Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution

“The American Founding: Revolutionary or Conservative?”


American political history is defined by three great crises. The first crisis was the American Revolution, which was declared on July 4, 1776 but whose roots can be traced back at least to 1763. That period of crisis ended with the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in what has become known as the “Revolution of 1800.”

The second crisis was the crisis over slavery that culminated in the Civil War. While the Founders had opposed slavery in principle, but had been forced to compromise with the institution in practice for the sake of the Union, the rise of the “positive good” school of slavery in the South marked a turn away from the Founders’ principles, and their practice. In response, Abraham Lincoln explained and defended the Founder’s approach.

The third great crisis, which continues today, is the challenge of Progressivism, a movement founded by Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and others. The Progressives rejected the Founders’ principles, including their notions of a fixed human nature and inalienable natural rights. Instead, they believed in a human nature that evolved and changed, which in turn justified their efforts to break down separation of powers in order to expand the size and scope of government far beyond the Founders’ intent.

In order to understand fully the previous crises, and to be able to respond well to the current crisis, we must understand the causes of America.

America has four causes—a material cause: primarily the land and the people; an efficient cause: the Founding Fathers who led the Revolution in the name of the American people; a formal cause: the Constitution, especially the structure of government it establishes; and a final cause: the principles of free government outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

With this background, we can answer the question: Was the American Founding revolutionary or conservative? In fact it was both: It sought to conserve the oldest and highest law, which according to the Declaration of Independence is “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  The Founders compared the natural law to the conventional law under which they lived, and—as described so eloquently and succinctly in the Declaration of Independence—determined that a revolution was justified in the name of this higher law.


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Discussion Questions

  • What are the defining features of the three great crises that characterize American political history?
  • What are the four causes of America, and what is the analogy made with the sculpting of a great statue such as Michelangelo’s David?
  • How is the American Founding both revolutionary and conservative?

Q & A Session

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Larry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. Under Dr. Arnn’s leadership since May of 2000, Hillsdale College has conducted the $608 million Founders Campaign for capital and endowment goals, launched the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship (located in Washington, D.C.), expanded the core curriculum to include a required course on the U.S. Constitution, and established an Honor Code that all matriculates to the College sign. As a professor of politics and history at Hillsdale, Dr. Arnn regularly teaches courses on Aristotle, Winston Churchill and the American Constitution.

Dr. Arnn is on the board of directors of The Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute. From 1985 to 2000, he served as President of the Claremont Institute. Formerly the director of research for Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, Dr. Arnn is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education and The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What we Risk by Losing It. He received his B.A. at Arkansas State University, graduating with highest distinction, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate School.