Five Rejected Designs for the U.S. Capitol Building in a 1792 Competition

Introduction Construction of the US Capitol we know and love was completed in 1800, following a competition to find a home for Congress. The contest had been won by a physician with pretensions to architecture, William Thornton, who only had his shot at the prize – after the deadline had passed – thanks to George[…]

A History of Political Parties in the United States

The need to win popular support in a republic led to the American emergence of voter-based political parties in the 1790s. Introduction Political parties in the United States are dominated by two major parties. Since the 1850s, they have been the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. This two-party system is based on laws, party[…]

Publius: The Federalist Papers in Early America

Introduction The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 articles arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution. They were first published serially from October 1787 to August 1788 in New York City newspapers. A compilation, called The Federalist, was published in 1788. The Federalist Papers serve as a primary source for interpretation of[…]

The Myth of Thomas Jefferson’s Inscrutability

Jeffersonian scholarship is a Hydra’s head, mostly because we make it so. Political discrepancies between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton centered on contradictory interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton favored a slack interpretation of the Constitution—viz., what the Constitution did not strictly prohibit it sanctioned. One large issue for Hamilton was the Bank of the[…]

Remarkable Radical: Thaddeus Stevens, 1859-1868

Thaddeus Stevens was a fearsome reformer, who never backed down from a fight. In 1813, a young Thaddeus Stevens was attending a small college in Vermont. This was well before the time when good fences made good neighbors. Free-roaming cows often strayed onto campus. Manure piled up. Odors lingered. Resentment among students festered. One spring[…]

The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny of 1781: Soldiers in Revolt over Contracts

The soldiers’ grievances were founded upon a violation of the literal enlistment contracts. Introduction On the evening of January 1st, 1781, the Continental troops of the Pennsylvania Line mutinied at Morristown, New Jersey. Their revolt exhibited trends of the larger War of Independence. The soldiers’ grievances were founded upon a violation of the literal enlistment[…]

Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero Turned Traitor

Today, Benedict Arnold’s name is synonymous with treason, betrayal, and defection. Introduction Benedict Arnold (January 14, 1741 – June 14, 1801) was a famous American traitor, having been a general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He is best known for plotting to surrender the American fort at West Point, New York,[…]

Edward Bancroft, Double Agent: Spying for Both Sides during the Revolutionary War

Bancroft’s activity as a double agent was not revealed until 1891, when British diplomatic papers were released to the public. Introduction Edward Bartholomew Bancroft (January 20, 1745 [O.S. January 9, 1744][1] – September 7, 1821) was a Massachusetts-born physician and chemist who became a double agent, spying for both the United States and Great Britain[…]

The American Civil War, from Fort Sumter to Palmito Ranch

The Constitutional Convention of 1789, following the Revolution, had failed to address slavery, and it took another war to step forward. Introduction The watershed event of United States history was the American Civil War (1861–1865), fought in North America within the territory of the United States of America, between 24 mostly northern states of the[…]

Adams and Jackson: The Electoral College in the Elections of 1824 and 1828

The year 1824 was a political turning point in which none of the old rules applied. The Campaign and Election of 1824 Although John Quincy Adams should have been the heir apparent to the presidency as James Monroe’s secretary of state, the year 1824 was a political turning point in which none of the old[…]

Voices, Votes, Victory: Presidential Campaign Songs since George Washington

Lyrics ranged from broad satire to sincere political expression, demonstrating just how effective a messenger music can be. Early Rally Songs “Washington’s March” America’s earliest presidential elections were simple contests in which the candidate who garnered the most votes won. With impassioned partisan races yet to emerge, political songs were expressions of patriotism. “The Favorite[…]

Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation

All the participants recognized they were creating America’s most important public building. Introduction George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were determined that the United States Capitol be a meaningful expression of America’s new political and social order. The Constitution, ratified in 1788, had given the country its governing structure; the Capitol, begun three years later, was[…]

A Biography of Benjamin Franklin from the American Revolution

Even after his death in 1790, Franklin remained an American celebrity. Introduction Born in Boston on January 17, 1706, young Franklin struck out on his own in 1723, eventually finding employment as a journeyman printer in Philadelphia. Franklin’s newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette, his Poor Richard’s Almanack, and work as an inventor and scientist propelled him[…]

The Pre-Revolutionary Period and the Roots of the American Political Tradition

It was not new ideas but old ones that led the colonists to revolt and form a new nation. Political Thought in the American Colonies American political ideas regarding liberty and self-government did not suddenly emerge full-blown at the moment the colonists declared their independence from Britain. The varied strands of what became the American[…]

When Did Colonial America Gain Linguistic Independence?

