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American Founding

The Founding is where it all begins. The great men who established this country first articulated the foundational principles that still define America. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on the American Founding. When you're ready for more, read the primary sources yourself and explore the Founding in greater depth.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is "the Founding" and who are "the Founders"?

Though the peopling of America began much earlier, the American Founding can be said to begin with the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, after which the British began to more actively govern their American colonies. The founding period encompasses two pivotal events in the history of liberty. The American Revolution opens at the Battle of Lexington in 1775 and concludes with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The creation and establishment of the Constitution begins in earnest in 1785 (the Constitutional Convention was held in the summer of 1787) and can be said to conclude with the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, or perhaps at the end of Washington’s formative presidency in 1797. The centerpieces of those events are two monumental documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

The Founders are the generation of statesmen who led America through the Revolutionary War and the creation of the U.S. Constitution. They also established the state and national governments on firm footing following the ratification of the Constitution, through the first few decades of America’s history. The most prominent Founders include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams. Their principles and actions still provide us with a guide for thinking about today’s political issues.

For more on the Founders and the Founding see Matthew Spalding’s book We Still Hold These Truths.

What was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence?

As a practical matter, the Declaration of Independence, adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, publicly announced to the world the unanimous decision of the American colonies to declare themselves free and independent states, absolved from any allegiance to Great Britain.

The Declaration of Independence is also the definitive American statement of the conditions of legitimate political authority, the ends of government, and the sovereignty of the people. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, called it “the fundamental Act of Union of these States.”

What does the Declaration of Independence mean by equality? How does the contemporary understanding of equality differ?

When the Declaration of Independence proclaims all men to be created equal, it means that all human beings, regardless of religion, sex or skin color, possess the same natural rights. The Founders were well aware that different men and women are unequal in physical and mental capacities. But however noticeable the differences between people may be, they are never so great as to deprive them of their rights. No one, no matter how intelligent or capable he or she may be, can claim the right to rule others. Since all men and women share a common human nature, they are all therefore equally entitled to the same natural rights (such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

Today, many people think that equal rights are not enough and demand equality of results. They view any inequalities, whether in income or educational attainment, as a sign of injustice. Such claims are misguided. Because we are all different, inequalities are the natural result of living in a free society. Whether through luck, skill, or determination, some men and women will always succeed more than others. And others will fail. So long as no one’s rights are being denied, inequalities are perfectly normal and desirable expressions of the natural diversity among men and women.

When the Declaration of Independence speaks of “all men,” are women included? Are blacks?

Absolutely: The Declaration of Independence, like the Constitution, does not classify people according to sex or race. The Declaration of Independence’s central proposition—equality—applies to men and women alike, regardless of skin color (or religion, for that matter). The observed inequalities of individual men and women—in intelligence or strength for example—are insignificant and dramatically underscore the ways in which all human beings, as a species, are equal in their nature. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “all men” and not “all human beings” because the former is a more rhetorically powerful way to describe mankind.

What does the Declaration of Independence mean by "liberty"?

Liberty is the rightful exercise of freedom. It balances man’s inherent freedom to pursue happiness with the corresponding duty to respect the rights of others.

On the one hand, liberty means the right to live your life as you see fit. For example, no one can rule you without your consent, or compel you to worship God in a manner that is contrary to your conscience. It is for this reason that the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and the free exercise of religion.

On the other hand, if liberty is not to lead to license and anarchy, it must have limits. Thus, the right to liberty, like all others rights, implies a duty to respect the equal rights of others. Similarly, while the right to liberty means that all Americans are free to hold whatever opinions they choose, those who hold minority views must abide by the lawful will of the majority, just as the majority must respect the rights of the minority.

What are "rights" and where do they come from? How is the Founders’ understanding of rights different from contemporary conceptions of rights?

A right is something that justly belongs to someone and creates a claim against those who would deprive one of that right. One person’s right implies an equivalent duty in others not to interfere unjustly with that right. In terms of these fundamental rights (called “natural rights”), we are all equal—no one has more and no one less.

