger - more fundamental and truly seismic; it’s about whether the process of American government still works. Process is one of the things that distinguish America from the rest of the world. It’s the only nation on earth where rival factions can engage in the brutal battle of an issue, fighting like hell for every inch and idea, but at the end of the day, compromise for the best deal possible for the country. Madison understood this, and that, as a nation, we are strongest when we rally not around parties or factions, but come together as a coalition around the grand issues of the time, and solve them together."

-- Nels Johnson  Copied 9/10/13

TEXT: Another Insightful Analysis of Federalist #10 - by Russel Renka

TEXT: Sharp Criticism of Federalist #10 - By Ilya Somin

TEXT: The Truth of Federalist #10 / for Business Students Only - by Jennifer Kohn

TEXT: Class and Pluralism in America [Marxist inspired perspective] - by John Manley

The Founding Fathers & the Roman Republic

How the Framers of Our Constitution Debated the Roman Republic

The American Constitutional Convention was authorized on February 21st, 1787, for the sole and express purpose of modifying the Articles of Confederation. By the time of the initial committee meetings on May 6th, however, the delegate’s philosophy had shifted toward a completely new government for the United States. Opinions had changed because the lawlessness of Shay’s Rebellion had emphasized the weaknesses in the Articles.

During the committee meetings and the full convention there was extensive discussion about the political systems of antiquity and their usefulness as models for the new government. The delegates considered the British Constitution, Roman Republic, and, to a lesser extent, the Greek Democracy as relevant political systems. They were also influenced by the philosopher Locke and the political theorist Montesquieu.

The framers saw the monarch as the major problem with the British system; a tyrant imposing his will on the people. The Roman Republic, as the greatest political system with no monarch, would be better because the executive magistrate was elected and not born to his position. Committee meetings were held until June 19th, for the purpose of creating a governmental model that could be presented to the whole convention.

The entire committee agreed that two legislative bodies should be created: an Assembly and Senate modeling the Roman Republic. Debate on the method of electing members from these two bodies proved to be long and difficult, however. One extreme favored members of both bodies be selected by the states; the other favored members be elected by the people.

On June 6th, Madison argued for direct election of the assembly by the people, using the example of Rome and its factions to show how power could be accumulated for selfish purposes. Madison argued that the only way to avoid the accumulation of power is to divide power into small pieces by letting the people vote directly. No consensus was reached that day, and the discussion of assembly elections was tabled. As the debate moved on to the model of the Senate, a proposal was made to have Senators elected by the people like the assembly. Small states immediately objected to the unfairness of the proposal and insisted that the Senate consist of equal numbers from each state. Early in the debate, a large number was considered, but Madison spoke against this describing how the number of Tribunes in Rome was enlarged, and the office became corrupt. All finally agreed that the number of Senators from each state should be a small number, and they settled on the number one.

On June 11th, the great Connecticut Compromise was submitted to the committee. It offered to break the deadlock on how to elect the legislature by calling for the people’s election of the assembly by apportioned districts and the states election of Senators. This creative solution removed the major roadblock to the continuation of the convention.

On June 16th, the committee took up its discussion regarding the executive magistrate’s position (President). Most delegates agreed that an executive was needed, because they had suffered through the gridlock of a leaderless Articles of Confederation. All feared tyranny, which could result if a single executive were able to accumulate power, so a dozen members proposed the two executive system of the Roman Consuls. After much debate, the number of was fixed at one based on concerns that two presidents with veto power would stifle government action.

The Convention began on June 20th, and five days later debate began on article four, which was the method of election of Senators. Mr. Pinkney of South Carolina made an impassioned speech about why the Senate should not be a copy of the English House of Lords because there were no titled classes in the United States. Portions of his speech follow:

“The people of the United States are more equal in their circumstances than the people of any other country – and they have few rich men among them.”

“The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any state we are acquainted with in the modern world; but I assert that their situation is different from either the people of Greece and Rome, or any other state we are acquainted with among the ancients. Can the orders introduced by Solon be found in the United States? Can the military habits and manners of Sparta be resembled in our habits and manners? Are the distinctions of Patrician and Plebian known among us? I apprehend not – because they are perfectly different.”

“Our true situation appears to me to be this – we are a new extensive country containing within itself the materials for forming a government capable of extending to its citizens civil and Religious liberty.”

“This is the great end of Republican establishments.”

Pinkney was right. The United States was unique. It had come together as thirteen colonies with mutual interests, and different agendas. In the end all agreed to create a political system combining the states with a federal government that would act for the good of the whole.

