Thursday, July 19, 2018

Hamilton: An American Biography

A review of Tony Williams new book by , Journal of the American Revolution.

"Alexander Hamilton fever has certainly swept the country and revived the American public’s interest in Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers. Individuals who perhaps at one point showed little special interest in the founding of the country are reading history books and absorbing everything Hamilton. Although a great deal of scholarship has been done on Hamilton and his life and times, Ron Chernow’s tome stands out as the go-to volume for those who thirst for Hamilton—until now, that is. Tony Williams, author of Hamilton:An American Biography, steps in to provide a volume for those who need more Hamilton in their lives but are not yet ready to tackle Chernow’s biography. Recognizing Chernow’s work as worthy of its place as a staple but also a massive undertaking that requires great dedication, Williams sought to provide a biography of the Hamilton essentials geared toward a popular audience that is likely to shy away from an intimidatingly large book but are much more likely to pick up a slender volume.

Arguing that Hamilton maintained an unwavering lifelong devotion to American principles, Williams chronicles Hamilton’s life from his beginning in West Indies to his death by duel in 1804. Although quite concise, Williams covers all aspects of Hamilton’s public service, including his Revolutionary service as Washington’s aide, his work in ratifying the Constitution and as Secretary of the Treasury, and his continued efforts to maintain the new country in the face of foreign and domestic threatsOffering a balanced view of Hamilton, this book presents a man who completely devoted himself to American principles and consistently acted out of motivations for the public good, even if he at times made flawed decisions.
Hamilton’s devotion to principles of liberty remained constant from the time he arrived as an immigrant in New York, where his connections involved him in the Revolution’s roots. As the conflict launched Hamilton advocated American liberty, always with an eye toward maintaining honor, a principle that proved to be a key motivator in his decisions. After the initial shots fired at Lexington and Concord propelled Hamilton into supporting the American cause, his devotion to national honor informed the agendas for which he advocated through the rest of the Revolution, carried him through his fast and furious writing of the Federalist essays, and continued to inform his plans to develop America into a nation that reached its full potential. Williams presents Hamilton as a man who deserves to be in the spotlight not because of a prominent Broadway musical, but because his contributions warrant his consideration as a central Founding Father.
As this book makes clear, many of Hamilton’s agendas that his fellow Founders considered controversial can be explained by his devotion to his principles. Although his nemeses loved to accuse Hamilton of having monarchical tendencies, Hamilton pursued the type of government that he felt necessary to allow American liberty to flourish. This included, much to the chagrin of some contemporaries, acting justly toward Tories who remained in America and maintaining a close relationship with England. Building a successful national foundation similarly motivated Hamilton to advocate the assumption of public debts and the establishment of a national bank. Meanwhile, as Hamilton worked to build a strong America, he held realistic viewpoints concerning the new country’s vulnerable position. Once again adopting viewpoints that proved controversial among his contemporaries, Hamilton supported Jay’s Treaty—not as an advocate of war, but rather an advocate of neutrality in accommodation of America’s weak state. Hamilton’s contemporaries often perceived the worst-case scenario for his agendas, when in fact, as Williams asserts, Hamilton concerned himself with acting in the best interest of the country as a whole with consideration of both its present and future states.
While Williams convincingly demonstrates that the principle of honor and devotion to American principles propelled Hamilton’s life and influenced every facet of his public service, he also provides a balanced consideration of the man and his work and acknowledges Hamilton’s occasional tendencies to act irresponsibly and irrationally. One of the most infamous examples of this facet of Hamilton’s personality is the affair with Maria Reynolds and the aftermath of the puzzling sordid, detailed pamphlet Hamilton himself published. Williams asserts that Hamilton’s public reaction in the affair’s fallout provides evidence for Hamilton’s devotion to national honor even above his own very prized personal honor—personal pain and suffering must be put aside for the preservation of national honor. Even as Hamilton blundered his way through the election of 1800 that caused bad blood between himself and Aaron Burr he remained primarily concerned with the welfare of the nation and tried to uphold his exacting standards.
Overall, Hamilton: An American Biography provides an engaging and accessible narrative that gives an overview of Hamilton’s life placed within the context of his times. Williams achieves a good balance between delivering an accurate historical account and tackling misconceptions about Hamilton while at the same time creating an account that is not overwhelming for readers who are new to Hamilton and the Founders. The popular style in which the book is written differs from the usual style of historical non-fiction, particularly in Williams’ choice to modernize and not cite quotations, pointing readers to his other work for that information. The audience for which the book is written probably will not mind, but readers more grounded in historical scholarship may find it slightly inconvenient and certainly unusual. Providing an excellent foundation for those just beginning a journey with the Founding Fathers and a pleasurable read for long time students of the period, this book deserves a place on the bookshelf of any Hamilton enthusiast."

