The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas

America's Constitutional Principles

Part of the core mission of the Jefferson Center is to educate students about the nature of the American Constitution and the character of the American republic. With a view to what purposes was the American Constitution designed? Have those purposes changed through our history? And how well do our institutions and practices achieve them?

The list below includes key texts drawn from the American political tradition, which deal specifically with these basic questions of American politics. Since the principles of the American founding grew out of a prior tradition of political philosophy, and since many of its chief writings were produced by people intimately familiar with that tradition, it will be helpful to supplement these readings with readings from the third section, especially Locke’s Second Treatise and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.

the constitutional convention

Declaration of Independence

Of course, there is no single document that so boldly articulates the principles of the American regime as the Declaration of Independence, the core statement on natural rights and human equality which has served to guide America since its founding. It is the best place to begin any study of America. After that, there are great speeches from later in the American tradition that call back to the Declaration as the source of our country’s core principles, and which offer new interpretations or perhaps expansions of its claims. Key examples include the Lincoln-Douglas debates, especially the 7th, as well as the Gettysburg Address; Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What Meaning Has the Fourth of July for the Negro?”; Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments”; and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

the declaration of independence

The US Constitution and The Federalist

The Federalist Papers were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay during the time of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Each paper was first published as a newspaper article, widely read by the public, as part of the attempt to persuade the public to support ratification. But the Papers did more than merely make a case for the Constitution. They also laid bare core principles of its design, in a way that would help future generations better understand why it was set up in the way that it was. And even more than that, it helped to show that there is a certain understanding of human nature that guided the design of the Constitution. As such, they are important, not only to understand American institutions, but as documents of political philosophy.

The most important Papers are probably Federalist 10 and 51, which give, respectively, the core of the case for a large republic and for separation of powers, and which contain some of the Papers key statements on human nature. For a somewhat more extensive sequence, one might try reading Federalist 1, 9-11, 39, 47-48, 51, 55, 78, and 84. 

Recommended Edition:
Edited by Clinton Rossiter and Charles Kessler, Signet Classics

The Federalist Papers

The Anti-Federalist Papers

Though the Federalists’ arguments carried the day, the opponents of the Constitution also made an important contribution to American political theory. They stated powerful arguments against what they saw as the possible dangers of the Constitution. They worried that the new republic would be too large, that local political life would decline, and that the central government was a potential source of aristocratic rule. For general statements of the Anti-Federalist position, we recommend beginning with the first letter of Brutus and the first letter of Centinel. A more extensive, thematically organized sequence of readings from both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists may be found here [add hyperlink to my collection].

the antifederalist

Recommended Edition:
The Anti-Federalist,
edited by Herbert Storing and Murray Dry,
University of Chicago Press

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Franklin’s Autobiography is a classic of the genre and of American letters. It traces his life’s story from its humble beginnings in Puritan New England, through his youthful escapades and adventures, his struggles to establish an independent printing business, and his early scientific investigations, up through the launching of his diplomatic career. In the process we learn of his projects for self-improvement and the way they were continually bubbling over to create voluntary associations for self-help on a personal, civic, and even continental scale. In making us laugh at him and with him, Franklin teaches us to see the world with his rare combination of unvarnished realism and friendly, engaged acceptance.

benjamin franklin autobiography

Recommended Edition: Oxford World’s Classics

Autobiography and Other Writings

Tocqueville, Democracy in America


In 1831-1832, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to the United States. He believed that the world was undergoing a democratic revolution, and he saw that, in the United States, the revolution was far more complete than it was in Europe. He therefore turned to America in order to see what a democracy was, and how it might be guided so as to correct its potential defects. In Democracy in America, he provides a new interpretation of the basis of American society, and also of the essence of democracy. He claims that the “generative fact” is equality of conditions. The book as a whole provides a rich and vivid account of what equality of conditions has meant for the American character, in both its good and bad effects, and how it has permeated virtually every aspect of American life.

Tocqueville’s chief worry about democracy is that it will lead to what he calls “individualism,” a sense of weakness and isolation. He believes that America has managed to fend off many of the worst consequences of individualism preserving crucial parts of its aristocratic heritage, and by developing healthy political institutions that encourage community involvement. Tocqueville discusses the way that the vibrant local politics and civil associations of Americans have drawn them into communities that show them how much they need each other and counteract the individuating tendencies of democracy. He discusses how religion in particular has served a critical role in providing Americans with a moral education.

