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.

  1. 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….”]
  2. 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.”]
  3. The Federalist, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (1788). The theory and logic of the Constitution and its necessity in creating a national Republic.
  4. Farewell Address, George Washington (1796). Establishing the principle of presidential term limits and laying the foundation for definition of the role of the presidency.
  5. 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.”]
  6. 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.”]
  7. 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.”]
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.]
  11. 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.”]
  12. 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.


20 Responses to “Toward an American Political Canon”

  1. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    A sincere thank you for navigating us back to America’s political roots. I find it easy to draw strength from them and am encouraged.

  2. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Two suggested additions — Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803), and Brown v. Board of Education, 437 US 483 (1954), canonical in that the first established judicial review and the second resurrected the true and proper meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

  3. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Is there anyone who could be added to this truly esteemed list who championed (or champions) the inherent rights of indigenous peoples of the Americas and who was (is) not descendent from the first inhabitants of this land?

  4. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I would also add a few of Robert F. Kennedy’s speeches, especially the one he gave to a university crowd, I believe, in South Africa, a quote from which is etched in stone at his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.

  5. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    And, I don’t think we should leave out the Hart-Rudman commission report on National Security in the 21st Century or Restoration of the Republic, for that matter.

    I mean that sincerely … I’m not trying to be facetious, here. Speaking of which, I think there may be a couple of Biden quotes that would fit in rather nicely.

    Such as, America leads best when it leads with the power of its example and not just the example of its power … sorry, I’m paraphrasing …

  6. Jack DuVall Says:

    In reply to Ms. Miller’s question about any work which appraises the contribution of America’s indigenous peoples, a superb analysis of their critical role in the development of the nation is within the philosopher Jacob Needleman’s excellent work, published in 2002 “American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders.” He explains how the deprivation of rights and intermittent genocide against both indigenous Americans and African-Americans forced the country eventually to deal more forthrightly with racism and oppression than has happened in other mass societies.

  7. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Mr. Duvall! I’ll check out Needleman’s work and advocacy for indigenous rights in the Americas.

    It’s interesting to compare how indigenous peoples’ rights have been respected, or not, by colonial governments in North America.

    In Canada, for example, our constitution, repatriated from Great Britain just a quarter century ago in 1982, contains a clause that recognizes and affirms aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Metis and Inuit but, in actual practice, little has been done by successive non-aboriginal governments at the federal level to actually recognize and ensure the exercise of these rights.

    On the contrary, during our intermittent constitutional crises, attempts have been made by non-aboriginal governments to extinguish aboriginal and treaty rights. Thankfully, our Supreme Court has extinguished those attempts to a very large degree.

    On the other hand, there is nothing in the US constitution about indigenous rights but I understand that First Nations in the US have put their right to self-government into practice, at least to some degree.

    There is a lot to be done to finally recognize the inherent right of self-government of First Nations, Metis and Inuit and to base the relationship between aboriginal and non-governments on principles of equality and respect.

    Anyway, thanks again!

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    Ms. Miller rightly urges a seminal contribution regarding the First Americans’ role in our history (or perhaps better, our role in their history) and Jack DuVall makes an excellent suggestion regarding the Needleman book. I might add to that two additional suggestions: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, by Dee Brown a decade or so ago, and “Black Elk Speaks”, by John Neihardt in the 1980s or 90s as I recall. Where else have I left a big hole? GH

  9. Chris R. Says:

    Senator, I can think of two in the 20th Century worth adding to your list.

    1) President Harry Truman’s blunt talk in plain Missouri language to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, (He who had concluded the negotiations with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to divide Europe to start WWII in 1939) on April 23, 1945 regarding free elections in Poland, and more broadly, Soviet occupied Europe. Truman quoted Molotov as responding, “I have never been talked to like that in my life,” and then Truman replied, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t be talked to like that.” It was the start of the Cold War, based on the ideology of government through free elections.

    2) President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 address to where he challenged America to land a man on the moon, and bring him back safely to earth. The quote that was uniquely American was that “we choose to go to the moon… not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” That quote defines us as Americans. I remember reading how at the height of the British Empire it citizens attached themselves to the latest battleship. In my life, things were measured by the space program. I remember the moon landings and the marvel of it all. My grandfather watched every launch live. I remember space lab, and then the shuttle early trials followed by its successes and tragedies. When the last one landed I called for someone to get the youngsters in family up early so they could witness history.