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation vs. Thomas Jefferson

by M. Andrew Holowchak

"In a new “manifesto” titled “Monticello Affirms Thomas Jefferson Fathered Children with Sally Hemings” (June, 2018), The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has declared that the official position of the foundation is that Thomas Jefferson fathered all six of Sally Hemings’s children. It is a perplexing statement, especially given that it is made not on account of any new evidence that has a bearing on Jefferson’s avowed paternity, and prior to this manifesto, they were content to espouse some degree of skepticism of paternity based on the available evidence. The manifesto merely rehashes its amassed “evidence” while paying lip service to certain maverick dissenters—“some who disagree.” With the opening of Sally Hemings’s room on June 16, they have taken it upon themselves to “remove the qualifiers.” They write now of a firm commitment to the relationship. There is little room for doubt.

As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began planning The Life of Sally Hemings, an exhibit that relies on the account left by her son, Madison Hemings, it became apparent that it was time to reexamine how to characterize Jefferson’s paternity. For nearly twenty years, the most complete summary of evidence has remained the report authored by the Foundation in January 2000. While there are some who disagree, the Foundation’s scholarly advisors and the larger community of academic historians who specialize in early American history have concurred for many years that the evidence is sufficiently strong to state that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings. In the new exhibit exploring the life of Sally Hemings, her choices, and her connection to Thomas Jefferson, as well as in updates to our related online materials and print publications, the Foundation will henceforth assert what the evidence indicates and eliminate qualifying language related to the paternity of Eston Hemings as well as that related to Sally Hemings’s three other surviving children, whose descendants were not part of the 1998 DNA study. While it remains possible, though increasingly unlikely, that a more comprehensive documentary and genetic assemblage of evidence could emerge to support a different conclusion, no plausible alternative with the same array of evidence has surfaced in two decades.

Some comments on this manifesto:

First, they state that the most complete summary is their own report of January, 2000, and that smacks of self-service. Since publication, that report has been challenged by a number of compelling books: Bob Turner’s The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission (2001), Cynthia Burton’s Jefferson Vindicated (2005), William Hyland’s In Defense of Thomas Jefferson (2009), and my own Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of ThomasJefferson and Sally Hemings (2013).While none of these books proffers the sockdolager which shows that there was no relationship, all offer compelling reason for doubt. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has dealt with the arguments in those books by ignoring them. They can do that. They run the show at Monticello. For instance, as author of 10 books on Jefferson, some 70 published essays, not one of my books on Jefferson—and I have written critically on Jefferson’s views on religion, politics and political philosophy, history, morality, education, progressivism, and cosmology, inter alia—is for sale in the library at Monticello. Why? I wrote Framing a Legend, which attacks the often-shoddy scholarship on behalf of the liaison and argues, ultimately, for skepticism. Skepticism, it seems, is sufficient for censorship. They run Monticello and they can give visitors their own account of Thomas Jefferson by disallowing diversity of opinion.

