Skip Navigation

America's Founding

Freedom, The University of Oklahoma website wordmark
Skip Side Navigation

The Preamble to the Constitution is the clearest statement of the Constitution's purpose, yet it has never been applied as law by the Court in deciding a case. Dr. Justin Wert argues that this is not to say that the Preamble is insignificant. Rather, its phrases inform a broader understanding of the Constitution's purpose and meaning.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Adams Administration passed four notorious bills known as the Alien and Sedition Acts in the name of protecting the United States. In this lecture, professor Lindsay Robertson explores the ensuing controversy, a constitutional crisis that marked a formative test on the limits of federal power in the early republic.

Professor Kevin Butterfield explores America's first debates over what we now call "right-to-work" laws, an idea that as early as 1806 was already a hotly contested issue in the early republic, when a Philadelphia shoemakers' union was prosecuted for criminal conspiracy.

Parliament's role was central to the emergence of England as a modern nation state in the 17th century. In this lecture, professor James Hart examines the evolution of the powers of parliamentary impeachment as a means of securing public accountability from state officials – an idea that will have particular resonance for America's founding fathers.

The Articles of Confederation are mostly seen as a failure which created a weak and ineffectual government, soon replaced by the Constitution. In this lecture, professor Paul Gilje tells a different story, and tries to understand how, when seen in context, the Articles were an expression of the values that inspired the Revolution and can help us appreciate the politics of the period.

Thirteen of the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution shared something in common: they were Freemasons. But did Freemasonry really play an influential role in the founding of the United States? Professor Kevin Butterfield attempts to separate myth from reality.

In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase added a vast amount of territory to the United States, but, as OU law professor Lindsay Robertson explains, what has been called the "biggest real estate deal in world history" turned out to be rife with constitutional questions.

The Copyright Clause was established "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Professor Drew Kershen explains the importance of intellectual property rights in the U.S. Constitution and explores how the copyright clause relates to other fundamental values of American constitutionalism.

In the words of Jack Rakove, the Ninth Amendment is a "joker that has never been played," that is, it is a potentially significant amendment that has never been the deciding clause in any Supreme Court case. In this lecture, Dr. Justin Wert outlines two distinct ways of interpreting the Ninth Amendment's guarantee of unenumerated rights.

An independent judiciary has become a cornerstone of American liberty. In this lecture, OU law professor Rick Tepker explores the history behind the emergence of an independent judiciary in the U.S. through the story of the impeachment and acquittal of Justice Samuel Chase.

Classics and Letters assistant professor Ben Watson highlights the Federalist Papers' example of Greek history, more specifically its loose confederation known as the Amphictyonic League, as justification for a stronger central government.

Founding Questions

Why is there a Bill of Rights? The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution – probably the best known, and perhaps the most important part of the Constitution – were not the product of the Philadelphia convention. The Bill of Rights are the great contribution of the faction who opposed the formation of the new federal government, the Anti-Federalists. Professor Paul Gilje explains how the legacy of American Revolution quickly became contested and how the Bill of Rights is a product of conflict.

In its first week, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was confronted with a motion by James Wilson "that the executive consist of a single person." From that moment forward, there were heated debates about whether the new national government should have a president at all — and, if so, what powers and responsibilities should he have? Hovering over all these debates was an accepted fact: the first president, should there be one, would almost certainly be none other than George Washington.

OU early American government professor Paul Gilje explains the building anxiety of the Founding Fathers toward the power of the states that led to the crafting of the Constitution.

Early American history professor Paul Gilje speaks on the Constitution in relation to the American Revolution, and explores the idea that there may been more to its creation.

On July 4, 1854, the anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution, condemning it as "a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell." Was he right that the Constitution, as drafted in 1787, was in fact a shamefully proslavery document? Or was it, in fact, an open-ended document that actually bolstered the possibility that, one day, the nation could and would rid itself of slavery?

In this lecture, professor Kevin Butterfield considers a basic question: what kinds of rules and procedures did the delegates to the Constitutional Convention agree upon? Fully aware that they were going to be doing something extraordinarily significant — not to mention extraordinarily divisive and controversial — the members of the convention knew that the rules they established to guide their debates would be vitally important.

The Founders

Professor Kevin Butterfield explores the origins of America's first national controversy. When officers of the Continental Army formed an exclusive "Society of the Cincinnati" just after the end of the War for Independence, people throughout the young nation believed they may be witnessing the birth of a new aristocracy.

In 1822, Thomas Jefferson was genuinely alarmed when a voluntary society was formed to raise money and reach out to American Indians. Professor Kevin Butterfield explores this moment, and he shows how Jefferson's worries point to a surprising truth: the Founding generation agonized over whether private, philanthropic organizations might be a dangerous thing in a democratic republic — and a strong, active government might actually be preferable.

Did James Madison have a change of mind between the time he helped to write and ratify the U.S. Constitution, which created a stronger central government, and the time, just a few years later, that he began to oppose the policies of coming out of George Washington's administration?

This lecture, given by professor Paul Gilje, asks why the man often considered the mastermind of the Constitution, James Madison, was disappointed in its outcome.

Marbury vs. Madison was a landmark case that is still the foundation of judicial review. In this lecture, professor Lindsay Robertson takes us through the fascinating history behind the case and overviews its importance in American constitutional development.

In this lecture, Classics and Letters assistant professor Ben Watson explains that Cicero, a Roman politician with a sincere belief in "a mixed constitution," was a major influence on one of America's founding fathers.

Ratifying the Constitution