Different Founding-era documents trace the origins of our rights to different sources. The Declaration of Independence says that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” the Massachusetts Constitution asserts that “all men are born free and equal,” and the Virginia Declaration of Rights states that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights.” Whether our rights come from God or nature, the point is the same: They don’t come from government. Government exists to secure our rights.

Today, there is much confusion about rights. A right is not merely something you want or claim. You may, for example, want a better job, but that does not mean that you have a right to that job.

For a more detailed explanation of rights, see Charles Kesler’s First Principles essay “The Nature of Rights in American Politics: A Comparison of Three Revolutions.”

What does it mean to say that our rights are "unalienable"”?

The Declaration of Independence states that the rights we possess are “unalienable,” that is, they can never be taken away from us, nor can we give them up. Our rights are moral claims that we have to our lives, our liberty, and our property. Because these rights are part of our nature, they cannot be forsaken or denied.

It is nevertheless acceptable, for instance, to punish criminals by taking their property, liberty, or life because particular actions violate the law.

It is true that we authorize government to do certain things—like punish criminals and tax citizens—that affect our rights. But when we give powers to government, we never alienate or give up these fundamental rights. Government merely acts as a delegate or an agent of the people and is always accountable to the people. This is why we have the right to alter or abolish government if it infringes upon natural rights consistently over a long period of time.

What are the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that the Declaration of Independence appeals to?

The laws of nature are universal standards of right and wrong which apply to all men at all times. They are closely related to man’s natural rights: Murder, for instance, violates the laws of nature because it deprives men of their natural right to life. These laws are natural because they do not owe their existence to any man or government: Murder is always wrong even if the government does not declare it to be illegal.

In justifying their independence before the entire world, the Founders needed to appeal to a standard that all reasonable men could recognize. The Declaration of Independence therefore appeals to the laws of nature’s God, that is, that aspect of theological creation that man grasps by his own reason. By speaking of nature’s God, instead of a specific religious conception of God, the Founders made a universal argument, thereby showing “respect to the opinions of mankind.” At the same time, they pointed to a profound agreement between reason and revelation about man and the proper ground of politics.

Are human rights the same as natural rights?

At the time of the Founding, people spoke of rights as being natural (or God-given). Beginning in the 20th century, these were replaced by the thoroughly modern idea of “human rights.” Although both natural rights and human rights are universal, there are fundamental differences between the two.

First of all, natural inalienable rights do not come from government. Governments only secure these rights, that is, they create the political conditions that allow one to exercise them. Human rights on the other hand are bestowed by the state and have become a catch-all term for anything we desire and deem important. As a result, whereas natural rights (such as life, liberty, and property) are rights that government protects from infringement by others, human rights (such as “housing” and “leisure”) are often things that government is obligated to provide.

Secondly, natural rights, being natural, do not change over time. All men, at all times, have the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Human rights, on the other hand, constantly change. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to advance an array of new “economic and social rights” conceived of, defined by, and promoted by government and international bureaucrats.

For more on the subject, see Kim R. Holmes’s Understanding America booklet “How Should Americans Think About Human Rights?

What is the difference between natural rights and civil rights?

Natural rights are those inalienable rights which directly result from human nature. Men possess these rights, such as the right to one’s own life and the right to liberty, simply by virtue of being human. Since natural rights automatically belong to all humans, government can neither give them nor take them away. Governments do, however, have an obligation to secure the natural rights of their citizens.

Civil rights—such as the freedom of the press, the right to vote, or the right to a trial by jury—are rights granted by governments to allow citizens the proper enjoyment of their natural rights. For example, you cannot enjoy your natural right to liberty if the government denies you the right to vote. It makes no sense to speak of a natural right to vote—since voting only occurs in a political context—but you could see how your natural rights would be jeopardized if these civil rights were infringed. Because these rights stem from society rather than nature, they are called “civil rights.”

What is the right to property?

The right to property is the natural right to acquire, own, and use property. Property rights form not only the basis for a free market economy, but also for republican self-government, deeply intertwined as they are with human liberty. To be free is to exert one’s talents in the pursuit of happiness, and property rights are a fundamental requirement for securing the just rewards of one’s labor. According to the Founders, property rights also formed the cornerstone of a commercial republic: When a man has a bit of property—a home, a piece of land, his own source of food and security—he can be independent, and therefore free.