By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, did colonial Americans still sound like their British counterparts? When did Americans start sounding funny to English ears? By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, carefully composed in the richly-worded language of the day, did colonial Americans—who after all were British before[…]

Eisenhower and Mid-20th Century Taxes in the United States

During the war, the top “marginal rate” was 94%, but 94% of what? Recent history shows tax rates exceedingly high some 50 years ago. How do historians (and educators) accommodate the recent past when putting contexts around today’s loud events? There are only long answers to any questions about taxation in American history, no matter[…]

The American Revolution: Loudly Telling Mother Goodbye

Establishing a nation in which the people were sovereign and the aristocracy had no place. The North American Colonies and the British Empire The European countries of Spain, France and Britain all had important interests in North America, not least because these colonies promised future wealth and were strategically important to the sugar, tobacco and[…]

What a Line Deleted from the Declaration of Independence Teaches Us about Thomas Jefferson

The excised passage was not then without effect and ought not now to be without effect. In his first draft of Declaration of Independence, Jefferson listed a “long train of abuses & usurpations,” at the hand of King George III. Those, he added, are “begun at a distinguished period, & pursuing invariably the same object.” Those[…]

Celebrating the New Year in Colonial America

American colonists actually celebrated New Year on March 25th! By Eryn Dion While modern day New Year’s celebrations are all about ball drops and champagne, that’s understandably not everyone’s scene. If you’re tired of staying up until midnight and partying all night long, give some of these interesting New Year’s traditions from colonial America a[…]

American Foreign Policy and the Roots of Empire in the 19th Century

Examining the contributions of Frederick Jackson Turner and Alfred Thayer Mahan to the conscious creation of an American empire. Introduction During the time of Reconstruction, the U.S. government showed no significant initiative in foreign affairs. Western expansion and the goal of Manifest Destiny still held the country’s attention, and American missionaries proselytized as far abroad[…]

Electing Members of Congress in the Early Republic

Procedures for electing members of Congress in the early republic greatly differed from the single-district system that is in use today. By Philip LampiHistorian Until 1825, the U.S. government did not require that local election officials formally report the results of their contests to any state or federal officials. Without official sources of election returns,[…]

Political Parties in the Early American Republic

This was a period of great experimentation and change in the development of political parties. The framers of the federal Constitution had not anticipated the development of permanent political parties. Parties were considered “factions,” dangerous and illegitimate alliances that pursued their own self-interest at the expense of the common good. National leaders were expected to[…]

The Decline of Protestant Influence in the Late 19th Century

Changes caused Protestants to lose the privileges they had enjoyed in public life, and they wanted government to get them back. The Decline of Protestant Influence The late 19th century was a bad time for American Protestants. Agnosticism and atheism became popular, especially among younger intellectuals. Rising numbers of non-Protestant immigrants brought greater religious diversity.[…]

Religious Tests for Witnesses in 19th-Century America

Although Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test “as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” and the First Amendment prohibits Congress from adopting laws “respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” none of these provisions initially applied to the states. Remnants of[…]

A History of Free Speech during Wartime in America

Freedom of speech often suffers during times of war. Introduction Patriotism at times devolves into jingoism and civil liberties take a backseat to security and order. The pattern has been consistent in American history from the Revolutionary War to the modern-day War on Terror after the infamous terrorist strikes on U.S. soil on Sept. 11,[…]

Thanksgiving and the Puritan Separatists Who Arrived Aboard the Mayflower

The overcrowded vessel’s crossing took more than two harrowing months. In 1620, the Mayflower plowed across the Atlantic through headwinds and ocean currents at an incredibly slow two miles per hour. The overcrowded vessel’s crossing took more than two harrowing months. On the way, its 102 passengers witnessed an astonishing scene. During a fierce storm, an indentured[…]

Voting in Early America

The first representative assembly in English America convened in Jamestown’s church July 30, 1619. By Ed Crews Among the first things the Jamestown voyagers did when they set up English America’s first permanent settlement was conduct an election. Nearly as soon as they landed—April 26, 1607, by their calendar—the commanders of the 105 colonists unsealed[…]

Reconstruction after the Civil War

Reconstruction-era governments did make genuine gains in rebuilding Southern states devastated by the war. By Tina Ulrich, Joelle Hannert, Tom Gordon, Michelle Schneider, Michele Howard, Ryan Bernstein, and Justin Guillard Lincoln’s Plan for Reconstruction Overview The first great task confronting the victorious North — now under the leadership of Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, a[…]