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Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution

Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution

Professor Thomas L. Pangle Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin
Course No.  4878
Course No.  4878
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, ..."—U.S. Constitution

While those words were written over 200 years ago, recent years have seen an explosion of interest in and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Its authority and stature are routinely invoked by voices from every point on the political spectrum who seek to defend their views on issues ranging from separation of powers to the proper role of the Supreme Court to legitimate interpretations of the Bill of Rights, with frequent references to the Founding Fathers and their true "intent."

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"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, ..."—U.S. Constitution

While those words were written over 200 years ago, recent years have seen an explosion of interest in and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Its authority and stature are routinely invoked by voices from every point on the political spectrum who seek to defend their views on issues ranging from separation of powers to the proper role of the Supreme Court to legitimate interpretations of the Bill of Rights, with frequent references to the Founding Fathers and their true "intent."

But how much do most of us really know about that intent?

The fact is, as Professor Thomas L. Pangle makes clear in The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution, many of those Founding Fathers—men who had been signers of the Declaration of Independence, leaders of the American Revolution, or delegates to the Continental Congress—were highly critical of the new Constitution and staunchly opposed it when it was first put forth for ratification by the states as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation.

Learn Which Founders Opposed the New Constitution ...

Thomas Jefferson, for example, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was highly skeptical of the proposed constitution and was not among the Federalists who were urging ratification, although his reluctant support for it was eventually won by his good friend James Madison.

Patrick Henry, whose declaration "Give me liberty or give me death!" is arguably the most iconic quote of the American Revolution, was an eloquent voice against ratification, his oratorical skills a potent weapon of the Anti-Federalist side in his native state of Virginia.

And John Hancock, the Declaration's first signer, was still another opponent of the new constitution, but later joined with fellow critic Samuel Adams to lead the effort at compromise through which Massachusetts approved ratification, but with many substantial amendments recommended.

Joined by a chorus of notable essayists—writing, in the style of the day, under the pen names "Agrippa," "Brutus," or "Cato," meant to evoke the ideals of Classical Republicanism they favored—the Anti-Federalists formed a potent opposition.

Which Founders Led the Battle for It ...

On the other side of the argument, an equally distinguished chorus of voices—led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—was raised in support of the proposed constitution.

They urged that its innovative structure—a structure the Anti-Federalists considered frightening and dangerous—ought to be passed without any substantial amendments. And in The Federalist, the extraordinary collection of polemical papers organized by Hamilton, they presented their side's answer to the objections raised by the proposed constitution's opponents.

The debate that ensued—even while some states ratified the document and others rejected it—raged for the better part of two years. Each side argued to prove and persuade others to their position. And beneath its rhetorical flourishes lay not only the longest and most profound civic argument in our nation's history, but also a civics lesson that deserves to endure for all time.

And How Both Sides Helped Define the Result!

It was an argument that would result in not only the ratification of the Constitution but also of what that Constitution would become—and the finished document was a testimonial to the contributions of the "victorious" Federalist side and the "losing" Anti-Federalists as well.

Why were the nation's planners so divided? What were the concerns that caused so many passionate defenders of American independence to take such different views? And why are the answers so important to us today?

In addressing these issues—including fervently presented renditions of the great debate's most illustrious writings and speeches—Professor Pangle brilliantly revives "the great controversy out of which our Constitution was born, so that we ourselves can begin to re-enact, in some degree, the debates and thus the choices—and, more importantly, the arguments for the choices—that were made by the founding generation."

In an era when contemporary arguments on the national stage so often mirror the same conflicts debated by the Founders, our own reenactment of that original debate can enrich our ability to be active and participating citizens.

"By listening to the original critics of the Constitution," Professor Pangle notes, "and by seeing how the defenders are responding to those critics, we will have better access to the age-old, deeply puzzling problems in the very nature of Republicanism with which our founders were wrestling and trying to solve. We can see precisely what dangers this new Constitution was meant to combat and what it was designed to achieve.

"But also, and equally important, we can see what our constitutional system was not designed to achieve, what alternative concerns and goals of political life were abandoned or subordinated, what costs were consciously paid, what limitations were accepted in opting for this ... new system."

