The current hiatus in American political development offers an opportunity for reflection on the great works, written and spoken, by great American leaders that compose what might be called an American political canon, the solid core of what America represents in theory and in reality. If such a canon were composed it would have to have at its center those presidents whose words best defined the nation and its central purpose for their times. It would then have to expand to include statesmen of stature whose contributions supported and augmented the themes of the highest elected officials.
- The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1776). The first and still most persuasive argument for why there must be a United States of America. [“We hold these truths to be self-evident….”]
- The Constitution of the United States, James Madison (1789). The enduring foundation for America’s political structures and laws. [“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”]
- The Federalist, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (1788). The theory and logic of the Constitution and its necessity in creating a national Republic.
- Farewell Address, George Washington (1796). Establishing the principle of presidential term limits and laying the foundation for definition of the role of the presidency.
- The Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe (1832). An early pillar in the construction of a United States foreign policy, in this case as it proscribed European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. [“…The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”]
- The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln (1863). An elegy justifying the cause of union, laying the groundwork for reconciliation, and blessing those who have not died in vain. [“we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”]
- The Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln (1865). A magnanimous embrace for secessionists and the path for a reunited nation. [“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”]
- The Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant (1885). A monumental military history of the Civil War demonstrating a magnanimous spirit that helped begin the long healing process.
- The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt (1896). This four volume history of the Western frontier is valuable for what it says about America and its author.
- The Four Freedoms, Franklin Roosevelt (1941). Defining America’s role in the world after World War II and a platform for a new engaged foreign policy for the remainder of the century. [freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear.]
- The American University Speech, John Kennedy (1962). A prophetic warning of the dangers of confrontation in the nuclear age and the case for arms control negotiations. [“While we proceed to safeguard our national interests let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both.”]
- I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King (1963). The iconic case for civil rights at last and the anthem of a movement. [“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”]
This list is preliminary and incomplete. But it does reveal a central theme: many if not most of America’s great leaders have also been great writers. Great writing comes from familiarity with the classics, both literary and political. These authors have in common respect for ideas and ideals.
James Madison and later Hamilton provided extensive editing for Washington’s farewell speech. The Monroe Doctrine was a collaborative effort. Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy both had assistance in the preparation of their historic speeches. Abraham Lincoln, an American literary genius, drew from the Bible and William Shakespeare. This core canon was produced by literate leaders who had extraordinary talents at self-expression and at intuitively sensing the soul of a nation.
A voluminous list of works by others might well provide a second circle. Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, would be one. It is widely believed to be the best autobiography ever produced by an American. Biographies of all Presidents, a few more than others, must be added for their historical value.
The works of the best historians, Gordon Wood’s magisterial history of the founding era, An Empire of Liberty, for example, should provide yet another circle around this canon.
All are invited to suggest additions to this list of works all Americans, especially students, should be familiar with.