In 1825, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson discussed by letter the kinds of texts that should be required reading at the recently founded university in Virginia. “It is certainly very material that the true doctrines of liberty, as exemplified in our Political System, should be inculcated on those who are to sustain and may administer it,” Madison wrote. “It is, at the same time,” he continued, “not easy to find standard books that will be both guides & guards for the purpose.” Madison proceeded to recommend certain fundamental documents as essential reading for future citizens and statesmen, including the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist, and George Washington’s Farewell Address.
The Ashbrook Center’s list of 50 Core American Documents is meant to fulfill those same purposes. This list is meant to affirm the value and usefulness of reading original documents (as opposed to textbook summaries of major issues), and to introduce readers to America’s story as it has unfolded from the American Founding into the Twentieth Century. We chose these documents not necessarily because they have some official status (some are considered official, but many are private letters), or because they are the most widely read. Rather, each document tells us something important about the “American mind,” to borrow a term from Thomas Jefferson’s 1825 letter to Henry Lee; in other words, they reveal a certain turn of each author’s thought about the basic principles of economic, religious, or political liberty.
This list is by no means definitive or comprehensive, but is a starting point. It serves as an introduction to aspects of American thought and history that are deeply interesting, even surprising, and that will, we hope, entice readers to want to read and learn more. Many of the documents emphasize America’s uniqueness and contributions to the world, which is one way to view the American narrative. They also tell the stories of some of the greatest acts of statesmanship in American history — including George Washington’s prudence in securing the young republic, Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to preserve the Union and end slavery, and Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts to restore confidence to the American people during the Great Depression. But the documents also present different views on some of the major issues and disputes in American history and government — especially on the meaning of the Constitution, the injustice of slavery, and the demands of progress. Readers may compare and contrast the views of Alexander Stephens and Abraham Lincoln, for example, on the meaning of equality and liberty; Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun on the nature of the American Union; Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge on the meaning of progress; and James Monroe and Woodrow Wilson on the role of the United States in the world. The list concludes with Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society Speech” and Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech, since they contain views of America’s purpose and meaning that have continued to broadly influence political debate in the United States to this day.
Taken as such, the documents reveal a kind of political dialogue to readers, an ongoing and profoundly consequential conversation about how Americans have agreed and often disagreed on the meaning of freedom and self-government. This list of 50 Core American Documents invites teachers and citizens alike to join in this American political dialogue. And because these documents can help citizens better understand the true principles of liberty and acquire the prudence needed to apply them in the varying circumstances of American politics, we consider them to be essential reading for high school students, who will have the responsibility of sustaining and administering our republic in the future.