Other Documents

In Federalist 26 Hamilton writes: “In England, for a long time after the Norman Conquest, the authority of the monarch was almost unlimited. Inroads were gradually made upon the prerogative, in favor of liberty, first by the barons, and afterwards by the people, till the greatest part of its most formidable pretensions became extinct. But it was not till the revolution in 1688, which elevated the Prince of Orange to the throne of Great Britain, that English liberty was completely triumphant.”  The idea that “English liberty was completely triumphant” of course is nonsense if we take the complaints in the Declaration of Independence seriously (we were English then), but Hamilton points to a serious issue, that “liberty” did not just one day appear, but has rather grown over a long period of time.  We have to say that it is still in need of growth, as “liberty and justice for all” remains a dream (if we can understand what it means) regardless of one’s political preferences.

We can trace the growth of liberty through other documents, provided here.  We begin with the first gesture from the barons, the Magna Carta of 1215. It was not the first gesture, but it is the first signed by a King (habeas corpus and trial by jury were in place in England before).  The history of British liberty is strongly connected with the growth of Parliament as a brake on the King, which growth hit a milestone with the expulsion of James II in 1688, the arrival of William and Mary (he the Prince of Orange), their agreement to transfer critical powers (mostly around the purse) to Parliament, and the bloodless Glorious Revolution imprinted on the 1688 Declaration of Rights.

The American Declaration of Independence of course is one of the great testaments in the name of liberty, but it took an eight-year war to actually realize its initial prospects.  We add to the formal document a final complaint Jefferson wrote against Britain, accusing it of forcing slavery upon us, that was snipped out at the last minute (it did not make any sense, but that is not the reason it was rejected by the small editing committee).  Many state constitutions written between 1776 and 1780 included bills of rights, and all state constitutions had some rights declared formally.

We provide the Virginia Plan and the Hamilton Plan offered in the early days of the Constitutional Convention to show how far away the ideas of Madison (who wrote the Virginia plan) and Hamilton were from the Constitution that emerged in September of 1787.  Hamilton in particular wanted to crush the states.  It is very hard to imagine how this country would have developed if every state governor was appointed by the President and had absolute veto power over state legislation.  The Civil War would certainly have been averted.

We include the three works from Lincoln because they number among the most famous documents in American history, they are still moving, and they are magnificent examples of great writing.  Lincoln’s first inaugural address, with its melancholy tone and appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” reads like a short version of the Federalist Papers, but raises the unanswerable question about the right to alter or abolish the government, denied by Lincoln at length in his address, but insisted upon by the colonies, constituent parts of Britain as the southern states were constituent parts of the United States in 1861 (seven southern states had seceded one month before his address—the war itself started two months later).  The Second Inaugural of course is rather deflating, perhaps a bad way to end a library meant in part to show the progress of liberty, but it points to the point Hamilton was making, that liberty is a work in progress, with ups and downs, that we are still trying to advance on a road with no articulate end or community understanding of what the end might look like.