To grasp the full breadth of the concept of property rights, property must be seen less as a static possession and more as the dynamic source of opportunity for all—the engine that allows liberty, prosperity, and civil society to flourish. When property rights are secure and markets operate freely, economics is not a zero-sum game where people make a dollar by taking it from someone else, but rather a formidable way to create wealth and raise the standard of living of all.

For a more detailed discussion of property rights, see Edward J. Erler’s First Principles Essay “ The Decline and Fall of the Right to Property: Government as Universal Landlord.”

What is religious liberty?

Religious liberty is the natural right of each person to worship God as his conscience dictates. Although often equated with toleration, true religious liberty is rooted in the inherent natural rights of man and can never be justly denied. Toleration, on the other hand, is based on the discretion of the ruler and may be revoked at will.

The First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits Congress from interfering with the free exercise of religion by citizens. That said, religious liberty may not be invoked to justify disobeying the laws of the country (so long, of course, as they are general laws made for the common good and not unfair laws that target a religious minority).

For more on the subject, see Jennifer Marshall’s Understanding America booklet “ Why Does Religious Freedom Matter?

What is the "purpose of government" according to the Declaration of Independence?

According to the Declaration of Independence, men establish governments to secure their pre-existing natural rights. Where there is no government, rights are easily threatened by others, since the coercive power of the state does not function as a deterrent. The purpose of government is therefore to create the conditions that allow each individual to freely exercise his rights. At the collective level, this amounts to what the Declaration of Independence calls the “safety and happiness” of the people. Legitimate government must not only secure rights but also arise out of the consent of the governed.

How does government "secure our rights"?

Government secures rights by protecting citizens from those who might deprive them of their rights. Broadly speaking, there are three different types of threats to our rights: foreign nations, fellow citizens, and the government itself.

First, government has a duty to protect its citizens from any outside threats by providing for the common defense and conducting a foreign policy that dissuades foreign countries from threatening our liberty.

Second, to prevent citizens from harming each other, the government passes laws punishing those who would violate rights, by protecting and enforcing contracts and voluntary exchanges, and by establishing a basic legal system where rules apply equally to all.

Finally, government has an obligation to refrain from violating citizens’ natural rights. Government cannot infringe citizens’ rights to life and liberty by harming or oppressing them, and it must refrain from excessive taxation of citizens in order to protect their right to property. Government power should be checked, divided, and held accountable to the people it is supposed to serve, to prevent government from threatening the rights of citizens.

What is “the consent of the governed” and how is it obtained?

The consent of the governed is the standard by which a government’s legitimacy is judged. As the Declaration of Independence asserts: “Governments are instituted among Men…deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Since all men are created equal, no individual or group has an inherent right to rule over anyone else. The only way anyone can have the authority to govern his equals is if they consent to his rule. A government not based on consent would unjustly deprive its citizens of the fundamental right to liberty.

There are two principal ways that the government obtains the consent of its citizens. First, citizens consent to the institution of a particular type of government. The American people, for example, ratified their Constitution through state conventions. Citizens also express their ongoing consent through frequent and fair elections. They may of course decide to withdraw their consent, “after a long train of abuses and usurpations,” by exercising their right to revolution.

When can the people exercise their "right to revolution" and throw off the government?

Only after a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” according to the Declaration of Independence. While the people retain the right to alter or abolish their governments, “prudence...will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” When a government is long established, we should give it a presumption of legitimacy, until the contrary is clear. Because exercising the right to revolution is likely to undermine civil society and lead to violence, governments should not be changed unless it is necessary to do so.

Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence gives the people two options: alter or abolish. The right to revolution should not be the first option. If there is a long train of abuses, the first option should be to alter the government, working within the established constitutional system. It is only after all of these avenues have been exhausted that the right to revolution becomes a prudent and legitimate option. Also, the right is connected to the obligation to institute a new government—it is not a right to create anarchy.

The right to revolution is a right exercised not by individuals but by the people as a whole. It is not the right of an individual to use force or unjust means outside the legitimate political process.

