Introductory Remarks for “All Legislative Powers…”: Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, Then and Now

On October 15, 2018, the American Academy co-hosted a panel discussion on Article One of the United States Constitution along with the Massachusetts Historical Society. The panel was broadcast on C-SPAN. Dr. Fanton gave the following remarks as introduction.

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you this evening to the first of a series of annual programs offered in partnership with the Massachusetts Historical Society. As many of you here tonight will know, the Academy was founded in 1780, and the Historical Society was founded in 1791.

We felt that a partnership between our two institutions would be not only logical but appropriate, and that there would be no better topic for a collaborative program than an event that took place between the founding of our two institutions: the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

The Academy and the Historical Society have a long history together. 17 of the 29 signatories to the Society’s Act of Incorporation were Academy members. And in fact Jeremy Belknap founded the Historical Society in part because he felt that the Academy’s early focus was too heavily slanted towards the sciences and natural history, and that a new institution was necessary to “establish a library to house historical sources.” Our two institutions, with their distinct missions and common values, came together in the 1890s to share space at the Boston Athenaeum for two years while the Society’s current building on Boylston Street was being built. In return, the Society generously housed the Academy as a tenant from 1899 to 1906 and again for a period of time in 1911. More recently, in 1991, we hosted the bicentennial meeting of the Society in the Academy’s Cambridge headquarters, which featured a keynote address by Senator Edward Kennedy, who presented the Kennedy Medal to the distinguished Harvard historian and Academy member Oscar Handlin. So we are delighted to be partnering with MHS yet again.

The Academy was founded in 1780 by a group of scholar-patriots including John Adams and James Bowdoin, in the midst of the still-ongoing revolution. They recognized that the new nation would need an institution dedicated to collecting and disseminating knowledge that would “advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” The founders of the Academy also understood that their obligation to the nation did not stop with the collection of knowledge, but also extended to service. The group of people who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 for the Constitutional Convention included ten members of the Academy, among them Caleb Strong, Elbridge Gerry, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton.

The American Academy continues to undertake studies and publications that relate to the vision of our country’s founders.  A new Academy commission is focused on strengthening preparation for engaged citizenship in our democracy.  Another study is examining how the public develops trust in science and evidence more broadly.  Still another commission has emphasized the role of undergraduate education in bringing our diverse population together in respectful civil discourse.

Tonight’s program focuses on Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution—not the First Amendment, with which many Americans are likely more familiar. The Founders began the Constitution by outlining the powers of the legislative branch of government, establishing how representation will be apportioned among the states, setting forth guidelines for the functioning of the legislature, and enumerating the powers of Congress, including borrowing money, declaring war, and coining money. More relevant to the Academy’s interests in the 1780s, Article 1 grants Congress the authority to “promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts,” by awarding copyrights and patents. And, as many of you know, Article 1 also contains the Constitution’s most infamous compromise—the “three-fifths clause,” which counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person in order to calculate states’ overall populations for purposes of representation. This Article’s scope is wide-reaching, and its meaning and significance have changed over time, which is the topic that has brought us together this evening.

We are delighted to have with us three excellent guides through this complicated subject, who will be introduced to you shortly. We look forward to their conversation, and to your questions. I will now turn the podium over to Catherine Allgor. Dr. Allgor is a distinguished historian of early America, and served as Professor of History and Presidential Chair at the University of California, Riverside and Director of Education at the Huntington Library before being named President of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 2017. I am delighted to welcome her to the Academy this evening.

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