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American History Videos

Constitutional Conversations

Constitutional Conversations is a series of discussions by America’s leading scholars about the principles, framing, ratification, and implementation of constitutional government in the United States.

Our complete video library can be found on our YouTube channel, American History Videos.

Founding Partisans with H.W. Brands

W. H. Brands, the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History, at the University of Texas at Austin. In this Conversation Prof. Brands discusses his book Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, and Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics which outlines the history of American political development from the early fear of political factions to how the founders came to reluctantly embrace partisan politics and the parties they created. Originally from the Northwest, Dr. Brands studied history and mathematics at Stanford University upon graduation he became a traveling salesman until he decided to become a teacher. For nine years he taught history and mathematics in high school and community college. He completed his Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He taught for seventeen years at Texas A&M; and in 2005 he returned to Austin. He is the author of thirty books and has published articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian Magazine, the Journal of American History, Political Science Quarterly, and many other newspapers, magazines, and journals. In 2023 he delivered the 28th Annual James Madison Lecture on the Constitution.

Montesquieu and the American Founding with Paul Carrese

Dr. Paul O. Carrese, who is the Founding Director of the School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, discusses the importance of the Baron de Montesquieu in understanding the American Founding and contemporary America. He argues that Montesquieu had a much larger impact on the American Founding than most people realize and that the principles of moderation and free speech were central to Montesquieu's understanding of good government. Carrese has held fellowships at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard University, the University of Delhi, and the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He co-led a national study funded by the N.E.H. and US Department of Education, Educating for American Democracy, with the goal of improving American history and civics education in K-12 schools with partners from Harvard and Tufts Universities and iCivics. His most recent book is Democracy in Moderation: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Sustainable Liberalism (2016).

The Words that Made Us with Akhil Reed Amar

Dr. Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, sits down with Dr. Jeffry Morrison to discuss his newest book, The Words that Made Us (Basic Books, 2021). Amar makes the argument that America can trace its beginnings to 1760, farther back than many scholars claim. He also discusses the Northwest Ordinance, the importance of a written constitution, and why George Washington should be considered the Father of the Constitution. This conversation was recorded for the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation on July 1, 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom featuring Dr. David Blight being interviewed by Dr. Jeffry Morrison

Pulitzer-Prize winning scholar Dr. David W. Blight speaks to Dr. Jeffry Morrison about the life and thought of Frederick Douglass. Using newly-found personal letters, Dr. Blight authored his latest book on Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), in which he discusses how Douglass interpreted the Constitution in light of slavery. During this interview, Dr. Blight speaks about what made him want to write about Douglass, how Douglass learned to be great orator he was, his friendships and feuds with several famous contemporaries (including Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and William Lloyd Garrison), and how the idea of natural rights was part of his political thought.

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, featuring Dr. Gordon Wood being interviewed by Dr. Jeffry Morrison

Dr. Wood discusses the topic of his most recent book: the friendship and subsequent falling out of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two were initially united in their radicalism, eager to break from Britain well before most, and they became good friends when they served diplomatic missions together in England and France. However, they fundamentally differed as to the function of the national government, and their rivalry was cemented with the rise of their respective political parties—the Republicans and the Federalists—and the Revolution of 1800. Dr. Wood goes on to analyze both the similarities and differences in Jefferson’s and Adam’s manner of thinking, political views and legacies. Dr. Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University.

The American Revolution, by Professor Jack Rakove

Professor Jack N. Rakove thoughtfully and succinctly analyzes the causes, events, and impact of the American Revolution. Theoretical discussions about the nature of political authority in the early 1760’s ultimately evolved into violent conflict and civil war in 1775. Yet, Professor Rakove concludes that the revolutionary forces unleashed by events like the Boston Tea Party and individuals like Thomas Hutchinson ultimately resulted in the US Constitution, reflective of a profound transformation in the nature of political authority.

Professor Jack N. Rakove is the W.R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science at Stanford University. Professor Rakove was awarded the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, "Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution."

The Constitutional Convention: A Play in Four Acts, by Professor Gordon Lloyd

Gordon Lloyd, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Ashbrook Center and Dockson Professor Emeritus, Pepperdine University, imagines the Constitutional Convention as a four-act play, replete with memorable characters and unexpected plot twists. The scene: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1789. The dramatic personae: James Madison, Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, and others. The conflicts: large states vs. small states; north vs. south; union vs. disunion. Professor Lloyd highlights the significant compromises achieved while noting that the play’s epilogue—the resolution of the slavery question—would not be resolved for another 60 years.

