Major Themes Debated at the 1787 Constitutional Convention 


Madison Vision Series: Dr. Danielle S. Allen

Quentin Skinner: "A Genealogy of Liberty"

Quentin Skinner presented his lecture as the 2008-2009 Una's Lecturer at the Townsend Center for the Humanities, UC Berkeley. Skinner is Barber Beaumon Chair in the Humanities at Queen Mary College, University of London, and Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of more than 20 books, and his works have been widely translated. Professor Skinner's two-volume study, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, was named by the Times Literary Supplement in 1996 as one of the hundred most influential books published since the Second World War.

In 1783 George Washington wrote to the state Governors about the need to build the government based on information, understanding of the human mind, experience. Great strides have been made in our understanding yet it appears we are still engaged in the same debates and allow 18th century thinking and understanding to limit the capability to achieve a more perfect society. We examine the  tools for addressing  the challenges confronting the complexity of our society through exploration of the constitutional framework formulated by Madison and the other founding fathers in Philadelphia between May 25 and September 17 of 1787.


The 1787 Constitutional Convention was a turning point in the way citizenship was understood. The major themes that continue to be challenges in political systems include the following:


General themes/ questions:


Human Nature: Psychology, philosophy, economics, biology, and politics

  • Preamble  

  • the rights of man

  • Safety vs liberty

  • structure to allow for human flourishing


We the People: The rights of man, the individual in society

  • Suffrage

  • Generational

  • Corporate

  • appropriate division of citizen rights and responsibilities?   


Citizen Ownership: The role of consent to a government

  • Elections

  • Representation

  • secrecy, transparency, accountability


More Perfect Union: Setting up the US Government

  • Federal

  • State

  • Local


Preventing Mischief: Checks and balances

  • Executive

  • Legislative

  • Judicial

  • Regulatory

  • Taxes

  • Citizens


Safeguarding Liberty and Dignity: How should liberty and justice be structured?  

  • Bill of rights, privacy,

  • digital technology

  • Ladder of Citizen Participation  


Information/ knowledge and data vs. wisdom  

  • Limitation of information access and acquisition