The Constitution that emerged from the Philadelphia Convention on September 17, 1787 meant nothing. But after a period of mature reflection and calm consideration, the American people, through their state ratifying conventions, deliberately chose to preserve that Constitution from the ash heap of history and establish, for themselves and their posterity, a republican form of government, meaning one that was ultimately responsible to the people in accord with their highest judgment and reason.
In an effort to encourage ratification among the people, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 1 that it was “reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” What Hamilton meant was that Americans had been uniquely blessed with the unprecedented opportunity to determine, for themselves, the form and character of their political order, without regard to the dictates of any other power but their own reason. And in a new effort to encourage discussion and understanding of the American political order among modern readers, the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University has recently released 50 Core American Documents: Required Reading for Students, Teachers, and Citizens.
The book is a collection of the most important and consequential speeches, letters, essays, and proclamations that make up the distinctly American story, ranging from the Declaration of Independence of 1776 to Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech from the last half of the 20th century. Along the way, we encounter various documents from the most notable Americans, including the Founders, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Taken together, this superbly crafted anthology delivers a kind of democratic dialogue that focuses on the most essential political questions and, thereby, provides a guide for the proper development of citizenship. The dialogue sometimes involves the major political figures of American history in their disputed attempts to distinguish and pursue the good and the just. For example, the debate over slavery is clearly presented in the documents of Calhoun, Roger Taney, and Alexander Stephens, on the one hand, and those of Douglass and Lincoln, on the other. Likewise, the debate over the meaning and demands of progress is clearly presented in the documents of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, on the one hand, and those of Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Reagan, on the other.
But, importantly, the dialogue more often involves a conversation of sorts between reader and text—which is to say, between the citizen and his country—and here the real merit and appeal of this particular collection are seen. The subtitle of the work is, after all, “Required Reading for Students, Teachers, and Citizens.” This assumes that there is something particularly useful and intrinsically good about these readings, something worth knowing. It also assumes, perhaps, that Americans have lost something of themselves that can only be regained by study and reflection. Through a kind of conversation between reader and text—this text—we voluntarily enter an avenue of discussion and debate with other individuals about the ultimate end and purpose of government, the meaning of liberty, the essence of equality, the significance of the laws of nature and nature’s God, and the demands of justice. The figurative conversation, in other words, leads to a literal one between interested fellow citizens—and this, I think, is what the book wants to accomplish.
50 Core American Documents, then, is not necessarily for scholars and academics, although many of them would probably benefit from its pages. This is a book mostly for the common man and the average American citizen, for the one who desires to know more about the meaning and significance of America and why it is worthy of our confidence and esteem. This is a book for Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, the Tea Party, and the politically unaffiliated. This is a book for the people. It was written by and for them.
It is organized in such a way that anyone can pick it up, turn to any random page, and begin reading with pleasure. Its editor, Christopher Burkett, has very helpfully included short, introductory descriptions for all 50 documents and even “questions for consideration” that are meant to guide and enhance the overall experience. As a whole, the book is less about what to think, and more about how to begin to think about the highest and best things, so long as we begin from the assumption, expressed by Hamilton in Federalist 1, that God created the human mind free.
And as the subtitle implies, the book is also an indispensable educational resource for teachers and students. Unfortunately, American history classrooms are, far too often, dependent upon expensive textbooks that stifle clear thinking and intelligent discussion. Many of them are boring. Some contain false information. For example, We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics—one of the most popular college and university textbooks on American government—went through 10 editions before the editor, Harvard University’s Thomas E. Patterson, finally dropped the blatantly false and easily disprovable claim that the three-fifths compromise of the U.S. Constitution gave the slave interests “the better end of the bargain.” The Founders didn’t think so. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and even Roger Taney didn’t think so. Textbooks certainly have their place, and they can often be a supplemental guide to understanding history’s key people, events, and ideas. But they cannot replace true education and real learning, which only come from reading and studying great texts and original sources.
Now, there may be some controversy over the specific items chosen for inclusion in this volume, not to mention those that were conspicuously left out. For example, I for one found the decision to include the succinct and legalistic “Resolution Submitting the Thirteenth Amendment to the States” and George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” somewhat odd, not because these aren’t worth reading or studying, of course, but because other, more suitable documents could have substituted for them. I might have suggested, for example, selections from some of the early state constitutions, such as the “Virginia Declaration of Rights” and the “Massachusetts Preamble and Declaration of Rights,” as well as Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech and “First Inaugural Address,” and King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (although his “I Have a Dream” speech is included). I’m sure other critics would have their own recommendations, which means no list of 50 core American documents will ever succeed in satisfying everyone. Overall, the selections are quite good and work extremely well together. And the editor, in the introduction, kindly reassures us, “This list is by no means definitive or comprehensive, but is a starting point.” These documents, in other words, do not comprise an exhaustive list; they are not the only ones required for students, teachers, and citizens. Maybe, then, we will soon see another volume? I hope so.
Finally, it seems to be no accident that the book begins with the Declaration of Independence and concludes with Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech. The implicit question of the collection, from beginning to end, appears to be this: Will we, as a people, choose to recognize and reaffirm our ancient faith in the principles of 1776?
This is not a new question, as the middle portions of the book make perfectly clear. From the 19th century controversy surrounding slavery, to the meaning and demands of progress in the 20th century and today, we see from these assorted documents that every generation faces this same question and, therefore, always returns again to Hamilton’s essential and timeless claim in Federalist 1 (which, conveniently, is included in the book, as it rightly should be). The assertion that men may be governed by reflection and choice means that they are capable of governing themselves, if they go forward armed with certain truths. It is easier, of course, for human beings to resign themselves to the various and vicious degrees of accident and force. Resignation before the ruler is all too common, providing as it does—for a time, at least—security to the ruled. The truly difficult work for human beings resides in self-government, which by its nature is neither easy nor secure.
We must do the day’s work. We must choose to remain dedicated to the self-evident truths contained in the immortal Declaration. We must perform our duties and obligations as citizens, and can begin our thoughtful approach to those duties and obligations with some required readings from the Ashbrook Center.