Of the dozen men whom we recognize as the Founding Fathers of this nation, five lived within a hundred miles of one another, knew each other well, corresponded regularly, and later came to disagree with one another. Through the collective biographies of Washington, Henry, Jefferson, Mason, and Madison, we gain insight into the history of the nation as it unfolded from the so-called French and Indian War, through the Revolution, to the writing of the Constitution and, finally, to the organizing of an independently functioning new nation. This course focuses on the ideas that bound these five statesmen together but ultimately led to discord and the rise of political parties.
February 13: George Washington and Patrick Henry
This lecture will trace George Washington’s military career from early defeats to final victory over General Cornwallis in 1781 and Patrick Henry’s unequaled oratorical radicalism that emboldened talk of revolution.
February 20: Thomas Jefferson and George Mason
In this lecture, we will focus on the writings of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, who both laid out the intellectual and ideological rationale for the American Revolution and later produced an avalanche of progressive legislation in Virginia that attempted to realize the promise of the Revolution.
February 27: James Madison
In this final session, we will look at founding father James Madison. A so-called Critical Period followed the conclusion of the Revolution, and in response James Madison led the movement to create a new form of government by means of the Constitution. But it was ratified only after a highly contentious debate in Virginia, where Madison’s brilliance and Washington’s prestige overcame the oratorical power of Henry and the conservative ideas of Mason.
John B. Boles is the William P. Hobby Professor of History at Rice University, the former editor of the Journal of Southern History, and, most recently, author of the acclaimed biography, Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty (Basic Books, 2017).