Founding Era

Humanities Themes and Guiding Questions

As a document-based project, Revisiting the Founding Era highlights a series of questions guided by humanities themes: What can we learn from the ideas and actions of people from the Founding Era? What do the records they left behind tell us? How can the past help us chart our future? Each participating library will receive ten copies of the Revisiting the Founding Era reader, as well as public access to the PDF reader on the project website. You can access the reader sample here.

Major humanities themes include:

  • Communication and persuasion
  • Mobilizing for independence
  • Nation-making and state-making
  • Race
  • Onset of war
  • The home front
  • Unequal hardships
  • Treatment of veterans
  • The limitations of the Articles of Confederation
  • Making a more perfect union
  • Ratifying the Constitution
  • Establishing a national economy
  • Dissent and national security
  • Elections and peaceful transitions of power

Each of the four sections—Declaring Independence, Realizing Independence, Creating a Constitution for a New Nation, and Translating a Blueprint into a Working Government—highlights questions raised by the themes presented both in the scholar essays and the highlighted documents.

Guiding Questions

Declaring Independence

  • How did the colonists go from willing participants in a triumphant British empire to arming themselves against the British crown?
  • How do shocking images travel through social networks to galvanize political movements?
  • What is America’s “duty to mankind at large,” viewed by Thomas Paine as the bedrock of the nation? Has the US always comported itself as an asylum for the persecuted?

Realizing Independence

  • How do Revolutionary War casualty statistics and firsthand accounts of hardship by Lucy Knox, George Washington, Peter Kiteredge, and others change your understanding of the country’s founding?
  • How was the experience of American men and women during the Revolution similar to or different from the experience of war today?
  • In what ways has the treatment of veterans changed (or not changed) since the Revolutionary War?

Creating a Constitution for a New Nation

  • If a new constitutional convention were called in your lifetime, what issues do you believe would be on the agenda and which would be the most controversial?
  • Is federalism still a source of conflict and tension within American politics? What contemporary issues raise problems between the states and the federal government? What solutions would you propose?
  • In the eighteenth century, political debate took place in pamphlets, newspapers, and often in taverns. Where do these debates take place today—and what are the strengths and weaknesses of these modern forums?

Translating a Blueprint into a Working Government

  • Madison and Jefferson opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which suppressed dissent and freedom of the press, as unconstitutional. With the balance between preserving free speech and maintaining national security in today’s headlines, how do Americans shape debates about dissent and freedom of the individual as set forth in the First Amendment?
  • Since the founding, supporters of the federal government’s authority have clashed with defenders of states’ rights, who have asserted the right to overturn laws not stipulated by the Constitution. Where does the ultimate power of the American people reside, with the federal government or with the individual states?
  • The election of 1800 highlighted a flaw in the procedures for electing a president. Jefferson and Burr appeared on the same ballot and received equal votes, because the Electoral College had no clear guidelines. Today, concerns over the Electoral College focus on a different issue: that a presidential candidate can win in the Electoral College but lose the national popular vote. Do we need the Electoral College today?

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