Carwardine Discusses Democracy Through Actions of Nation’s Founders

Created: February 16, 2018  |  Last Updated: September 30, 2021  |  Category:   |  Tagged: ,

WASHINGTON, PA (Feb. 15, 2018) - Washington & Jefferson College’s (W&J) inaugural Symposium on Democracy continued Wednesday, Feb. 14 with a look at the foundations of American Democracy from the days of the nation’s founders and the College’s namesakes through the age of former President Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Richard Carwardine, FRHistS, FBA, FLSW, Professor of American History and former President of the Corpus Christi College, Oxford, presented “The Foundations of American Democracy: 1776-1865” in Olin Fine Arts Center. He also received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Washington & Jefferson College prior to giving his lecture.

Carwardine began his lecture by addressing the disparity between the Washington and Jefferson’s advocacy for a democratic government and their positions as slaveholders; particularly that of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence that declares “all men are created equal.”

“My purpose here is not to litigate Jefferson’s sins by pointing to the extenuating circumstances, namely that he was surrounded by a generation of equally great sinners, and that he was not alone in facing economic and political realities that made it hard to live out his higher ideals,” he said. “The case I want to make here is that whatever Jefferson’s undoubted shortcomings over questions of race and enslavement, we do him a profound injustice if we allow that disenchantment to blind us to his role as a political philosopher and practical politician, the proponent of a radically new form of government whose life and legacy shaped the political world for the better.”

Democracy, he said, is about the nurturing of good society. Carwardine said most independent states struggled to implement democratic ideals in the years immediately following the American Revolution; however, the establishment of annual elections and the Declaration of Rights, among other initiatives, led to the growth and strengthening of this revolutionary form of governance in the United States over the next several decades and into the years before the Civil War.

Lincoln was critical of Jefferson and was strongly against the institution of slavery, but recognized the principles Jefferson laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and drew his own arguments against slavery from that document. Carwardine noted Lincoln’s observance that most governments were based on the denial of equal rights, while in the United States it began by confirming those rights, and he believed the Civil War was something larger than an American crisis.

“The conflict was a people’s contest which would resolve the question of whether a constitutional republic or a democracy, a government of the people by the same people, can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes,” Carwardine said.

Carwardine ended by discussing the ability of citizens to continue participating in democracy, and said achieving economic freedom is key to maintaining this form of governance.

Carwardine is the author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power and Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America, among others. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley.

The final Symposium event is today, Feb. 15, titled “The Legacies of Washington and Jefferson: 21st Century Perspectives.” This panel discussion will focus on the lives and legacies of the College’s namesakes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It will be moderated by W&J College President John C. Knapp, Ph.D., and will feature Carwardine, as well as W&J Assistant Professor of history David Kieran, Ph.D., Professor of English Carolyn Kyler, Ph.D., and Assistant Dean of Student Life for Inclusive Campus Engagement Ketwana Schoos.

All events are free, open to the public, and non-ticketed. Video of the Young and Carwardine lectures will be live-streamed at the time of the event at: Videos and additional coverage of all events will be posted to the W&J YouTube Channel and the W&J College website this week.


About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.