Second, “there are some who disagree” is massively understated. Many disagree. The issue is that if you disagree with their official position on the liaison, if you disagree with what is now their manifesto, you run the risk of being dubbed “racist,” which is the kiss of death in liberal academic circles. I am a liberal, but I am interested in truth, not politics. Consensus among scholars today is, thus, forced, because of fear of being called racist. Truth has become irrelevant. Jefferson may have had a relationship with Hemings. That is important to know. Yet we wish to know that as a result of open debate on both sides of the issue and with a look at all the available, relevant evidence. If such debate shows anti-paternity is unlikely, then the anti-paternity adherents will have gained by, as Socrates has said, “an exchange of error for truth.” Yet TJF disallows open debate because they control the intellectual climate at Monticello. With open debate, they run the risk of being shown to be pedantic, dogmatic, and perhaps wrong. Thus, if Jefferson did have an affair with Hemings, we ought to demand evidence of it. A scholarly pro-paternity wave of hands among members of TJF, many of whom are unqualified to have a vote, ought not to convince anyone.

Third, Sally Hemings is an odd choice for an exhibit, given that Jefferson says next to nothing of her in his memoranda books and that no scholars know anything substantive of her life. Annette Gordon-Reed has made a reputation of being an expert of Hemings’s life through four chapters of the probable course of events in her stay in France in her much ballyhooed book, The Hemingses of Monticello, but those chapters are built on surmise, not evidence. The probability of her account being accurate in all of its details is nil.

Finally, in their manifesto, they relist 10 reasons (click the link in the first sentence of this essay) to believe that Jefferson fathered all of Hemings’s children. None of the reasons are new. Most have been challenged; some have been refuted. The TJF is blind to those challenges and refutations. Their policy again is to ignore evidence to the contrary. Why? They have invested much too much over the years in the Hemings’ controversy, and now they cannot recant. Yet with the manifesto, they have added something new: They are resorting to dogma, not debate.

With the exhibit of “The Life of Sally Hemings,” TJF will have muddied its face. Monticello’s Gary Sandling’s insisted when they were going about “reconstruction” of Hemings’s room that “we’re not going to use this room to tell a story about DNA and the paternity of her children.” Yet now we find that that is just what they are doing. That is just what they had in mind all along.
Vivienne Kelly and I in “Monticello Claims toHave Found Sally Hemings’s Room: Is This True?” have argued that the recent “discovery” of Sally Hemings’s room might be politically, not veridically, motivated—that is, we at least challenged that notion that making a room for Sally Hemings was being done for the sake of hammering home the notion that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ six children. In our essay, we noted that one of the results of the room over time would be to offer visual proof of the nearly 40-year liaison. Having physical space at Monticello over time would be taken as proof in the minds of visitors of a liaison.

What is bothersome about the TJF’s new report is the political posturing of those in TJF. Sandling insisted that the room’s discovery was not political. It was. The issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been decided ex cathedra, without full discussion of all relevant evidence, and by a select view of “authorities” on Jefferson who never had doubts about Jefferson’s paternity in the first place. No one who dissented was part of the decision-making. That is how it has been at Monticello for a long time. That needs to change, because members of TJF are creating Jefferson’s history, not reconstructing it. It is an insufferable situation.

The TJF is content with its removal of qualifiers because they are content that the testimony of Sally Hemings’s son Madison Hemings is trustworthy and correct. As I have shown (see HNN, Hemings’s testimony), it is not. Its reliability is suspect from a number of points. We cannot merely assume its veridicality.

The greatest danger with what the TJF is doing is its complete insouciance concerning claims contrary to those they embrace, even if those contrary claims are well supported. There is no other way to put it, because there is insufficient evidence to decide the issue of Jefferson’s paternity, and yet they have removed the qualifiers. In such a case, we must be skeptical, not dogmatic. TJF disallows skepticism. They have decided for us how we ought to think about Jefferson.

As John Stuart Mill showed in On Liberty, the closest thing to a liberal’s bible, freedom of opinion and critical discussion of matters unsettled by reason, are needed for truth. Thomas Jefferson in Query XVII of his Notes on the State of Virginia said the same thing. It is a paradox of Brobdingnagian proportion that the people who now run Jefferson’s Monticello have such an aversion to Jefferson’s priceless liberal values and such indifference to truth."