  10. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    I would add to the syllabus this reading from (then former) U.S. Senator George McGovern’s 2004 book titled The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition (Simon and Schuster):
    My role model on defense matters is five-star General of the Armies Dwight D. Eisenhower. During eight years as president, 1953-61, including the last months of the Korean War and the building of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, Eisenhower did his best to hold military spending in check-not always successfully.

    The first time I became interested in trying to bring arms spending under control was when I read the great farewell address of President Eisenhower in January 1961. With the possible exception of President George Washington’s farewell address in 1779, President Eisenhower’s is probably the most important. … Interestingly, the two farewell messages that I have identified as the best in our two centuries as a nation were both given by generals who had been promoted to the highest military rank before assuming the presidency.

    In his final address as president, George Washington said: “Those who love America will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

    President Eisenhower gained the respect of the world for his leadership in World War II–including that of Field Marshal G. K. Zhukov, the great Russian wartime commander who defeated the legions of Hitler’s Germany. He spoke these words at the end of his eight years in the White House while he awaited the inauguration of his successor, John F. Kennedy: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

    I was electrified by those words–in part because the president had spoken the truth so articulately and in part because, like other Americans, I had long admired him. I need wondered then, as I do today, why these thoughtful words from one of our most admired soldier-statesmen did not have a more profound impact on the American government and public opinion.

    [D]oubtless, the larger reason why Eisenhower’s counsel was rejected is that neither the Pentagon nor its congressional allies wanted to hear the nation’s commander in chief warning against the increasing power and influence of the “military-industrial complex.”

    He [Eisenhower] had an enthusiastic junior ally in me. During my first year in the Senate, and subsequently, I quoted Ike’s message in the Senate and across the land.

    Years later, at the 1999 dedication of the late professor Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day Museum in New Orleans, I found myself seated on the platform next to Eisenhower’s top longtime military aide, General Andrew Goodpaster. To my surprise, the general leaned over to me and said softly: “President Eisenhower thought highly of you.” I will treasure that bit of knowledge all of my days.

    My second major speech in the Senate, “New Perspectives on American Security,” was delivered on August 2, 1963. In that speech I called for us to recognize that the Department of Defense was not the only source of American security. A strong, full-employment economy is also a source of American power and security. A healthy, well educated citizenry provides a vital part of a nation’s security. A clean, safe environment is another foundation of strength and national security. The world’s strongest, most productive family farms and ranches are another crucial foundation stone in our national security. A credible political leadership with an open, honest political process is a crucial part of our security and influence in the world.

    All of these factors contribute to our security and national defense. If the military takes more of the budget than it needs, it weakens the nation by starving these other contributors to national vitality and health.

    …President Eisenhower knew where to look for padding and waste in the Pentagon budget. He had the self-confidence to say no to costly new weapons systems that he believed added little or nothing to our security. Beyond this, as an old-fashioned conservative, Ike did not want the federal government to sink further into debt for weapons beyond the needs of a well-rounded national defense.

    The aging, experienced general also understood that if the Pentagon claims too much of the federal budget, it deprives us of other sources of national strength–education, child nutrition, health care, transportation, and a balanced federal budget. Defense is important, but it cannot be secured simply by bigger and more numerous weapons. I beg my readers to read and ponder the following paragraphs copied from President Eisenhower’s memoirs after he completed his eight years in the White House:

    During the years of my Presidency, and especially the latter years, I began to feel more and more uneasiness about the effect on the nation of tremendous peacetime military expenditures….

    With victory in World War II we began to reduce our forces so precipitously that every year from 1947 to 1950–on the eve of the Korean War–our annual war military budget never exceeded $12 billion.

    But in mid-1953, after the end of the Korean War, I determined that we would not again become so weak militarily as to encourage aggression. This decision demanded a military budget that would establish, by its very size, a peacetime precedent….The effects of these expenditures on the nation’s economy would be serious. Some of these effects would surely be seen as beneficial. But their eventual influence on our national life, unless watched by an alert citizenry, could become almost overpowering.

    To counter this caution, there are, of course, other interested parties. Many groups find much value to themselves in constant increases in defense expenditures.

    The military services, traditionally concerned with 100 per cent security, are rarely satisfied with the amounts allocated to them, out of an even generous budget.

    The makers of the expensive munitions of war, to be sure, like the profits they receive, and the greater the expenditures the more lucrative the profits. Under the spur of profit potential, powerful lobbies spring up to argue for even larger munitions expenditures.

    And the web of special interest grows.

    Each community in which a manufacturing plant or a military installation is located profits from the money spent and the jobs created in the area. This fact, of course, constantly presses on the community’s political representatives–congressmen, senators, and others–to maintain the facility at maximum strength.