A couple of facts need additional clarification. The name Assembly was changed to House of Representatives in the August 6th revision of the Articles of the Constitution. I found no evidence of the name change being suggested during debate, so I'm not sure of the origin. The number of Senators from each state was changed to two on July 23rd. The convention debated two versus three, but decided three would be too expensive.

-- Posted by Mike Anderson

George Washington Takes Charge: 1789 -- Cincinnatus to the Rescue

Civic Virtue - the Foundation for Leadership

Washington, as one of the founders of our nation, was admired as a leader and for his character while Commander‐in‐Chief and President. He recognized the importance of character and civic virtue as necessary to preserve a strong constitutional republic.
TEXT: Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation

Joseph Addison's Cato - Washington's Favorite Play

It is well known that Washington admired the character of Cato as presented in Joseph Addison's famous play, and to some degree adopted Cato as his personal hero. The meaning of Cato, however, has stirred political controversy since its initial production in 1713, when both Whigs and Tories claimed it as the expression of their deepest beliefs. Specifically, the Whigs read Cato as the duke of Marlborough and the play as an argument for the duke's continued participation in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Tories, on the other hand, were able to read the dictatorial Caesar as Marlborough.

"That most of the founding generation read it or saw it or both is unquestionable, and that it stuck in their memories is abundantly evident," wrote Forrest McDonald in the foreword to an edition of "Cato" published in 2004. Perhaps no American was more affected than George Washington. John C. Fitzpatrick, a 1930s biographer, believed that Washington was making allusions to "Cato" as a teenager. The future general and president's first undisputed reference to "Cato" came in a 1758 letter, when he was 26.

During the American Revolution, Washington had "Cato" performed at Valley Forge in 1778. Just as Laurence Olivier believed Shakespeare's "Henry V" could rally his beleaguered countrymen during World War II, Washington appears to have thought "Cato" possessed the power to motivate his own troops at the end of a hard winter. He probably hoped that his war-weary soldiers would notice a certain line from the first act: "'Tis not in mortals to command success / But we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it." A few years earlier, Washington had used this line in a letter to Benedict Arnold, before Arnold turned traitor: "It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more—you have deserved it." Washington continued to draw inspiration from "Cato" in the 1780s and 1790s.
TEXT: Joseph Addison's "Cato"

Republican Manners

As first president of the United States of America, George Washington was establishing an office unique in world history with no precedent or guidelines to follow. While today we study the political events that shaped the early years of government, we tend to overlook the importance placed on “being presidential”. Washington was aware that every act would set a precedent. Early in his first administration he wrote to British historian Catherine McCauley Graham that he walked on “ untrod ground.” The United States had just fought a long war to escape the tyranny of monarchy. Washington wanted to ensure that every aspect of the president’s policies and lifestyle conformed to the ideals of republican government.

Presidential Achievements

George Washington’s first term in office was dominated by shaping the role of the president. He appointed the first presidential cabinet, oversaw measures that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton encouraged for solid financial grounding, and designated a site for the nation’s new capital.

Washington’s second term centered on foreign affairs, and he wisely let his preference for neutrality be known. He dealt firmly with the Whiskey Rebellion and sent Chief Justice John Jay to England to negotiate an unpopular peace treaty with the British. He also asserted his distaste for emerging political parties, which were coming to dominate the American system of government.

WEBSITE: Discover the Real George Washington

Washington Steps Down

The Two-Term Precedent

Although it was his for the taking, Washington never considered running for a third term. Over four decades of public service had left him exhausted physically, mentally, and financially. He happily handed the office to his successor, John Adams. With customary care, Washington was scrupulously silent on his opinions of the men jockeying to succeed him. By ceding office after two terms, Washington helped ensure a regular and orderly transfer of executive power. His two-term limit set a custom that would stand for a century and a half, until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940 and a fourth term in 1944.

Farewell Address

Washington closed his administration with a thoughtful farewell address. Written with the help of Hamilton and Madison, the address urged Americans to be a vigilant and righteous people. "It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness," he said. "The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government." It was as if he saw the great challenges to come in the next decades and begged his fellow citizens to remain a unified nation. But some of Washington's advice was not heeded. He warned his fellow citizens against "the baneful spirit of faction," referring to the party spirit that had disrupted his administration, and he warned against "foreign entanglements." But he could not prevent the formation of parties, nor did his warning against "foreign entanglements" prevent his successors from engaging in active diplomacy with European nations, often leading to de facto alliances. To this day, Washington's farewell address is read aloud every year in the U.S. Senate as a tribute to his service and foresight.

TEXT: Washington's Farewell Address

Copied from The Miller Center (9/12/13)

Source: ?