Article from the History News Network (George Washington University):

See also: Thomas Jefferson: A Defense of His Character and Thomas Jefferson and the Pursuit of Virtue
M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a philosopher and historian, editor of The Journal of Thomas Jefferson's Life and Times, and author/editor of 10 books and of some 70 published essays on Thomas Jefferson. He can be reached through

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The New Barbarism? Learning in Twenty-First Century Schools

By: Tony Williams

"In the Middle Ages and early modern Europe, most commoners were illiterate and learned visually through art such as Giotto depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi and later with posted broadsides with woodcuts. After looking at these visuals, the illiterate peasants might discuss them in a group at church or in a tavern.

Meanwhile, the middle and upper classes were churchmen, bureaucrats, lawyers, and merchants who were classically educated in the methods of the trivium and the subjects of the quadrivium by tutors and at universities. Theirs was the culture of the written word which dovetailed with the rise of the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on sola scriptura and reading the Bible.

The invention of the printing press and the gradual increase in the availability of cheap books and other written material led to widespread literacy over a few centuries. Education also became more democratized over the centuries and more people attended school and became literate. Education in the West, however, was still rooted in the written word as students read classics in Latin and Greek, held disputations, and engaged in rigorous thought.

Today, our young students in school resemble the illiterate peasants of the Middle Ages more and more. Teachers are increasingly moving towards teaching the students with a barrage of visual stimuli mirroring their leisure activities with their array of technological gadgets. The need for concentration, rigor, reflective thought when grappling with primary sources is losing out to PowerPoints, bullet points, streaming videos, and other latest technologies. They often do so in groups where students teach each other rather than having a knowledgeable teacher emulating Socrates or Jesus.

We are racing through the twenty-first century with our schools following the culture, rather than education molding the culture through our youth. Almost every mission statement for schools today pledges allegiance to “twenty-first century learning” without any real idea of what that truly means except “not getting left behind.”

I wonder if we shouldn’t reverse the numbers and get back to twelfth-century learning. Students should grapple with the classics through primary sources in age-appropriate ways through the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages of learning. Their teachers (as they are at Hillsdale, Christendom, Thomas Aquinas colleges) should be the words of Aristotle, Virgil, Homer, St. Augustine, Chaucer, St. Thomas More, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Luther, Burke, Jefferson, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Darwin, Einstein, Lewis, Freud, Eliot, and company, not a slide up on the screen."

Footnote: [] Additional Reading: “Is our Greek and Roman heritage merely allusive and illusory? Or were our founders, and so our republican beginnings, truly steeped in the stuff of antiquity? So far largely a matter of generalization and speculation, the influence of Greek and Roman authors on our American forefathers finally becomes clear in this fascinating book-the first comprehensive study of the founders' classical reading. Carl J. Richard begins by examining how eighteenth-century social institutions in general and the educational system in particular conditioned the founders to venerate the classics. … In this analysis, we see how the classics not only supplied the principal basis for the U.S. Constitution but also contributed to the founders' conception of human nature, their understanding of virtue, and their sense of identity and purpose within a grand universal scheme.” See: “The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment” by Carl J. Richard 
Tony Williams is the author of six books including the brief and engaging "Hamilton: An American Biography" (Rowman Littlefield, 2018) and "Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Created America" (Sourcebooks, 2015), co-authored with Stephen F. Knott. He has also written "America's Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation's Character," (2011), "The Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results that Shaped America" (2011),"Pox and the Covenant: Franklin, Mather, and the Epidemic that Changed America's Destiny" (2010), and, "Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution" (2008). He serves as the Program Director at WJMI and works as a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He holds history degrees from Syracuse University and Ohio State University. He taught history for fifteen years and was a fellow at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Alexander Hamilton and American Greatness in the 1790'S

by Tony Williams 

“On September 11, 1789, the Senate confirmed President George Washington’s appointment of Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. He worked all weekend to address immediate financial concerns and would spend the next decade at Washington’s side engaged in nation-building for the new republic.

