The Giants of American Conservatism

A thoughtful discussion of the men who contributed the most to what is now the dominant political pattern

The swing to conservatism in American politics and culture is one of the most remarkable facts of our age. The signs of this conservatism are all about us. After generations of exile from respectability, the word itself has been welcomed home with cheers by men who, a few short years ago, would sooner have been called arsonists than conservatives.Read more »

Madison’s Radical Agenda

A diminutive, persuasive Virginian hijacked the Constitutional Convention and forced the moderates to accept a national government with vastly expanded powers

On May 5, 1787, James Madison arrived in Philadelphia. He was a diminutive young Virginian—about five feet three inches tall, 130 pounds, 36 years old—who, it so happened, had thought more deeply about the political problems posed by the current government under the Articles of Confederation than any other American. Read more »

Compromise 1: Philadelphia Story

Without major compromises by all involved and the agreement to avoid the contentious issue of slavery, the framers would never have written and ratified the Constitution

In September 1789, at the end of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote in dismay to his old friend Thomas Jefferson, who was an ocean away in Paris. “I hazard an opinion,” he lamented, “that the plan should it be adopted will neither effectively answer the national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which everywhere excite disgust against the state governments.”Read more »

Magna Carta Comes To America

The Founding Fathers’ belief in the “law of the land” derived from a 13th-century document recently donated to the National Archives

“King John was not a good man,” wrote A. A. Milne in his children’s classic, Now We Are Six. This feckless 13th-century king so badly mismanaged his kingdom that powerful English barons confronted him in June 1215 at Runnymede, a large meadow in the Thames Valley. In tense negotiations, the angry barons outlined their requirements for certain fundamental rights, writing down their demands in a 2,500-word document in medieval Latin on a single sheet of parchment.Read more »

Friends At Twilight

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson stood together in America’s perilous dawn, but politics soon drove them apart. Then in their last years the two old enemies began a remarkable correspondence that is both testimony to the power of friendship and an eloquent summary of the dialogue that went on within the Revolutionary generation—and that continues within our own.

 
 
 
Jefferson said that he admired everything about Adams except his politics. This was like claiming the pope was reliable on all but religion.

To most of their contemporaries they were America’s odd couple. John Adams was short, plump, passionate to the point of frenzy.Read more »

The Founding Wizard

Two hundred years ago the United States was a weakling republic prostrate beneath a ruinous national debt. Then Alexander Hamilton worked the miracle of fiscal imagination that made America a healthy young economic giant. How did he do it?

One price of political greatness is to be forced to campaign even long after death. The Founding Fathers, particularly, have been constantly dragged from their graves for partisan purposes. The shades of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison have been invoked right up to the present by American politicians seeking to add luster to their own political agendas. Read more »

How History Made The Constitution

Every one of the Founding Fathers was a historian—a historian who believed that only history could protect us from tyranny and coercion. In their reactions to the long, bloody pageant of the English past, we can see mirrored the framers’ intent.

It took an Englishman, William Gladstone, to say what Americans have always thought: “The American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” From this side of the water, however, the marvel has not been so much the unique system of government that emerged from the secret conclave of 1787 as the array of ordered and guaranteed freedoms that the document presented.Read more »

The Non-Signers

After a summer of debate, three of the delegates in Philadelphia could not bring themselves to put their names to the document they had worked so hard to create

THE FINAL MOMENT CAME ON MONDAY MORNING, September 17,1787. The heat of summer had given way to a hint of autumn crispness. A weekend rain had cleared the air in Philadelphia and left the city fresh. In Independence Hall a newly engrossed copy of the finished Constitution—written in a fine hand on four large pieces of parchment—lay on the green baize of the presiding officer’s table.Read more »

Interview With A Founding Father

James Wilson was an important but now obscure draftsman of the Constitution. Carry Wills is a journalist and historian fascinated by what went on in the minds of our founders. The two men meet in an imaginary dialogue across the centuries.

 

His red judge’s robe looked faded and theatrical by daylight. People at the bus stop stared at him, and his face flushed near the color of the robe. But he busily ignored them. Read more »

A Postage Stamp History Of The U.S. In The Twentieth Century

Here is the federal government’s own picture history of our times—and it tells us more than you might think

FEW ARE AWARE of a major publishing project that has been sponsored by the federal government and some of our leading citizens over the past eight decades. It is a lavishly illustrated history of the United States in our times and it comes in parts—on postage stamps, to be precise. The story it tells may say as much about how we see ourselves as about what we’ve done since 1900. Read more »