Debate Defends Democracy

Debate Defends Democracy is a virtual discussion of Constitutional issues and the Bill of Rights presented by the Conservancy at Federal Hall. Federal Hall, on Wall Street in New York City, is the site where George Washington was inaugurated, the First Congress met, and the Bill of Rights was enacted for ratification by the states. Fundamental Constitutional issues about individual liberties and the power of government that the Founders sought to resolve in 1789-90 when New York City was the capital of the United States have renewed urgency today. Produced in partnership with the National Park Service and New York University with lead support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Debate Defends Democracy will to delve into a broad range of Constitutional issues through the lens of history throughout the year.

Learn more and register for a special edition of Debate Defends Democracy coming on September 30th.

All prior Debate Defends Democracy conversations have been recorded. See below for program details and video.


Debate Defends Democracy launched in June, 2020 and the first series of three programs was hosted by John Avlon, CNN senior political analyst and a noted a historian of American democracy. His Reality Check segment on CNN's New Day often brings historical perspective to current events.

Prior program descriptions and video links below.

  • Defending the First Amendment
    June 30th, 5 PM EST

    Crafted by the First Congress at Federal Hall, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights ensured a range of freedoms that some founders felt were inadequately protected by the language of the Constitution. While the other rights were framed as absolute, the right of the people to assemble was specifically modified by the word “peaceably.” The freedom of assembly has perhaps never been the subject of so urgent a debate as during a pandemic in a time of mass protests. Our discussion will tackle such questions as whether local state or federal authorities should drive the decision making, what exceptions should be made for religious liberty – a provision also mandated in the First Amendment, the use of police and the national guard in the context of the right of assembly, and finally the sometimes difficult balance between individual freedom and the common good during a public health crisis.


  • Panelists include:

    • David D. Cole, the National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union who leads its Supreme Court practice and oversees the work of the organization’s nearly 300 lawyers. Mr. Cole has litigated many constitutional cases in the Supreme Court over more than 30 years, from the start of his career as a staff attorney Center for Constitutional Rights. His victories have included Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman, which extended First Amendment protection to flag burning and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the ACLU represented a gay couple refused service by a bakery for a wedding cake. Mr. Cole taught constitutional law and criminal justice at Georgetown University from 1990 until 2016, while continuing to litigate Constitutional cases. He has taught at several universities including NYU Law School and is the author of eight books. The most recent, published in 2016, is titled Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law.
    • Ross Douthat, an American conservative political analyst, blogger, and best-selling author, who writes a regular column for the New York Times, where he became the youngest regular op-ed writer in 2009. Previously Mr. Douthat was a senior editor at The Atlantic. His most recent book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, published in 2020, discusses his view of what happens when a rich and powerful society ceases advancing—how the combination of wealth and technological proficiency with economic stagnation, political stalemates, cultural exhaustion, and demographic decline creates a strange kind of “sustainable decadence.” Among Mr. Douthat’s other titles are To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, the NY Times best-seller Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and Grand New Party.
    • Theodore R. Johnson, III, a senior fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice where his work explores the role that race plays in electoral politics and voting behavior, issue framing, and disparities in policy outcomes. Mr. Johnson holds a Doctorate of Law and Policy and his doctoral research focused on translating increased civic engagement into tangible policy outcomes, particularly for disenfranchised and subjugated communities. Mr. Johnson is also a retired commander in the U.S. Navy following a two-decade career that took him to every corner of the world and included service as a White House fellow, military professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and speechwriter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has more than 15 years of public policy experience in federal departments and agencies, and is an expert on cybersecurity.
  • The Hyper Partisan Presidency
    June 23rd, 5 PM EST

    The second event in Federal Hall’s Debate Defends Democracy program explores hyper-partisanship, the presidency and the separation of powers. George Washington was very concerned about the impact of political parties on America’s young democracy and believed that disagreement between political parties weakened the government. In his famous Farewell Address, published in newspapers across the country when he declined to stand for election to a third term, Washington warns that efforts of one party to dominate the other could lead to despotism and undermine the checks and balances prescribed by the Constitution. This program will explore the trends that have led to increasing partisanship and the impact on presidential power.


  • Panelists include:

    • Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic and won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Gulag: A History. Her most recent book is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, which examines why some people have abandoned liberal democratic ideals in favor of strongman cults, nationalist movements, or one-party states. A distinguished journalist, Ms. Applebaum was a Washington Post columnist for fifteen years and a former member of its editorial board, and has also been an editor and columnist for numerous other publications including several British newspapers. From 1988-1991 she covered the collapse of communism as the Warsaw correspondent of the Economist magazine and the Independent newspaper.
    • Douglas Brinkley is a U.S. presidential historian and acclaimed author of dozens of books on a great range of topics in American history including seven that were New York Times bestsellers. His two-volume annotated The Nixon Tapes, published in 2016, won the Arthur S. Link – Warren F. Kuehl Prize, and he was selected by Nancy Reagan to edit Ronald Reagan’s presidential diaries (2011). He has written presidential biographies about both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as well as Jimmy Carter. Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University, Mr. Brinkley is a CNN Presidential Historian and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Mr. Brinkley works in many capacities in the world of public history including for boards, museums, colleges and historical societies.
    • Ron Christie is an American government relations expert and Republican political strategist. He began working at the White House in 2001 as deputy assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney, and later joined the staff of the President, serving as a Special Assistant to George W. Bush until 2004. Previously, Mr. Christie was a senior advisor to Senator George Allen of Virginia and a senior advisor to John Kasich, the former House Budget Committee Chairman and the future Governor of Ohio. Mr. Christie is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of several books including Black in the White House. Among several university faculty appointments, Mr. Christie is a lecturer on the American Presidency at NYU DC and a member of Advisory Board of the John Brademas Center. He is currently CEO of Christie Strategies LLC, a full-service communications and issues management firm in Washington, D.C.
  • Democracy in a Time of Crisis
    June 16th, 5 PM EST

    Democracy in a Time of Crisis explored how Constitutional questions regarding federal authority, states’ rights, and First Amendment guarantees of freedom of assembly and religion during the COVID pandemic (and prior pandemics) have stressed our democratic values. The discussion continued into the expanding crisis around racial injustice and executive power that is roiling the country as we head into an election season during a time of intense strain.


  • Panelists included:

    • John M. Barry is an historian and New York Times best-selling author of The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history, a study of the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide. The National Academies of Sciences named it the year’s best book on science or medicine. Since 2004 Mr. Barry has worked on pandemic preparedness with the Bush and Obama White Houses and other government entities, and was the only non-scientist on a federal Infectious Disease Board of Experts. He is also a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
    • Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. is chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and former president of the Amerian Academy of Religion. Professor Glaude’s most well-known books are Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, which has been described as “one of the most imaginative, daring books of the twenty-first century,” and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America. They take a wide look at black communities and reveal complexities, vulnerabilities, and opportunities for hope.
    • Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving systems of democracy and justice. It is a leading national voice on voting rights, money in politics, criminal justice reform, and constitutional law. Mr. Waldman, a constitutional lawyer and writer who is an expert on the presidency and American democracy, has led the Center since 2005. A former speechwriter and policy coordinator for President Clinton he has drafted four State of the Union addresses. He is also an author of acclaimed books on voting and the Second Amendment.



  • Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in Debate Defends Democracy programs and or materials do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • Special 2020 program support for Federal Hall also provided by the New York Stock Exchange-ICE Foundation, Stonbely Family Foundation and the Bogosian-Quigley Family Foundation.