As one of the primary authors of the Federalist and as a key delegate to the New York Ratifying Convention, Alexander Hamilton had been instrumental in winning ratification of the new Constitution strengthening the national government. During the 1790s, he would use the constitutional authority of that new government to build a lasting republic. Hamilton’s visionary financial plan was the foundation of his nation-building in the 1790s. The first part of the plan was to remedy the teetering financial footing of the new nation. After much debate and controversy, Congress eventually passed his plan for the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states as well as the tariffs and excise taxes he wanted gradually to extinguish the debt.

Congress also easily passed the second part of Hamilton’s plan, which was to create a National Bank to circulate currency and lend money to promote economic growth. Despite the Jeffersonian accusations that he only advanced the interests of stock-jobbers and speculators, Hamilton’s economic vision included benefitting merchants, farmers, and artisans alike. The internal improvements that comprised the third part of the plan failed, but Hamilton helped to promote manufactures for the nascent industrial revolution. In a few short years, Hamilton’s triumph was vindicated by a thriving, dynamic economy. Hamilton successfully used the federal government to provide stability and order to the financial system that allowed individuals to thrive in the private free market.

Hamilton wanted to use strong economic growth to build a strong national security state for the young republic to survive in a world of contending empires. The nation needed the funding for national defense in case of emergencies. He adopted an expansive view of the executive power to act vigorously in foreign policy.

Despite an enduring historical legacy as a warmonger, Hamilton consistently sought to defend American interests and national honor with a policy of peace through strength. Whether during the debate over the Proclamation of Neutrality, the British impressment crisis and the controversial Jay Treaty, or organizing the army during the Quasi-War with France in the late 1790s, Hamilton pursued peace because he understood that the United States did not have sufficient power yet to oppose the great powers of Europe.

Hamilton spent a lifetime dedicated to public service to his adopted country. He was a war hero in the Revolutionary War, engaged in politics at the state and national level, and helped frame and ratify the Constitution. Influenced by his immigrant background and his service under Washington in the Continental Army, Hamilton quickly espoused a continental vision that shaped all of his writings and his statesmanship. As a result, Hamilton was one of the most important founding fathers who shaped the American regime of republican liberty and was responsible for working with Washington to build the new nation in the 1790s.”


Tony Williams the Program Director for WJMI and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books on the American founding including his newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired

"The English Bible was -- and is -- the most influential book ever published. The most famous of all English Bibles, the King James Version, was the culmination of centuries of work by various translators, from John Wycliffe, the fourteenth-century catalyst of English Bible translation, to the committee of scholars who collaborated on the King James translation. Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters examines the life and work of Wycliffe and recounts the tribulations of his successors, including William Tyndale, who was martyred, Miles Coverdale, and others who came to bitter ends. It traces the story of the English Bible through the tumultuous reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I, a time of fierce contest between Catholics and Protestants in England, as the struggle to establish a vernacular Bible was fought among competing factions. In the course of that struggle, Sir Thomas More, later made a Catholic saint, helped orchestrate the assault on the English Bible, only to find his own true faith the plaything of his king.

In 1604, a committee of fifty-four scholars, the flower of Oxford and Cambridge, collaborated on the new translation for King James. Their collective expertise in biblical languages and related fields has probably never been matched, and the translation they produced -- substantially based on the earlier work of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and others -- would shape English literature and speech for centuries. As the great English historian Macaulay wrote of their version, "If everything else in our language should perish, it alone would suffice to show the extent of its beauty and power"...

The impact of the English Bible on law and society was profound. It gave every literate person access to the sacred text, which helped to foster the spirit of inquiry through reading and reflection. This, in turn, accelerated the growth of commercial printing and the proliferation of books. Once people were free to interpret the word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both religious and secular. This led to reformation within the Church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings. England fought a Civil War in the light (and shadow) of such concepts, and by them confirmed the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In time, the new world of ideas that the English Bible helped inspire spread across the Atlantic [to the thirteen British colonies and served as a major catalyst in the American revolution], and eventually, like Wycliffe's sea-borne scattered ashes, all the world over, "as wide as the waters be." Wide as the Waters is a story about a crucial epoch in the history of Christianity, about the English language and society, and about a book that changed the course of human events.”

