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The Constitution 101
Module One
The American Founding:
or Conservative
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The Constitution 101
Hillsdale College  •  www.Hillsdale.eduhttp://www.Hillsdale.edushapeimage_21_link_0


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 Founders 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.

About Hillsdale College

Hillsdale College was founded in 1844 by men and women who proclaimed themselves “grateful to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land,” and who believed that “the diffusion of sound learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings.”

Hillsdale was the first American college to prohibit in its charter any discrimination based on race, sex, or national origin. Associated with the anti-slavery movement from its earliest days, it attracted to its campus anti-slavery leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Edward Everett, who preceded Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. Several of the College’s leading men were instrumental in founding the new Republican party up the road in Jackson, Michigan, in 1854. And Hillsdale sent a larger percentage of its students to fight for the Union in the Civil War than any other American college or university except West Point. Two of those Hillsdale veterans helped carry Lincoln’s casket to the slain president’s final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.

Hillsdale’s modern rise to national prominence began in the 1970s, when the federal government attempted to impose a host of regulations on the College—including racial quota requirements that violated Hillsdale’s principled policy of nondiscrimination. When the Supreme Court upheld these regulations in the 1980s on the basis that Hillsdale students received federally funded grants and loans, the College decided to refuse even this indirect form of federal aid, replacing all federal student aid with privately funded grants, loans, and scholarships.

Hillsdale’s Board of Trustees pledged first that the College would continue its long-standing policy of nondiscrimination, and second that it would not accept any encroachments on its independence. It is a pledge that has been renewed several times in subsequent years and stands to date.

Today an independent, coeducational, residential liberal arts college with a student body of some 1,450 undergraduates, the College continues to carry out its original mission. With a core curriculum that comprises about one-half of courses a student needs to graduate, Hillsdale maintains its strong fidelity to the liberal arts.

In its outreach, too, the College teaches those same ideas that advance “civil and religious liberty.” Its many programs include the Center for Constructive Alternatives, one of the largest college lecture series in America; the Hoogland Center for Teacher Excellence, which holds seminars for high school teachers of civics and history; the National Leadership Seminars; the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.; and Imprimis, a monthly newsletter that reaches over two million people.

Opened in the fall of 2012, the Hillsdale College Graduate School of Statesmanship offers an M.A. and a Ph.D. in politics. For more information about Hillsdale College, please visit Hillsdale.edu.

33 E. College St. Hillsdale, MI 49242 | Phone: (517) 437-7341 | Fax: (517) 437-3923