Reading Sources: iRead


Sources are the evidence used to interpret the past.  In this course you will read excerpts of primary sources related to the period and topics covered.  Most documents will include an introduction to establish context for the sources.  These introductions include not only background information and details about the author(s), but also serve to place the document in the context of its time. Introductions are important so read them!  Another way to establish context for a source is to look up the author and/or event in the textbook.


For this course, we will be using the iRead Sources Worksheet to understand documents.  This exercise will equip you to understand source material by using the iRead Worksheet.


All arguments are based on evidence.  When studying the past in a course like this, we rely on evidence or source material from the actual period or event being studied (primary) as well as source material written by others about the period or event (secondary).  In this course, we will look mostly at primary source material, or evidence produced by a witness or participant.  As you read the documents, think of them as pieces of evidence that enable you to understand a time period, person, or event.  As most documents are written from a particular perspective, you will want to consider several questions as you read.  Think of yourself as a detective interrogating a witness that you don’t fully trust.  Remember as we are all biased, so are most sources.  So you’d ask questions like:


·         Who is the author and why is he/she/they writing?

·         Does the author have a bias? (What’s an example of the bias?)

·         What’s the context? (i.e. What’s going on at the time and how does that influence the author or document?)

·         What does the document argue and how is that argument supported?

·         Is the argument convincing? (If yes, why? If no, why not?)

·         If you are reading multiple related sources, how does each differ and which is the most credible? (Why?)


You will also want to consider whether these sources and the arguments/positions within them have any application today.  This is a good way to connect the past to the present.


In this exercise, you will read several documents.  As you read, consider your role as a detective and the questions raised above. Also remember that when you analyze the sources, your opinion is not directly relevant. You are looking at the sources on their own terms—our goal is to understand the past through the sources, not to agree or disagree with it.  A detective, after all, may love or loathe a witness, but his/her goal is simply to obtain an accurate description of an event.


The instructions are simple: read the sources and complete an iRead Worksheet for each. 



Federalists vs. Republicans[1]




Even when the Constitution had been ratified and George Washington unanimously chosen to preside over the destinies of the new republic, enormous difficulties faced those who sought to establish a “more perfect union.” The Constitution provided merely a structural framework for the new government; the details of organization, procedure, and protocol had yet to be decided upon. Congress had to provide for its own organization, laws had to be passed to establish executive departments and a federal judiciary, and provisions had to be set to answer those many questions on which the Constitution was silent: What was to be the relationship of the President to his department heads? In answer, Washington’s practice of frequent consultation created the closely knit cabinet of advisors we know today. Was the “advice and consent” of the Senate to be sought before or after the President entered into treaty negotiations? The Senate’s abrupt treatment when Washington came in person to seek prior advice on an Indian treaty convinced him—and his successors—that treaties should be submitted for ratification only after executive negotiations had been completed. In this fashion many of the extra-constitutional practices peculiar to American government today were derived from the experiences of Washington and his colleagues in the early years of the republic.

            Final ratification of the Constitution and the establishment of the new government under Washington’s leadership by no means resolved the severe conflict that had raged between Federalists and Anti-Federalists in the state ratifying conventions. Although the antagonists joined in support of Washington’s efforts to set up the machinery of government, their intense struggle for control continued under the new Constitution, and soon political parties emerged to institutionalize old and deeply rooted antagonisms between classes and sections. Indeed, it was ironic that Washington, who sought so strenuously to avoid the dissension of party, appointed as his chief cabinet officers the two distinguished Americans who were to be most closely identified with the rise of political factions. He chose as his Secretary of State the versatile and learned Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and as his Secretary of the Treasury the brilliant and dynamic Alexander Hamilton, who had do vigorously led the proponents of the Constitution. About these giants were to rage the party battles of the infant republic.

