The Federalist Papers no. 1 famously says that “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Learning about American government provides us with the opportunity to examine carefully and to consider duly the deliberate creation of a new government in the wake of a successful revolution, which is a rare enough event. Not only that, but it allows us to consider the creation of a new, freegovernment in the wake of revolutionary war, something even rarer still.
To justly assess this endeavor, one must not only first understand what was done and why it was done, one must also understand what was not done and why it was not done, that is, one must consider what other than what was done could have been done. In other words, what else was possible in the given circumstances and did the reflective choice of the time properly account for the accident and force of the times? The flip side of this is also understanding what was not possible given the times (no matter how desirable or just), how the given circumstances would need to change to open these possibilities, and what needed to be done to effect such change.
Getting a handle on all this is a monumental task, one which could easily occupy several lifetimes, much of which would be spent seeking out the relevant historical, philosophical, and religious documents. We are most fortunate, however, to be able to benefit from the combined wisdom of Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, who together have edited the five volume compendium The Founders’ Constitution (ISBN: 9780865972797), which is freely available via Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty. This is without a doubt the best resource available on American government. It is itself an unparalleled reading list of primary sources. Just read it. At more than 3,300 pages (and weighing nearly 20lbs!), reading, considering, and comprehending the entirety of The Founders’ Constitution will take one a few years, but one will understand in a deep and comprehensive way the design and intended function of the government established by the American Constitution.
One’s consideration and comprehension can be assisted by the very best of the literature dealing with American government. As a result (and because Kurland and Lerner have already provided a primary list), our recommended reading lists deal with the scholarly literature and are broken down into various collections dealing with different branches of government, constitutional questions, domestic institutions, historical events, etc.
A final note: if you know of a book that is not included, but that ought to be, please drop us a line.