How can America’s founding principles be just if the country did not abolish slavery?

The Founders recognized that slavery blatantly contradicted America’s dedication to liberty and equal rights. But they also recognized that if their new county was to survive, they would have to form a strong union and that the Southern states would never ratify a constitution that abolished slavery. The Founders therefore had to refrain from immediately abolishing slavery. This compromise allowed for the immediate survival of the union while setting in motion the eventual eradication of slavery.

In countless writings, both public and private, the Founders made clear that they found slavery abhorrent and wished for it be eradicated. More importantly, they took many actions to curtail its expansion and eliminate it in certain places. The Northwest Ordinance, one of Congress’s very first laws, banned slavery and the slave trade in America’s first territory. President Thomas Jefferson signed a national ban on the slave trade on January 1, 1808—the first day after the Constitution’s twenty-year ban on prohibiting the slave trade expired. The opposition to slavery was not confined to the federal government. By 1821, slavery had been fully abolished by half the states in the union.

For more on the subject, see Matthew Spalding’s paper “ How to Understand Slavery and the American Founding.”

Did the Founders really think that blacks were worth "three-fifths" of a white person?

Of course not. For the Founders, blacks and whites were equally human. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence make this clear: neither document classifies people according to race. Although the Constitution compromises with the existence of slavery, the words “slave” or “slavery” are never used in the text. Slaves are referred to as “persons” throughout to emphasize their humanity. It should be remembered that free blacks were voting at the time of the Founding in most of the states.

The Constitution does state that for purposes of representation and taxation unfree persons—not blacks—are to be counted as three-fifths of a free person. The slave-holding states are the ones who wanted to count slaves as full persons in order to inflate proslavery representation in the House. The three-fifths was a compromise aimed at preventing slaveholding interests from magnifying their own political power.

The compromise only applied to enslaved persons: free blacks in the North and South were still counted on par with whites for purposes of apportionment.

For more on the subject, see Matthew Spalding’s paper “How to Understand Slavery and the American Founding.”

How do you account for the fact that the same Founders who proclaimed the equality of men owned slaves?

First of all, not all of the Founders were slaveholders. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, for example, never owned slaves. Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. And then there is George Washington, who set out provisions in his will to free his slaves.

Some of the Founders, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, never freed their slaves. Their failure to do so is a testimony to the darker side of human nature and the profits derived from slave labor: even those the most dedicated to equality were unable to rid themselves of this wicked institution.

Ultimately, the proper way to address the question of slavery and the Founding is not to focus on the Founders in their private capacity as citizens, but rather on their principles and political deeds as statesmen. In their political capacities, the Founders curtailed the expansion of slavery and aimed to put it on the course to extinction by abolishing the slave trade, restricting the representation of slave states in Congress, and outlawing slavery in the Northwest Territory. They took these steps in defense of the principles of the American founding, which were fundamentally opposed to slavery.

Weren’t all the Founders deists or atheists?

Contrary to the claims of those who maintain that the Founders were deists and that America therefore should be a fundamentally secular nation, the Founders, as a whole, had a robust faith and encouraged religion in the public square.

While some Founders were more traditional in their beliefs (such as John Jay and John Witherspoon) and some more skeptical of religious institutions and doctrines (such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson), the vast majority were firmly in the mainstream of religious belief, viewing God as having created man with an immortal soul, as actively involved in human affairs, and as “the Supreme Judge of the world,” as the Declaration of Independence proclaims.

Even the deists among them—and it is by no means the case that they were mostly deists, as some have claimed—held that God created the world and determined the rules of human action. “It is a fool only, and not the philosopher, nor even the prudent man, that will live as if there were no God,” wrote Paine. While one can always speculate about the details of each individual’s religious faith, it is undeniable that the majority of Founders took religious beliefs seriously and all understood that religion was a necessary and desirable component of republican government.

Did America have a "Christian founding"?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, the Founders were deeply influenced by Christian morals and the biblical worldview. For example, they accepted the Christian belief that men are sinful and that they are not angels. That is why they adopted a constitutional system characterized by separated powers, checks and balances, and federalism.

