When I was just beginning work toward my doctoral degree at the University of Chicago in 1966 I sat down and read a work of “non-academic” history, Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful narrative account of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Miracle at Philadelphia. I was thoroughly fascinated by her account, and in the forty-five years since that intellectual epiphany, I have maintained a passionate interest in our Constitution—both in the manner of its creation and in its subsequent operation. In some important senses my career as a constitutional scholar owes to the original inspiration provided by Miracle at Philadelphia.
I am now serving as the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where I have taught for forty-three years. It has been my great privilege during those years to teach thousands of bright Penn undergraduates and graduate students the subject I love—the history of the American Revolution and Constitution. Along the way I have written seven books and several dozen articles on those subjects. In 2009, I was able to fulfill the desire inspired so many years earlier by writing my own history of the Constitutional Convention, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. The book takes readers behind the scenes and beyond the debates in the Pennsylvania State House to show how the world’s most enduring constitution was forged through conflict, compromise, and, eventually, fragile consensus. I have been gratified by the favorable reception it has received both among scholars and the general public. It has been widely praised as “the fullest and most authoritative account of the Constitutional Convention ever written” and “as masterfully told American history for the scholar and general reader alike.” It was the winner of the prestigious George Washington Book Prize in 2010. My most recent book, the Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution (2010), features extensively annotated copies of the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, providing the reader with a careful analysis of the historical context and present-day meaning of those foundational documents. At a time when the U.S. Constitution has become a central feature in so many of our political debates, I hope that the Penguin Guide will serve as an important resource for all Americans who wish to stay informed about the constitutional principles underlying the operations of their government.
I am now hard at work on a new book: “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor: Americans Choose Independence.” The decision by the diverse, often quarrelsome mainland North American colonies to declare independence from their “mother country” was by no means inevitable—indeed, it was, in the context of the crucial years from 1774-1776, improbable. This new book project will focus on the drama playing out within the Continental Congress between September, 1774 and July, 4, 1776, as American leaders argued, dithered, but ultimately agreed to declare their independence from Great Britain.
Among my other works, my 2004 study of The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) is a history of American political practices in the decades preceding the Revolution. I am pleased that it has come to be regarded as one of the standard works on that subject, and is widely used in college and university classrooms across the country. My biography of Patrick Henry was a finalist for the National Book Award and my edited volume, Beyond Confederation: The Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity (University of North Carolina Press, 1987), has become a standard source for scholars and students interested in issues relating to the Constitution and the history of the early republic.
For all of my career I have tried to reach out beyond the classroom and the circle of scholars in my area of historical expertise. In my capacity as a constitutional scholar, I have delivered public lectures to a wide variety of groups, ranging from the American College of Neurosurgeons to the Texas State Bar Association to students and faculty at colleges and universities across the country. I have also discussed my work and shared my historical insights on National Public Radio, MSNBC, C-Span, and, most recently, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I have included links to a sampling of those appearances in another part of this website.
As much as I have enjoyed my teaching at Penn, some of my most rewarding teaching experiences have occurred as a lecturer, seminar leader and mentor to primary and secondary school teachers. K-12 teachers are among the true heroes of our society, sharing their knowledge and passion for learning with young people whose minds are more often focused on their friends or their video games than on the subjects of American history and government. But the future of our democracy is heavily dependent on shaping the minds of those young people in a way that they can be active and responsible citizens in our body politic. Those teachers who choose to spend their weekends or a portion of their summers enhancing their own understanding of American history and government deserve not only our gratitude, but every bit of help we can give them. I feel that I have been especially privileged to be able to work with them in workshops and seminars over the course of the past several decades.
One of the great sources of satisfaction during my professional career has been my association with the National Constitution Center, a true treasure of a museum located on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The challenge of helping to shape the conception and content of that museum as it was coming into being a decade ago was both daunting and immensely satisfying, and now that the Constitution Center is a thriving, vibrant institution, I take great pleasure in serving as a trustee.
I have been fortunate during my professional career to receive support from a number of institutions and foundations, I have received fellowships from the Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the Huntington Library. I have served as a Fulbright Professor in the United Kingdom and as the Vyvian Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University. My greatest honor has been my good luck in being married to Mary Cahill. We live in Media, Pennsylvania with our golden retriever, Abigail Adams.