CHESTERTOWN, MD— As the contemporary political scene grows more and more polarized, Americans of all persuasions — from Tea Party adherents to civil-liberties advocates — look to the nation’s 18th-century founding to promote a wide array of 21st-century positions. This sense of connection to history energizes American politics, but in the struggle to claim the Founders as our “own,” are we losing sight of who they really were?
In a special four-part series on America’s founding era, premiering at Washington College on October 18, acclaimed historian Richard Beeman will take audiences behind the scenes of the debates that produced our political system, providing new context for understanding questions that continue to divide Americans today.
Hosted by the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, “Inventing a Nation: A Special Series on the American Founding” will run for four consecutive Tuesdays: October 18, October 25, November 1, and November 8. All sessions will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Decker Theatre, Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts, on the Washington College campus (300 Washington Avenue).
“Inventing a Nation” is co-sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture, the Department of Political Science, and the Department of History. All programs in the series are free and open to the public.
One of the nation’s leading historians of America’s revolutionary and early national experience, Richard Beeman has been a member of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania for 43 years and has served as Chair of the Department of History and as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a member of the scholarly advisory board of the American Revolution Center and the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center.
Beeman recently joined the Washington College community as a Senior Fellow of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, as well as of the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture. In this role, he serves as a resource for the Washington College community, providing mentorship of high-achieving students and leading public programs such as “Inventing a Nation.”
“This series will serve as a kind of crash course in the dramatic highs and lows of America’s first 25 years,” said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center. “But it will be about the present almost as much as the past. As we prepare to enter a watershed election year, Dr. Beeman will, in a sense, be untangling the basic DNA of American politics.”
The series format is flexible, and can easily accommodate both repeat and one-time attendees. Those who can attend multiple sessions are encouraged to approach “Inventing a Nation” as a mini-seminar (with no assigned reading or papers!), but each week’s program will stand alone, and those who can make only one or two sessions should not hesitate to attend.
“The Founders and the Myth of the Original Meaning of the Constitution” (October 18) will explore how the Founders themselves understood the meaning of many of the clauses which they drafted, and how they might have wished their Constitution to be interpreted by subsequent generations.
“The Creation of the Bill of Rights” (October 25) will delve into the reasons that the U.S Constitution did not originally contain a bill of rights and the process by which Americans moved to add one. It will conclude with reflections on the meaning of the Bill of Rights today.
“The Founders, Religion, and Separation of Church and State” (November 1) will explore the attitudes of the members of the Constitutional Convention toward the role of religion in public life, and then move forward in time to discuss the views of subsequent generations.
“Sex, Lies, and the Founders: The American Presidency, Democracy, and the Media” (November 8) will explore the dramatic shift in the nature of presidential elections – and the relationship of the president to the people at large – that played out within a decade after the Constitution was adopted. In this concluding lecture, Beeman will discuss the impact of the democratization of American presidential politics, and the development of an aggressive news media, on the barrier between a president’s public life and his private affairs.
Beeman’s 2009 book, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House), won the George Washington Book Prize in 2010 with high praise from the jurors, who deemed it “the fullest and most authentic account of the Constitutional Convention ever written.” He is also the author of five other books on revolutionary America, including The Penguin Guide to the American Constitution (Penguin, 2010) and Patrick Henry: A Biography (McGraw-Hill, 1974), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Over the course of his career, Beeman has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the Huntington Library. He has served as a Fulbright Professor in the United Kingdom and as Harmsworth Distinguished Professor of American History at Oxford University.
* * *Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in colonial Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is dedicated to fostering innovative approaches to the American past and present. Through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach, and a special focus on written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between the academic world and the public at large. For more information on the Center: http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.