The Founders also created a regime that made room for religion—including but not limited to Christianity—in the public square. There was no support among them for contemporary visions of a radical separation of religion and politics that would have political leaders avoid religious language and strip public spaces of all religious symbols.

Yet, in the end, the Founders did not create a theocracy where church and state are one. To a person, they all agreed on the importance of protecting religious liberty. They enshrined this right in the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Constitution also forbids any religious oath for federal office. As a result, citizens of all religious backgrounds have prospered and contributed to civic life throughout the country’s history.

The real question is not whether America had a Christian Founding, but whether the Founding created a regime where Christian and non-Christian alike could freely practice their religion. The answer is an unambiguous, resounding yes.

For a more on the subject, see Mark David Hall’s Lecture entitled “Did America Have a Christian Founding?

Is America an "exceptional country"? If so, what does that mean?

America is an exceptional nation. It stands out when compared to all other countries in the world. And while it stands out on range of indicators—the U.S. has the biggest economy, its military is unmatched, and Americans give more to charity than anyone else—the true meaning of American exceptionalism is not to be found in the country’s achievements. America is truly exceptional because, unlike all other nations which derive their identity and purpose from some narrow unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history—America is built on the universal ideas of equality and liberty. America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed that is applicable to all men and all times. This is what makes America an exceptional country.

American exceptionalism does not mean that Americans are better than others or that America is the greatest country ever. Nor does it imply that the rules don’t apply to America. American exceptionalism is a verifiable claim about the different principles on which the country stands. And what it implies is that America has a responsibility to stand for liberty both at home and abroad.

For more on American Exceptionalism, see Matthew Spalding’s Understanding America booklet “ Why is America Exceptional?

Primary Sources

Our Publications

More Resources

The American Founding: The Colonial Era

The Colonial Wars: 1689-1762
Howard H. Peckman (The University of Chicago Press, 1964)
A good explanation of the four major military conflicts that were spin-offs of European wars and that dominated the American continent—thus contributing to a want of independence—in the years before the Founding era: King William’s War (1689-97), Queen Anne's War (1702-13), King George's War (1744-48) and the French and Indian War (1755-62).

Origins of the American Revolution
John C. Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 1943)
An older, but still useful history of the events leading up to the American Revolution that chronicles the various British acts against the colonials from the beginning of the French and Indian War to the Declaration of Independence.

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 1989)
A lengthy but readable analysis of early American immigration patterns. Fischer divides early immigrants into four groups by origin, but finds that they shared certain characteristics like a respect for liberty under law and a belief in private property that still influence us today.

The American Founding: The American Revolution

A History of the American Revolution
John Alden (Alfred Knopf, 1969)
Perhaps the best single-volume history of the American Revolution, it covers the period from 1763 to 1789, and considers the political, military, social, economic, and constitutional aspects of the time, taking a balanced look at all of the parties and issues involved.

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution
Benson Bobrick (Simon and Schuster, 1997)
A sweeping narrative of the American Revolution that takes the reader from Lexington Green to the Battle of Yorktown, describing in novel-like fashion the major battles and the main characters, juxtaposing the patriot George Washington and the traitor Benedict Arnold.

Paul Revere's Ride
David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 1995)
This compelling book retells the common tale of Paul Revere's famous midnight ride and the ensuing skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in a narrative that is at the same time readable and scholarly. It argues that the conflict was not the spontaneous uprising of legend but an organized and active resistance.

The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice 1763-1789
Don Higgenbotham (The MacMillan Company, 1971)
This is the best military history of the colonial and Founding era. It follows battles and campaigns as well as military policy and popular attitudes toward war, tracing the interaction between warfare and society and how that affected civil and military institutions in the United States.

Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution
A.J. Langguth (Simon and Schuster, 1988)
A wonderful work that brings the American Revolution to life through important vignettes along the way, highlighting those who fought it in the political and military arenas, from James Otis in 1761 to George Washington at Yorktown in 1783.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789
Robert Middlekauff (Oxford University Press, 1982)
This narrative traces the Revolution’s origins from the end of the Seven Years War, emphasizing the common soldiers’ views of the American War of Independence and how they came to see it as a glorious cause not just for independence but to form a new nation. It focuses on questions of governance, politics, constitutionalism, and war; and ties popular convictions about rights and politics to the colonists’ religious convictions.