            Hamilton’s primary objective, as Secretary of the Treasury, was to make of the new government a powerful instrument for order and stability. He saw that “communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born; the other the mass of the people.’ The masses are turbulent and changing,” but the “rich and well-born” seek order. Thus it was Hamilton’s plan to secure for the federal government the active support not of the many—debtor farmers, artisans, and mechanics—but of the powerful few—merchants, bankers, and speculators who made up the creditor classes and formed the Federalist party. To assure that support of the new government, the Secretary very early submitted to Congress a series of brilliant Reports of the Public Credit. In rapid succession Hamilton’s Reports called for the funding of the national debt and the assumption of state debts, measures that served not only to establish the nation’s credit, but also to guarantee to speculating conservatives a new “interest” in the federal government; the passage of excise taxes, particularly a whiskey tax, harmless to the commercial East but so obnoxious to the agrarian West where bulky grain was converted into whiskey for easy transportation across the mountains; and the creation of a Bank of the United States, in whose stock the “rich and well-born” might invest most profitably. These measures were all quickly passed at Hamilton’s insistence, but by a more and more angrily divided Congress. With them Hamilton achieved his immediate objectives, for they successfully wove an intricate net of profit that secured to the national government the enthusiastic support of wealthy Federalists. But even as his Reports were being written into law, Hamilton was arousing an opposition whose concern for popular interests would call forth widespread support which would finally drive the Federalist leader and his party from power.

            Thomas Jefferson was no friend of anarchy of license—by birth, training and temperament no fiery partisan of mobs. But neither did he share Hamilton’s desperate fear of the people as a “great beast.” TO the thoughtful Virginian, government need not stand primarily as a symbol of order and stability; rather, the end of “legitimate government” was “freedom and the happiness of its citizens.” A political philosophy so antithetical to Hamilton’s quickly led the Secretary of State to assume the leadership of those groups organizing to defeat the Federalist program. As Federalists represented creditor mercantile and commercial interests, so the opposition, emerging as the Republican party, represented the debtor agrarian interests of a nation still predominantly agricultural. Under Jefferson and James Madison the new party bitterly opposed Hamilton’s legislative proposals and eagerly awaited the time when the sacred name of Washington no longer would sanction and protect Federalist policy. In 1792 Washington again received a unanimous electoral vote as President, but party divisions were already so intense that his Federalist Vice-President, John Adams, received only 77 votes to 55 for the Republican George Clinton. Thus national political parties, neither provided for no even foreseen by the framers of the Constitution, had early come to be the dominant fact of American political life.

            When in February, 1791, Washington called upon Jefferson and Hamilton to submit their opinions on the constitutionality of legislation chartering a Bank of the United States, national political affiliations had already been well defined in terms of broad and basic interest. Though the letters they wrote in reply were couched in the language of the Constitution, the rival Secretaries wrote primarily as leaders of their respective parties. Fearful of extending the powers of an administration so deeply committed to the interests Federalism, Jefferson spoke the mind of his party when he declared for a “strict” construction of the Constitution: his was a philosophy of limited government. Congress, he argued, had been delegated specifically enumerated powers; its further power “to make all laws necessary and proper” for carrying them into execution must not be loosely defined. “Necessary and proper,” wrote Jefferson, mean “essential.” A bank was not essential for carrying out the enumerated powers; therefore the Bank Bill was clearly unconstitutional.

            For those whose interests were so well served by the ever more powerful Federalist-dominated central government, Hamilton as vigorously defended the Bank Bill. His was a “loose” or “broad” construction of the Constitution. Implied in the Constitution, wrote the conservative Secretary, was the power to pass even those measures that were “no more than needful, requisite, incidental, useful, or conducive to” carrying out the enumerated powers; the Bank Bill fell into this category and therefore was constitutional. Ultimately Washington accepted Hamilton’s opinion and signed the bill. Since that time the doctrine of “implied powers” has been used to extend the functions of government to a point even Hamilton could not have foreseen.

            But before long Federalists and Republicans were to reverse their political—and therefore constitutional—positions. A decade after the famous letters on the Bank Bill a combination of agrarians and poorer urban groups and made Jefferson President, and the Federalists no longer controlled the central government. The victorious Republicans, now in office, spoke enthusiastically about a generously broad and nationalistic interpretation of the Constitution. And the defeated, disgruntled Federalists, now out of office, sought to return to the “true” principles of the Founding Fathers—principles of limited government so well defended, in 1791, by Thomas Jefferson!


Documents: On the Constitutionality of the Bank of the United States, 1791


Jefferson to Washington: February 15, 1791

I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That "all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people." To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.

The incorporation of a bank, and the powers assumed by this bill, have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the United States, by the Constitution.