Review from, where the book is available in paperback or hardcover. See:

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Thomas Jefferson and the Teaching of the Constitution

Part II to "James Madison and the Teaching of the Constitution." (See:

Thomas Jefferson’s last great dream was to found a public university in Virginia.  Beginning with his first concept in 1800, and after the investment of much of his personal time, money and labor, and lobbying to the state legislature with the valuable assistance of several influential friends, the University of Virginia was chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia on January 25, 1819, and opened for classes in March 1825. Thomas Jefferson's long-time friend and collaborator, James Madison, wrote to a mutual friend concerning Jefferson, the University, and the diffusion of knowledge: 

"Your old friend, Mr. Jefferson, still lives, and will close his illustrious career by bequeathing to his Country a magnificent Institute for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; which is the only guardian of true liberty, the great cause to which his life has been devoted."[1] 

In preparation for the opening of classes, Jefferson corresponded with Madison regarding the teaching of the Constitution at the new University. Their concern was that students be instructed in the true "principles of government" upon which the Constitutions of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia "were genuinely based." The results of that mutual correspondence and collaboration were brought forth in a meeting of the Board of Visitors on March 4, 1825.  Pursuant to Madison's advice in his letter to Jefferson dated February 8, 1825, and his sketch (outline) for the recommended curriculum, the Board agreed to a resolution.  Adopted by Jefferson, Madison, and the other three men on the Board of Visitors (trustees), the following sets forth the authentic sources of our American principles of government and of the Constitution: 

"A resolution was moved and agreed to in the following words: Whereas, it is the duty of this Board to the government under which it lives, and especially to that of which this University is the immediate creation, to pay especial attention to the principles of government which shall be inculcated therein, and to provide that none shall be inculcated which are incompatible with those on which the Constitutions of this State, and of the United States were genuinely based, in the common opinion; and for this purpose it may be necessary to point out specially where these principles are to be found legitimately developed: 

Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Board that as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke, in his "Essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government," and of Sidney in his "Discourses on government," may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States, and that on the distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in:

1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of union of these States. 
2. The book known by the title of "The Federalist," being an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the United States, on questions as to its genuine meaning. 
3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799 on the subject of the alien and sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the United States. 
4. The Valedictory [farewell] Address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value. …"[2] 

It is significant that Jefferson and Madison determined that these specific "founding" documents and books constitute the "best guides" to teaching and understanding the Constitution and our republican form of government. It is also enlightening that out of all of the numerous books that Jefferson and Madison had read and studied on politics and government (including Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bolingbroke), they elevated Locke and Sidney's writings as the two works containing the "general principles of liberty and rights of man, in nature and in society." 

We also learn from Jefferson and Madison's list of "best guides," that the Constitution is based upon certain principles. These principles formed the basis for the raising up and establishment of our democratic, constitutional republic, which was designed to "secure the Blessings of Liberty" to us and our posterity. True principles, of course, are timeless and unchanging, and their applications are universal. As Algernon Sidney wrote, "…truth is comprehended by examining principles."[3]

May we as citizens, students, parents, and teachers endeavor to study, learn, and teach these documents and the principles of Constitution in the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, and our other founding fathers.

Download a free copy of "Thomas Jefferson & James Madison's Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Constitution," published by WJMI, at:
[1] James Madison to George Thomson, June 30, 1825, The Writings of James Madison, 4 Volumes (J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1865) 3:492.
[2] Minutes of the Board of Visitors, March 4, 1825, ME 19:460-61 (cited as “Minutes”).
[3] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London: A. Millar, London, 1751), I:3:8 (cited as “Discourses”).