George Washington's Constitutionalism, by Professor William Allen

In this video, renowned scholar William B. Allen, Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Michigan State University, discusses the many facets of George Washington’s Constitutionalism. Professor Allen highlights how the American Revolution shaped Washington’s constitutional vision and how that vision was fulfilled through the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process. By examining Washington’s relationships with his colleagues, with his slaves, and with his beloved Mount Vernon, Professor Allen draws our attention to the unique and immeasurable contributions made by George Washington to our constitutional heritage.

Professor William B. Allen is an emeritus professor of Political Philosophy and the former Dean of the James Madison College at Michigan State University. He was a member of the National Council on the Humanities 1984–87, and Chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights from 1988 to 1989.

Dolley Madison: Republican Queen, by Dr. Catherine Allgor

As an expert on Dolley Madison, Catherine Allgor, Skotheim Director of Education at The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens, examines the impact of Mrs. Madison in shaping the republican government created by the Founders. Dolley’s role in Washington City’s unofficial sphere as a gracious host facilitated the exchange of ideas among the new nation’s decision-makers. Professor Allgor suggests that despite Dolley’s sympathy for slavery and her use of status and connection to advance her family and friends, her ambition to build “bridges—not bunkers” is a useful model.

Founders, Famous and Forgotten, by Professor Daniel Dreisbach

In this video, Professor Daniel Dreisbach of the American University helps us to remember why we celebrate some members of the Founding generation and forget others. Americans have a “founding moment” we can point to, and have celebrated military and political leaders from the country’s earliest days. However, being “on the wrong side of history,” dying young, or leaving scant written records meant that some Founders faded from the nations’ memory. Men like George Mason, John Dickinson, or John Witherspoon are, according to Professor Dreisbach, equally deserving of fame and remembrance.

Table of Contents

  1. Celebrating the Founders (0:29)
  2. Famous Founders (3:52)
  3. Forgotten Founders (7:11)
  4. Fame and the Founders (11:59)

Slavery and the Constitution, by Professor John Kaminski

Constitutional scholar Professor John P. Kaminski, Director, Center for the Study of the American Constitution, University of Wisconsin-Madison, reflects upon the impact of slavery on the Constitution. Sectional differences ensured that slavery would be both protected and challenged by the Constitution. Professor Kaminski analyzes the immediate and long-term implications of the three-fifths compromise, the slave trade clause, and the fugitive slave clause. He contends that the convention’s decision to allow congressional action on slavery after 1808 was “the beginning of the end.”

Ratification of the Constitution, by Professor John Kaminski

Professor John P. Kaminski is the director at the Center for the Study of the American Constitution, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

James Madison and American Constitutionalism, by Professor Jack Rakove

James Madison and American Constitutionalism, by Professor Jack N. Rakove, William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies, Stanford University. Professor Rakove analyzes James Madison’s impact on American constitutional thinking. Drawing upon his early political experiences, Madison shaped the deliberations at the Constitutional Convention. He came to appreciate the political efficacy of a Bill of Rights and consistently sought to balance state and federal power. Professor Rakove notes that Madison lived long enough to hear more questions raised about the Constitution and to anticipate the dissolution of the union he created.

Women and Early American Constitutionalism, by Professor Rosemarie Zagarri

Women and Early American Constitutionalism, by Professor Rosemarie Zagarri, University Professor and Professor of History at George Mason University. Dr. Zagarri explores the evolution of women’s constitutional rights. Before the Revolution, women were legally and politically subservient to their husbands, but women in post-revolutionary America came to be seen as intellectual beings responsible for promoting the public good. Dr. Zagarri notes that the original Constitution was gender-neutral, and women shared many rights enjoyed by men, while other rights evolved in a checkerboard fashion.

Professor Zagarri is the author of Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (2007), The Politics of Size: Representation in the United States, 1776-1850 (1987), and A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (1995), and the editor of David Humphreys' "Life of General Washington" with George Washington's "Remarks" (1991).

Professor Zagarri is a past professor at the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, "Summer Institute on the Constitution" held annually.

Religion and American Constitutionalism, by Professor Jeffry Morrison

Religion and American Constitutionalism, by Professor Jeffry Morrison. Jeffry Morrison, Ph.D., Director of Academics, James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, reviews the role of religion in early American political life, demonstrating that men like Jonathan Edwards and movements like the Great Awakening contributed directly to the popular constitutionalism of the 1780’s. Notwithstanding the Founders’ religious beliefs, their commitment to federalism explains why the Constitution is silent on religion. Dr. Morrison pays particular attention to James Madison: his religious beliefs, his religious libertarianism, and his lifelong commitment to religious liberty.