I. They are not among the powers specially enumerated; for these are

1st. A power to lay taxes for the purpose of paying debts of the United States; but no debt is paid by this bill, nor any tax laid.
2d. "to borrow money." But this bill neither borrows money nor ensures the borrowing it. . . .
3. To "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the States with the Indian tribes." To erect a bank, and to regulate commerce, are very different acts. . . .

II. Nor are they within either of the general phrases, which are the two following:

1. To lay taxes to provide for the general welfare of the United States, that is to say, "to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare." For the laying of taxes is the power,and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts provide for the welfare of the Union.. In like manner, they are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. To consider the latter phrase, not as describing the purpose of the first, but as giving a distinct and independent power to do any act they please, which might be for the good of the Union, would render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless.

It would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and, as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please.

It is an established rule of construction where a phrase will bear either of two meanings, to give it that which will allow some meaning to the other parts of the Instrument, and not that which would render all others useless. . . . It is known that the very power now proposed as a means was rejected as an end by the Convention which formed the Constitution. A proposition was made to them to authorize Congress to open canals, and an amendatory one to empower them to incorporate. But the whole was rejected, and one of the reasons for rejection urged in debate was that then they would have a power to erect a bank, which would render the great cities, where there were prejudices and jealousies on the subject, adverse to the reception of the Constitution.

2. The second general phrase is, "to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution the enumerated powers." But they can all be carried into execution without a bank. A bank therefore is not necessary, and consequently not authorized by this phrase.

It has been urged that a bank will give great facility or convenience in the collection of taxes. Suppose this were true; yet the Constitution allows only the means which are "necessary," not those which are merely convenient" for effecting the enumerated powers. If such a latitude of Construction be allowed to this phrase as to give any non-enumerated power, it will go to every one, for there is not one which ingenuity may not torture into a convenience in some instance or other, to someone of so long a list of enumerated powers. . . .


Hamilton to Washington: February 23, 1791

The Secretary of the Treasury having perused with attention the papers containing the opinions of the Secretary of State and the Attorney-General, concerning the constitutionality of the bill for establishing a national bank, proceeds, according to the order of the President, to submit the reasons which have induced him to entertain a different opinion.


Though this mode of reasoning respecting the right of employing all the means requisite to the execution of the specified powers of the government, it is to be objected, that none but necessary and proper means are to be employed; and the Secretary of State maintains, that no means are to be considered necessary but those without which the grant of the power would be nugatory . . .


It is essential to the being of the national government, that so erroneous a conception of the meaning of the word necessary should be exploded.


It is certain, that neither the grammatical nor popular sense of the term requires that construction. According to both, necessary often means no more than needful, requisite, incidental, useful, or conducive to. . . . And it is the true one in which it is to be understood as used in the Constitution. . . .


To understand the word as the Secretary of State does, would be to depart from its obvious and popular sense, and to give it a restrictive operation, an idea never before entertained. It would be to give it the same force as if the word absolutely or indispensably had been prefixed to it. . . .


The degree in which a measure is necessary can never be a test of the legal right to adopt it; that must be a matter of opinion, and can only be a test of expediency. . . .


This restrictive interpretation of the word necessary is also contrary to this sound maxim of construction; namely, that the powers contained in a constitution of government, especially those which concern the general administration of the affairs of a country, its finances, trade, defense &c., ought to be construed liberally in advancement of the public good... The means by which national exigencies are to be provided for, national inconveniences obviated, national prosperity promoted, are of such infinite variety, extent, and complexity, that there must of necessity be great latitude of discretion in the selection and application of those means. . . .


It leaves, therefore, a criterion of what is constitutional, and of what is not so. This criterion of what is constitutional, and of what is not so. This criterion is the end, to which the measure relates as a means. If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority. . . .


A hope is entertained that it has, by this time, been made to appear, to the satisfaction of the President, that a bank has a natural relation to the power of collection taxes-to that of regulation trade-to that of providing for the common defence-and that, as the bill under consideration contemplates the government tin the light of a joint provision of the clause of the Constitution which immediately respects the property of the United States.


Under a conviction that such a relation subsists, the Secretary of the Treasury, with all deference, conceives, that it will result as a necessary consequence from the position, that all the specified powers of government are sovereign, as to the proper objects; that the incorporation of a bank is a constitutional measure; and that the objections taken to the bill, in this respect, are ill-founded. . . .

[1] Adapted from Richard D. Heffner ed., A Documentary History of the United States (Penguin: 1991), 49-59.