Sunday, February 11, 2018

James Madison and the Teaching of the Constitution

On February 8th, 1825, James Madison replied to Thomas Jefferson from Montpelier regarding the teaching of the Constitution at the newly established University of Virginia.  Madison sat on its Board of Visitors along with  Thomas Jefferson, the university's founder and Rector. Jefferson had previously written to ask his long time friend and political collaborator to advise concerning the proposed constitutional curriculum. In this letter Madison sets forth his thoughts on the best sources of the principles or "true doctrines of liberty" exemplified by the Constitution. In the end, he recommends using the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Resolutions and Washington's Inaugural and Farewell Addresses as the "best guides" to the "distinctive principles" of the Government of the United States.  His recommendations were largely adopted by the Board of Visitors of the University by a resolution on March 4, 1825. See:
Following is the primary text of Madison's letter, and his sketch for the teaching of the Constitution, which should be instructive to all citizens of the republic and students of the Constitution -- from the "father" of this, our great charter of freedom and self-government:

Dear Sir: 
…I have looked with attention over your intended proposal of a text book for the Law School. It is certainly very material that the true doctrines of liberty, as exemplified in our Political System, should be inculcated on those who are to sustain and may administer it. It is, at the same time, not easy to find Standard books that will be both guides & guards for the purpose. Sydney & Locke are admirably calculated to impress on young minds the right of Nations to establish their own Governments, and to inspire a love of free ones; but afford no aid in guarding our Republican Charters against constructive violations. The Declaration of Independence, tho’ rich in fundamental principles, and saying every thing that could be said in the same number of words, falls nearly under a like observation. The “Federalist” may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution, as understood by the Body which prepared & the Authorities which accepted it. Yet it did not foresee all the misconstructions which have occurred; nor prevent some that it did foresee. And what equally deserves remark, neither of the great rival parties have acquiesced in all its Comments. It may nevertheless be admissible as a School book, if any will be that goes so much into detail. It has been actually admitted into two Universities, if not more, those of Harvard & Rhode Island; but probably at the choice of the Professors, without an injunction from the superior authority. With respect to the Virginia Document of 1799, there may be more room for hesitation. Tho’ corresponding with the predominant sense of the Nation; being of local origin & having reference to a state of parties not yet extinct, an absolute prescription of it, might excite prejudices against the University as under Party Banners, and induce the more bigoted to withhold from it their sons, even when destined for other than the studies of the Law School. It may be added that the Document is not, on every point, satisfactory to all who belong to the same party. Are we sure that to our brethren of the Board it is so? In framing a political Creed, a like difficulty occurs as in the case of religion though the public right be very different in the two cases. If the Articles be in very general terms, they do not answer the purpose: if in very particular terms, they divide & exclude where meant to unite & fortify. The best that can be done in our case seems to be, to avoid the two extremes, by referring to selected Standards without requiring an unqualified conformity to them, which indeed might not in every instance be possible. The selection would give them authority with the Students, and might control or counteract deviations of the Professor. I have, for your consideration, sketched a modification of the operative passage in your draught, with a view to relax the absoluteness of its injunction, and added to your list of Documents, the Inaugural Speech and the Farewell Address of President Washington. They may help down what might be less readily swallowed, and contain nothing which is not good; unless it be the laudatory reference in the Address to the Treaty of 1795 with G. B. which ought not to weigh against the sound sentiments characterizing it. 

After all, the most effectual safeguard against heretical intrusions into the School of politics, will be an Able & Orthodox Professor, whose course of instruction will be an example to his Successors, and may carry with it a sanction from the Visitors. 
Affectionately yours, 
James Madison 

[Enclosure] Sketch: And on the distinctive principles of the Government of our own State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in: 1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental Act of Union of these States. 2. The book known by the title of the “Federalist,” being an Authority to which appeal is habitually made by all & rarely declined or denied by any, as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed & those who accepted the Constitution of the U. States, on questions as to its genuine meaning. 3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799 on the subject of the Alien & Sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the U. S. 4 The Inaugural Speech and Farewell Address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value; and that in the branch of the School of law which is to treat on the subject of Government these shall be used as the text & documents of the School.[1]

For a free copy of "Thomas Jefferson & James Madison's Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Constitution," published by WJMI, visit:
[1](Rives Collection, Madison Papers, University of Virginia)[some spelling modernized; emphasis added]