    All of these forces, and more, tend, therefore, to override the convictions of responsible officials who are determined to have a defense structure of adequate size but are equally determined that it shall not grow beyond that level. In the long run, the combinations of pressures for growth can create an almost overpowering influence. Unjustified military spending is nothing more than a distorted use of the nation’s resources.

    In the making of every military budget, my associates and I were guided by these considerations. We did our best to achieve real security without surrendering to special interest.

    The idea, then, of making a final address as President to the nation seemed to call on me to warn the nation, again, of the danger in these developments. I could think of no better way to emphasize this than to include a sobering message in what might otherwise have been a farewell of pleasantries. The most quoted section of the speech came in these paragraphs:

    ”A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

    “Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

    “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military
    security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

    “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

    “In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

    “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

    This was, at the end of my years in the White House, the most challenging message I could leave with the people of this country.

    The next morning I held my final news conference. In the last question a reporter asked: “…would you sum up for us your idea of what kind of a United States you would like your grandchildren to live in?” My answer summed up all I’d been trying to do for eight years:

    I hoped that they might live “in a peaceful world…enjoying all the privileges and carrying forward all the responsibilities envisioned for the good citizen of the United States, and this means among other things the effort always to raise the standards of our people in their spiritual…intellectual…[and] economic strength. That’s what I would like to see them have.”

    Recognizing that we cannot anticipate all potential threats to our nation and its interests, I suggest that we carefully reduce military spending in stages over the next ten years.

    The president should propose to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the appropriate congressional committees a military budget cut of $25 billion for next year and for each subsequent year until we reach an annual outlay of $250 billion for military purposes in the tenth year. These annual cuts would require vigorous, disciplined judgments by our top military officers, OMB, and the Congress. But I firmly believe that we have the qualities of imagination, innovation, and common sense in the men and women of the armed services, in our budget office, and in the Congress who, working together, could keep our country well defended at half the current cost if we gave them a decade to accomplish the task.
    ECJ’S PS.
    News Item:
    “Post-9/11 Pentagon spending peaked in 2009 at more than $691 billion — a combination of the Defense Department’s request for basic funds and the supplemental request it made for wartime spending.”

  11. Brian C McCarthy Says:


    I might include Edward R. Murrow’s expose on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Not a writing, a video, but a work of American political thought that significantly changed the thinking of millions of Americans on a political issue of the time and that helped lead to the downfall of the United States’ most notorious demagogue of the 20th C.


  12. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    “Only to the white man was nature a wilderness and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame, Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.”
    Black Elk

    Even now our precolonial brothers and sisters desire to share of themselves with the conquering tribe in the hopes that we may see the meaning of their existence and perhaps benefit thereby.

    “It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”
    Black Elk

  13. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    The roots of the nation established in 1776 and the roots of the nation established in prehistorical times are in my view symbiotic. Both our Peoples
    stand to benefit. The external world that Black Elk’s people inhabited is a shadow of its former glory, and many of his people have suffered a degradation of their material and spiritual life. I would argue that in many ways we have suffered a similar degradation. We may find strength in each others’ good will and willingness to forge a relationship that would bring healing to both our nations.

  14. Gary Hart Says:

    I concur with Paul Borg. We continue to be haunted by slavery and treatment of the First Americans. Black marks on US history that we struggle to overcome. GH

  15. Paul G Says:

    BREAKING THE(HIATUS)SILENCE, by Rev. Martin Luther King (exactly 1 year before his assassination)

    “I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

  16. Paul G Says:


    As some wonder this blessed day why the US Secret Service routinely destroys the shamrocks presented to the incumbent president by the Irish head of state, let’s pray for a more hopeful solution. Let’s begin by wishing our honorable host of maternal Irish ancestry a most enjoyable St. Patrick’s Day!

  17. Stephen Scapicchio Says:


    “Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you and all Matters of Principle bloggers of good will and thoughtful disposition!”

    – Stephen from Boston


    Have missed this site as have been busy , not posted a while , only to find three He was or four articles of quality and comments thus , I have not yet read, now rectified!

    He was half English, but half American, half Conservative, half Liberal, half maddening, half genius ! Include anything by Winston Spencer Churchill, the only prime minister or statesman of that calibre, to receive the Nobel Prize, for literature !

    Only the great JFK comes close with his Pulitzer for the same !


    p.s. should read ,” three , I think it was, or four!”

  20. Paul G Says:


    “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” James Madison

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