Decisive Day: The Battle of Bunker Hill
The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton
Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War

Richard M. Ketchum (Henry Holt and Co., 1999)
These three charming narrative histories read like novels. Drawing on an enormous range of sources, including diaries and letters by officers and common soldiers, and vivid descriptions and arresting portraits of participants, each book in the series (originally published in the 1970s) tells the story surrounding a decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War.

1776
David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
A truly monumental work, this book tells the story of that fateful year, centering on George Washington and those around him.

The American Founding: General Histories

The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89
Edmund Morgan (University of Chicago Press, 1956)
The story of the American Revolution told in a concise, readable manner, explaining how 13 colonies came together over British tax policy and established their own constitutional principles to protect their freedom. The best short history of the era.

Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution
John E. Ferling (Oxford University Press, 2000)
This comparative biography reconstructs the lives of three of the greatest Founders from their youths through their participation in the American Revolution, providing a wide view of their participation in the Revolution as well as more intimate looks at their individual struggles.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Joseph Ellis (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)
This work views the American Founding though the intertwined experiences of seven leaders of the period, looking at six discrete moments that exemplify the time.

The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800
Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (Oxford University Press, 1993)
This lengthy work traces the development of the new nation from the time after the Constitutional Convention through its first three presidents. A comprehensive analysis of the early national period, including all the achievements and fights of the chief figures.

The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery
Don E. Fehrenbacher (Oxford University Press, 2001)
A detailed study, stretching from the First Continental Congress to the Civil War, argues persuasively that early trends in the colonies were against slavery and that the U.S. Constitution is not a pro-slavery document, despite later policies that supported the institution.

Colonies into Nation: American Diplomacy, 1763-1801
Lawrence S. Kaplan (The MacMillan Company, 1972)
An interpretative history of American diplomacy from the Treaty of Paris in 1763 to the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, showing how pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary diplomacy developed consistently over time to reinforce—and play a vital role in creating—a united country seeking independence in a hostile world.

The American Founding: Books on Leading Founders

Washington: The Indispensable Man
James Thomas Flexner (Little, Brown and Company, 1984)
This is the best one-volume biography of Washington from his most accomplished biographer, who has also written a comprehensive four-volume biography for the more adventuresome reader. Not simply an abridged version of the larger work, it is an original and very readable biography written for a general audience.

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington
Richard Brookhiser (Free Press, 1996)
This is not a life history of Washington but an analysis of his career and character as a soldier, founder, and statesman, presented in highly readable, thematic chapters. The author calls it a moral biography, intended to show how Washington navigated life and politics as a public figure.

Benjamin Franklin
Carl Van Doren (The Viking Press, 1938)
This lengthy work is the classic, comprehensive biography of Franklin, written in the grand old style. It covers his life in Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, and back in the United States.

Benjamin Franklin
Edmund S. Morgan (Yale University Press, 2003)
A very nicely written more recent biography by an award-winning historian.

John Adams
David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
This sweeping work of popular history covers all of Adams's life, with due prominence on his relationships with wife Abigail and fellow patriot Thomas Jefferson. The bestseller makes a strong case for Adams's importance, despite its weakness of neglecting Adams's intellectual contributions to the American Founding.

John Adams: A Life
John Ferling (Henry Holt and Co., 1996)
A weighty but good biography that draws heavily on original texts. More academic than the McCullough biography, and perhaps less easy to read, but much more substantive and comprehensive.

Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography
Merrill Peterson (Oxford University Press, 1970)
Though long, this is the standard--and most balanced--one volume Jefferson biography, providing a basic narrative and highlighting three dominant themes of Jefferson's career: democracy and popular government, the new American nationality, and philosophical enlightenment. Solidly grounded in Jefferson's writings, but intended more for the general reader than the scholar.

The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson
Forrest McDonald (University Press of Kansas, 1987)
A brief but thorough and highly readable critical history of the politics and policies, both domestic and foreign, of Jefferson and his two terms as the nation's third president.

Alexander Hamilton, American
Richard Brookhiser (Simon and Schuster, 2000)
This thematic, popular biography by the author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington captures the dynamic Hamilton and credits him with originating American capitalism.

Alexander Hamilton
Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, 2004)
This more recent biography is masterfully written, and provides greater detail about Hamilton’s upbringing and formative years before his service in the Washington administration.

James Madison: A Biography
Ralph Louis Ketchum (The MacMillan Company, 1971)
This comprehensive and lengthy volume is one of the best Madison biographies, and it is accessible to general readers and scholars alike. It is a very thorough historical narrative and distillation of both the ideas and the man, with a good emphasis on his role in the Continental Congress and at the Constitutional Convention.

James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic
Jack Rakove (Scott, Foresman, 1990)
This relatively short but solid biography focuses on Madison's public life, as a skillful leader and a brilliant political thinker, to emphasize how he successfully combined serious ideas and practical politics to the benefit of the new nation.

The American Founding: Founders’ Writings

George Washington: A Collection
Edited by William B. Allen (Liberty Press, 1995)
A marvelous collection of Washington's correspondence and writings from his early, middle, and later years. Reading through the well-chosen selections provides a clear perspective on Washington's life and statesmanship. Includes all of Washington's major writings, as well as "The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior" and his Last Will and Testament.

The writings of George Washington in 38 volumes (edited by John C. Fitzpatrick) are available online at http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/index.html .

Franklin: Writings
Edited by J.A. Leo Lemay (Library of America, 1987)
A good collection of Franklin's many writings, including his charming essays under various pseudonyms such as Silence Dogood, the Busy-Body and Richard Saunders, the "author" of Poor Richard's Almanack. It also includes Franklin's autobiography, based on the original manuscript, and his speeches in the Constitutional Convention.

The complete writings of Benjamin Franklin (published by Yale University) are available online at http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/ .

The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams
Edited by C. Bradley Thompson (Liberty Fund, 2000)
This collection focuses on Adams's pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary writings, including A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, his Novanglus letters, the influential Thoughts on Government and various writings recounting the Anglo-American dispute.

This title is also available at the Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=592&Itemid=28

Selected writings of John Adams in 10 volumes (edited by Charles Francis Adams) are also available at the Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2098&Itemid=28

Jefferson: Collected Writings
Edited by Merrill Peterson (Library of America, 1984)
A very complete selection of Jefferson's writings, containing all Jefferson's main works (Autobiography, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Notes on the State of Virginia), his major speeches, and public papers (including the original and revised drafts of the Declaration of Independence) and a wide variety of private letters.

Selected writings of Thomas Jefferson in 12 volumes (edited by Paul Leicester Ford) are available at the Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1734&Itemid=28

Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton
Morton J. Frish (American Enterprise Institute, 1985)
A nice collection of Hamilton's most important letters, speeches, and essays from 1775 to 1803, including his opinion on the national bank and his Report on Manufactures. An excellent overview of Hamilton's political thought, complemented with introductions and commentary.

The complete works of Alexander Hamilton in 12 volumes (edited by Henry Cabot Lodge) are available at the Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php?title=1712&Itemid=27

The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison
Edited by Marvin Meyers (Brandeis University Press, 1981)
A very nice collection of Madison's essays, letters, and speeches between 1774 and 1836, including numerous writings that illuminate his central role in the Constitutional Convention and the creation of the Bill of Rights. It shows his part in the rise of party opposition during the Washington administration. Its virtue is a great explanatory essay on Madison, section introductions, and brief note with each entry.

Selected writings of James Madison in 9 volumes (edited by Gaillard Hunt) are available at the Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1933&Itemid=28

Paine: Collected Writings
Edited by Eric Foner (Library of America, 1995)
This collection includes Paine’s Revolutionary writings Common Sense and The American Crisis, and many other pamphlets, articles and, letters, as well as the full text of his later works Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.

Selected writings of Thomas Paine in 4 volumes (edited by Moncure Daniel Conway) are available at the Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php&title=1743

The American Founding: Collected Documents

American Political Writing During the Founding Era
Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Liberty Press, 1983)
This two-volume set includes pamphlets, articles, sermons and essays written by various political authors between 1762 and 1805. It is a gold mine of 76 less well-known but equally colorful and highly reasoned popular writings of the Revolutionary era. Each entry is introduced by a brief note on the author.

Colonies to Nation, 1763-1789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution
Jack P. Greene (W. W. Norton, 1975)
This collection tells the story of the American Founding using documents ranging from government papers and popular pamphlets to diary accounts and personal letters. Each section has a full introduction and each entry is prefaced by an introductory note, thus placing all the documents in a coherent framework.

Documents of American History
Henry Steele Commager (Prentice Hall, 1988)
This two-volume set is the definitive collection of the most important official and quasi-official documents in American history. The first volume alone contains 345 documents from 1492 up to 1898. A good source for Founding era documents--from the Mayflower Compact and several colonial charters to resolutions of the Continental Congress, documents of the Constitutional Convention and important diplomatic writings--although some have been condensed.

Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805
Edited by Ellis Sandoz (Liberty Fund, 1998)
This is a superb collection of 55 religious sermons from a range of denominational and theological viewpoints, which bear on the politics of the day. All told, the sermons (each averages about twenty pages) display the religious seriousness of the time, as well as the importance of the pulpit to the American Revolution.

Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems and Speeches
Edited by William J. Bennett (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997)
A charming, readable book of material collected and edited with lively commentary by the author of The Book of Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections on Patriotism and Courage, Love and Courtship, Civility and Friendship, Education of the Head and Heart, Industry and Frugality, Justice, and Piety.

The American Founding: Interpretation and Assessment

We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future
Matthew Spalding (ISI Books, 2009)
In telling the story of the American Founding, this book examines 10 core princi­ples that define us as a nation and inspire us as a people: lib­erty and equality, natural rights and the consent of the governed, private property and religious freedom, the rule of law and constitutionalism, all culminating in self-government at home and independence in the world. The book then considers the Progressive assault on these principles and lays out a strategy for their recovery.

Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America
Thomas West (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997)
This popular work seeks to debunk widely held, politically-correct opinions about the Founders by addressing their views on the controversial issues of slavery, property rights, women, the family, welfare, and immigration.

Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic
Alan Gibson (University Press of Kansas, 2006)
This work discusses six approaches that have dominated the study of the American Founding: the progressive, Lockean-liberal, republican and Scottish enlightenment interpretations, as well as the multiple traditions approach and the modern social history view.

The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment
Carl J. Richard (Harvard University Press, 1994)
Richard argues that, contrary to the claims of historians like Clinton Rossiter and Bernard Bailyn, classical Greece and Rome provided many of the Founders’ intellectual tools. His evidence includes their classical pseudonyms and references to the classics in their writings.

Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution
Forrest McDonald (University Press of Kansas, 1985)
Honored constitutional historian Forrest McDonald asserts that, although the Framers drew upon a wide variety of philo­sophical and ideological sources, they relied upon their personal experience and common sense to construct “a new order for the ages” that blended prudence and principles.

The American Founding: Online Resources

Teaching American History
http://teachingamericanhistory.org/
A well-chosen array of key documents from American history, with particularly useful sections on the Founding, Civil War, and Progressive eras. Also includes audio files of lectures by professors on these eras.

Avalon Project
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/
Yale University’s Avalon Project is the single best online source for historical documents, and its collection of American documents is no exception.

Founding.com
http://www.founding.com/
This website from the Claremont Institute features a guide to the Constitution and an annotated Declaration of Independence, as well a collection of writings by the Founders, government documents, major court cases, and Founding-era sermons.

Bill of Rights Institute
http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/
Features Founding-era documents with brief introductions, as well as lesson plans for teachers.

Vindicating the Founders
http://www.vindicatingthefounders.com/
Companion site to Thomas West’s book Vindicating the Founders, with a selection of primary sources and helpful introductions by Professor West.

Charters of Freedom (National Archives)
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/
Images and transcripts of the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, along with essays and links about the creation of these documents.

What So Proudly We Hail
http://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org
Uses short stories, speeches, and songs to teach the American character and the promises of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Includes an online curriculum and discussion guides for teachers.