These materials aim to help with the study of the American legal and political system, and in the process they will often turn to the views of the Framers, both of the Constitution and of later amendments. The Framers were not saints; they were people of their time, with many (though not all) of the prejudices common in their time. And they made practical mistakes as well. For instance, their system for electing the president led to a political constitutional crisis a mere 11 years after the Constitution was ratified, and had to be corrected by a constitutional amendment (the Twelfth) a few years later.
Nonetheless, they were unusually farsighted and successful political thinkers. And, as importantly, their thinking helped create our governmental system. Whether or not you like all features of that system, to understand the system you have to understand its history, and especially the purposes and attitudes of its creators.
Civic Virtue and Our Constitutional Republic
The United States Founders believed that certain civic virtues were required of citizens in order for the Constitution to work. Numerous primary sources—notably the Federalist Papers and the Autobiography of Ben Franklin—point us to the “Founders’ Virtues.” Before exploring the Documents of Freedom, it is important to understand civic virtue as an essential element of self-government.
An Introduction to Documents of Freedom
In 1781, after the Americans won the Battle of Yorktown, the British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. Tradition has it that, as Cornwallis was surrendering, the British military band played an old song called "The World Turned Upside Down."