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    Significance and Historical Context
    We introduce the major players in the debate over the Constitution's ratification. Most important are those who took part in the struggle in New York—where some of the most thoughtful Anti-Federalist writings were produced and later responded to with the influential Federalist papers organized, and in substantial part written, by Alexander Hamilton. x
  • 2
    Classical Republicanism
    The Anti-Federalists attack the proposed constitutional order, saying it departs too much from the traditionally revered Greco-Roman ideal of virtuous participatory republicanism. We clarify the Anti-Federalist objections and explore their own reservations about classical republicanism. x
  • 3
    The Anti-Federalists' Republican Vision
    The participatory and virtue-centered vision of the Anti-Federalists dictates a more decentralized arrangement than the more consolidated national government proposed by the Federalists. We introduce the Federalists' response, highlighting their focus on the demands of national security and foreign policy. x
  • 4
    The Argument over National Security
    Articulating a need for sound defense and foreign policy, The Federalist critiques the existing constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and then moves to a general critique of the inadequacy of confederacies. Anti-Federalists counter by suggesting that Federalists may be falling prey to visions of an empire. x
  • 5
    The Deep Difficulties in Each Position
    Anti-Federalists accuse Federalists of giving national security pre-eminence over republican freedom. Federalists reply by claiming that Anti-Federalists fail to face up to what union and national security truly require. x
  • 6
    Debating the Meaning of "Federalism"
    The Federalists' defense of "Federalism" reveals that the state governments are to be strictly subordinate to the central government—thereby intensifying the Anti-Federalist critique. x
  • 7
    The Madisonian Republic
    How do the Federalists propose to prevent despotism in the central government? Their answer, articulated by James Madison, rejects the classical republican ideal of a confederacy of small, fraternal democracies in favor of a vast, representative republic, animated by competition among mutually hostile "factions." x
  • 8
    The Argument over Representation
    Madison identifies majority faction as the overriding danger in republics and calls for a new conception of representative government removed from the populace—a call that echoes, although in a more aristocratic way, the emphasis upon virtue found in the classical tradition. x
  • 9
    Disputing Separation of Powers, Part 1
    For Anti-Federalists, the proposed House of Representatives is too weak and will be overpowered by more powerful branches of government. For Federalists, the House is the most dangerous part of government and therefore most in need of being checked and balanced. x
  • 10
    Disputing Separation of Powers, Part 2
    Anti-Federalists argue that a federal-level "separation of powers" would be merely artificial, with no reliable basis in social reality; they argue instead for state governments to check the federal government. They also argue for a small executive council instead of the proposed presidency. x
  • 11
    The Supreme Court and Judicial Review
    Hamilton's expectation of a virtuous national leadership is most evident in his defense of the unelected, life-tenured Supreme Court and its historically unprecedented power of "judicial review." The Anti-Federalists predict abuse of this power and insist on a court that includes elected officials. x
  • 12
    The Bill of Rights
    The addition, by the first Congress, of the 10 amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, is the one great victory of the Anti-Federalists—but it is won at the ironic cost of giving much more power to a Supreme Court that they fear. x

Lecture Titles

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Thomas L. Pangle
Ph.D. Thomas L. Pangle
The University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Thomas L. Pangle holds the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin. He earned his B.A. from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. Before joining the faculty at The University of Texas, Professor Pangle taught at Yale University, Dartmouth University, the University of Chicago, and the …cole des Hautes …tudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is the recipient of many awards and accolades, including four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Robert Foster Cherry Great Teacher of the World Prize from Baylor University. He also has given prestigious lectures, including the Exxon Lectures in Humane Approaches to the Social Sciences and the Werner Heisenberg Memorial Lecture at the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation in Munich. Professor Pangle is the author of several works on political thought, including The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke; The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age; and Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy. He also serves on the editorial boards of Political Research Quarterly and Polis: The Journal of the Society for Greek Political Thought.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 90 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by An Unsung Gem I think this course is an unsung gem in the Great Courses course catalog. Prof. Pangle is an articulate, engaging lecturer who really brings the course material to life. I found his varous discussions of the Anti-Federalists particularly engrossing, I suspect largely because so much emphasis is placed on the Federalists in academic study and scholarship that the Anti-Federalists are largely treated as an afterthought, if at all. In short, I think this course is an outstanding introduction to the arguments that drove the debate surrounding the ratification of the Constitution. I listened to the audio version of this course, which was entirely adequate, and which I would recommend.. October 20, 2013
Rated 3 out of 5 by Professor Pangle has a slow, somewhat stilted manner of delivering the lectures, but once I got used to his style I became fascinated by the sophisticated analysis of this debate. However, the files I listened to kept skipping, and one of the them wouldn't play at all. I received an uphelpful response from tech support, so I abandoned the course half-way through. October 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Anti-Federalists? Quick, name one of the anti-federalists! This course will explain why you can't. Fascinating. A very well constructed short course. May 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Deserves 10 Stars The only problem with this course is I couldn't give Professor Pangle 10 stars in each category. Every voter should be required to take this course before voting to inform them about how our Founders created this country and why we need to understand our Constitution and how our vote matters in preserving it. OUTSTANDING!!! April 11, 2014
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