The last generation has seen a significant decline in the teaching of constitutional history in American universities. In particular, courses focused on the development of the theory and practice of constitutional government between the Founding and the Civil War have lost the central place which they once had in the historical curriculum. At the same time, the study of the constitutional history of early modern Britain, which once provided an essential prologue to the foundation of the American Republic, has become a rarity. This shift in academic concern constitutes a significant cultural loss. Students increasingly lack the opportunity to study, at a high level, the deep roots of their own political culture, and indeed the most powerful intellectual and institutional influences on the development of representative and democratic government worldwide.

The aim of this program is to reassert the centrality of these issues in the teaching of history and politics. Our goal is not simply to restore an older historical tradition, but rather to challenge and extend that tradition with new questions. These questions will focus on the origins, development and diffusion of a political culture that emerged in England during the Civil War and “Glorious Revolution,” was transmitted to America during the 17th and 18th centuries, transformed and extended by the American Revolution and tested in the American Civil War, fought in part to determine (in Abraham Lincoln’s phrase) whether a nation “conceived in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure.

We regard the political, intellectual, and constitutional developments which took place in Britain and America between the 17th and the mid-19th centuries as of singular and enduring importance. The founders of the American Republic knew themselves to have a deep legal and constitutional inheritance. The vocabulary and concepts used by the framers of the American Constitution have a direct link with those of the seventeenth-century English parliamentarians and legal and political theorists who defended the rule of law and the liberties of the subject and ultimately challenged and contained monarchical authority. The American Founders, however, did more than draw upon this inherited political culture. In the first Federalist Paper Alexander Hamilton wrote:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been 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.

The Federalist authors considered themselves as not just inheriting a tradition, but transforming it. A representative government based upon claims to certain inalienable rights and deriving its sovereignty from “we the people” created the possibility of the development of truly democratic government, and the transmission of the ideal (and eventual practice) of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” back to Europe and to a larger world gave the American experiment a central place in the political discourse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

At the core of our program will thus be a series of questions: what was borrowed and what was left behind when the British inheritance was transplanted to the New World? What are the areas of continuity and discontinuity between the British and American legal and constitutional traditions? What did the American Founders mean in their claim to establish a “new order of the ages” (novus ordo seclorum)?  What were some of the original rationales for the idea of representative government as well as for a written constitution? What were the philosophical, constitutional, political, and social foundations of toleration, especially religious toleration, in Anglo-American law? What tensions existed between constitutional government as conceived by those who shaped the British Revolutions of the seventeenth century, or the American Founding which extended that tradition, and the emergence of mass democracy in the 19th century? Did Abraham Lincoln help to restore the American republic to its original foundations or did he inaugurate a new kind of democratic experiment that is still reverberating in politics and law? What does British democracy, and the post-colonial constitutions modeled upon it in former British possessions owe to the influence of the American democratic example? What influence have both had on the political institutions of the contemporary world, and how successfully have their ideals and practices been adapted to differing cultural contexts? Can their claims to universality be sustained?  

These are just some – by no means all – of the types of question we hope to explore in this new program. Our purpose is not to supply pat answers to such questions but to encourage the serious study of how these ideas, and the institutions to which they gave rise were developed in their time, and how their influence has extended over time. This is an exciting story in itself. It is the more exciting because it remains an unfinished story. What is the future of constitutional government and representative democracy as it faces the challenge of a new century? Can ideas and institutions developed to handle problems peculiar to their historical time still apply in a very different world?

The program involves:

Taken as a whole these elements of the program are intended to encourage research, advance the careers of young scholars, provide teaching, and extend the public discussion of the key issues. In sum they will create a forum for the study of representative institutions in historical context.