But even while he praises many aspects of American society (and sometimes gently, sometimes harshly criticizes others), there is a haunting worry that one feels constantly in reading Tocqueville’s work: the institutions which protect against the worst tendencies of democracy are very fragile, and may slowly fade from existence. And even if they persist, even at its best, Tocqueville believes that America has been and will continue to be far less successful at producing truly great individuals than the aristocracies of the past had been. Agree or not, Tocqueville’s assessment is one that all serious students of American society need to reckon with.

All of Democracy in America is worth reading, but for beginners who want to follow the main thread of Tocqueville’s thought, we recommend the following sequence: the Introduction; Volume I, Part I, Chapters 2 and 5; Volume I, Part II, Chapters 1, 4, and 7-9; Volume II, Part I, Chapters 1-2, 5, and 15; Volume II, Part II, Chapters 1-20 (this is especially important, since it is where Tocqueville develops his teaching on individualism); and Volume II, Part IV, Chapters 6-8. Additionally, Tocqueville’s reflections on race and slavery, in Volume I, Part II, Chapter 10, offer remarkable insight into the challenge of abolishing slavery and the difficulties that would be faced in the process of integration.

democracy in america

Recommended Translation:
Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop,
University of Chicago Press

Democracy in America

Lincoln, Speeches and Debates

In addition to being a great and perhaps the greatest American statesman, Lincoln was also one of the greatest thinkers about the nature and purpose of American democracy. He presented a deeply moral vision of American society as a republic devoted to the ideals of equality and freedom. He blended a grasp of political principles with a remarkable poetic gift, and provided an account of American ideals that is both inspiring and grounded in profound and subtle reflection. There is no better place to begin the study of Lincoln than with his public speeches. We recommend his Springfield address of January 27, 1838; the “House Divided” speech of June 16, 1858; the speeches from the first and seventh Lincoln-Douglas debates, and August 21 and October 15, 1858; the speech at the Cooper Institute on February 27, 1860; the Gettysburg Address; and the Second Inaugural Address.

The biography of Lincoln by Lord Charnwood pays special attention to Lincoln’s attempt to bring his principles to bear on a complex political reality. It makes for a wonderful supplement to the study of his thought.

abraham lincoln

Lincoln’s Speeches

Charnwood Biography

Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Douglass’ autobiography provides what may be the best picture on the nature and meaning of slavery in America. He tells the story of his early life as a slave and the education that he managed to acquire, despite the great difficulties that he faced in doing so. The book presents horrors of American slavery, and the effects of depriving slaves of any semblance of education. At the same time, it points to a more hopeful possibility by showing how acquiring an education, and even simply learning to read, can lay a foundation for living the dignified life of a free citizen.

Douglass’ famous Fourth of July speech, “What Meaning has the Fourth of July for the Negro?”, is a helpful supplement to the Narrative, as it shows what integration meant from the perspective of the former slaves.

frederick douglass

Recommended Edition: Dover Thrift

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Lorraine Pangle, The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin (The Political Philosophy of the American Founders)

The most famous man of his age, Benjamin Franklin was an individual of many talents and accomplishments. He invented the wood-burning stove and the lightning rod, he wrote Poor Richard's Almanac and The Way to Wealth,and he traveled the world as a diplomat. But it was in politics that Franklin made his greatest impact.Political Philosophy
Franklin’s political writings are full of fascinating reflections on human nature, on the character of good leadership, and on why government is such a messy and problematic business. Drawing together threads in Franklin's writings, Lorraine Smith Pangle illuminates his thoughts on citizenship, federalism, constitutional government, the role of civil associations, and religious freedom.
Of the American Founders, Franklin had an unrivaled understanding of the individual human soul. At the heart of his political vision is a view of democratic citizenship, a rich understanding of the qualities of the heart and mind necessary to support liberty and sustain happiness.
This concise introduction reflects Franklin's valuable insight into political issues that continue to be relevant today.

Speeches from the 20th Century

In America, the 20th Century involved an extensive re-thinking of the role of government in society, especially in response to changes in the American economy brought about by industrialization. It is possible to trace the movement by spotlighting the great speeches in which great changes were first recommended and defended. We recommend especially Woodrow Wilson’s “What is Progress?” and “New Freedom,” FDR’s “Commonwealth Club Address,” and LBJ’s “Great Society Speech.”

Additional reading:

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams