The American Political Tradition

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Course Length:
15 Weeks

I. Course Description

This Course will study the theoretical ideas that informed the creation and development of America"s political system and consider some of the major contemporary challenges to the maintenance of American democracy. Topics to be treated include the political thought of the American Founders, the place of religion in public life, the nature of written constitutions and the role of America in the world. The course will take place in a seminar setting limited to no more than twenty students. Emphasis will be placed on the discussion of texts and documents. The course will be supplemented by occasional lectures on Fridays by selected experts from inside and outside the university.


II. Texts

Both texts required for this course are available at the university bookstore. Students should purchase the following editions:

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. George Lawrence, Perennial Classics, 2000.
  2. Hamilton, Madison, Jay, The Federalist Papers, Ed. Charles Kesler, Signet, 1999.

Other course readings are available on TOOLKIT (TL):


III. Assignments and Grading

  1. Two separate 5 to 6 page papers (15% for first, 20% for second) due by 5 p.m. on Friday.
  2. Midterm Exam (20%)
  3. Final Exam (30%)
  4. Preparation of the readings and class participation (15%)


IV. Course Policies

  • Papers: I will pass out a list of three or four questions , your task will be to answer one of these questions in 5 to 6 typed (12 point font), double-spaced pages, with 1-inch margins. Failure to complete any assignment will result in an F for the course.
  • Class Participation: For the most part, we will conduct class as a discussion of the readings. Consequently, both quality and quantity of class participation will be very important.
  • Readings: Texts will be available at the bookstore for purchase, and the other readings will be posted on the Instructional Toolkit; the latter will also be available as a packet at the CopyShop. Students are expected to do all of the assigned readings. Included in each unit are a few "Reading questions" to help you know what to be thinking about and looking for as you read.


Course Reading Schedule


A. The Physical Forms of Political Orders: City-States, Empires, and Nation-States.
B. The Idea of a Regime: Types and Classifications.

Week 1

Class 1: Introduction
  • Pierre Manent, "The Question of Political Forms" (TL)
  • Aristotle, selections from Politics (TL)

Reading Questions:

  1. What are the three major political "forms" identified by Pierre Manent? What follows from each form?

  2. What is a political "regime" or "constitution"?

  3. What are the different types of regimes as identified by Aristotle?

Class 2
  • Plutarch, "Life of Lycurgus" (TL)
  • Thucydides, "Pericles' Funeral Oration" (TL)

Reading Questions:

  1. How does Plutarch's "Life of Lycurgus" illustrate the idea of a regime? Would you like to live in Sparta?
  2. What is the contrast between Sparta and Athens? Does Athens have a regime? What is the shared way of life of Athens?
  3. How does Pericles describe Athen's greatness? Is this quality what makes a polity great?


Week 2 

Class 1
  • Montesquieu, selections from Spirit of the Laws

Reading Questions:

  1. What are the different types of regimes in Montesquieu's classification scheme?
  2. How does Montesquieu's classification scheme differ from Aristotle's? What does he add to the ancient concept of regime? 
Class 2
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 9-20; 50-60; 241-245; 503-508; 690-695

Reading Questions:

  1. What does Tocqueville mean when he speaks of a shift from aristocracy to democracy?
  2. What are the three different possible regimes (or governments) of modern times?
  3. Outline a comparison pf the three regime classifications we have studied.
Class 3: Guest Speaker: Peter Lawler, Berry College.



Week 3

Class 1
  • John locke, Selections from Second Treatise on Government (TL)
  • James Otis, "The Rights of British Colonies Asserted and Proved" (TL)
  • John Dickinson, "Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer" (TL)

Reading Questions:

  1. What was the basis of the colonists' objections to the British Government and rule prior to the Revolutionary War?
  2. What do these authors mean when they refer to a state of nature and natural rights?
  3. Why is taxation without representation wrong? What does Dickenson mean by slavery?
Class 2
  • Thomas Jefferson, "Minutes from a Meeting of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, March 4, 1825" (TL)
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Jefferson, "Letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825"
  • Jefferson, "Letter to Roger Weightman, June 24, 1826"
  • Alexander Hamilton, "The Farmer Refuted"

Reading Questions:

  1. What were the grounds for declaring independence?
  2. What does the declaration mean by a natural right to liberty? By the truth that all mean are created equal?
  3. To what extent is the declaration a Lockean argument?
Class 3: Debates over Small versus Large Republics
  • Hamilton, Jay, Madison, Federalist Papers, No. 10, 51, 14,
  • Brutus: "Federal v. Consolidated Government"
  • Centinel: "Argument against an extended republic"
  • James Ceaser: selection from "American Government"

Reading Questions:

  1. What type of citizen is neccessary in a new republic?
  2. Why is the "extended republic" of the Constitution an innovation?
  3. What were some of the main objections to the Constitution?


Week 4

Class 1: Debates Over Large versus Small Republics Continued
  • Articles of Confederation
  • The Constitution of the United States of America
  • Herbert Storing, selection from What the Anti-Federalists Were For
  • Federalist Papers, No. 15 and 23

Reading Questions:

  1. What were Publius' chief arguments against the Articles of Confederation?
  2. Why study the Anti-Federalists?



Class 2: The Puritan Communities
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 30-47.
  • The Mayflower Compact
  • John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Carity" (1630) and "On Liberty" (1639).
  • John Wise, "Democracy is Founded in Scripture," (1717)
  • Nathaniel Niles, "Sermon on the Nature of Liberty" (1774)

Reading Questions:

  1. How did the Puritans understand the role of religion in politics?
  2. What difficulties emerge when religious law is the direct foundation of political law?
  3. What elements in the speeches of John Wise and Nathaniel Niles show a form of Christianity that is more compatible with a democratic regime?
Class 3: Guest Speaker: Jeffrey Sikkenga, Ashland University (and UVA senior fellow)


Week 5

Class 1: The American Founders on Religion
  • James Madison, "Memorial and Remonstrances against Religious Assessments"
  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Q. 17
  • Jefferson, "Letter to Danbury Baptist's Association"
  • George Washington, "Letter to Touro Synagogue"
  • Washington, "Letter to Quakers"
  • Washington, "Thanksgiving Day Proclomation"

Reading Questions:

  1. What was the Founders' view of the relation of religion and politics?
  2. What distinguishes the history of the West regarding the status of religion in political life?


Class 2
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 442-449.
  • The First Amendment
  • Lee v. Weisman (1992)
  • Ramesh Ponnuru, "Secularism and its Discontents"
  • Senator Barack Obama, "Keynote Address, Call to Renewal Conference 2006"

Reading Questions:

  1. Was the decision in Lee v. Weisman correct?
  2. Does the First Amendment go beyond the toleration of religious views to preclude public affirmation of religion?
  3. What should be the status of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? Of "In God we Trust" on the coins?




Class 3
  • US Constitution, Article 5
  • Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to James Madison, September 6, 1789"
  • Jefferson, "Letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816"
  • Federalist No. 49

Reading Questions:

  1. What is a written constitution? How did it revolutionize the relationship between government and the people?
  2. Should a constitution be rigid (i.e. difficult to amend) or flexible (i.e. easily amendable, such as by permitting amendments to be approved on a simple majority vote of the legislature and citizenry, empowering the people to initiate constitutional changes, and requiring a periodic popular on calling a revision convention)? 


Week 6

Class 1: Debates over Short v Long Constitutions
  • Excerpts from Debates in the Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1850-51
  • Selections from Theodore Roosevelt's "Speech to the Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1912"
  • Oklahoma Constitution, Article XIV, Amendments

Reading Questions:

  1. Should a Constitution be short (limited merely to outlining the structure of government and prohibiting encroachments on fundamental rights), or long (such as by including aspirational provisions, resolving issues in areas where elected officials have proven untrustworthy, and empowering or even requiring government officials to take certain actions such as securing economic, labor, and environmental rights)?
  2. . What Should be included in a written Constitution?

Please note that these questions should also be brought to bear on the readings for the 21st


Class 2: Debates over Short v Long Constitutions Continued
  • US Bill of Rights
  • Virginia Bill of Rights
  • Selected Provisions from Various States' Constitutions
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944 State of the Union Address
  • Selections from Debates of Maryland Constitutional Convention of 1967-68


Class 3: Guest Speaker: John Dinan, Wake Forest University


Week 7

Class 1: Who Should Interpret the Constitution?
  •  Federalist, No. 78
  • Selections from Mabury v. Madison
  • Brutus, "The Problem of Judicial Review"
  • Andrew Jackson, Selections from "Veto of the Bank Bill"
  • Thomas Jefferson, "On Judicial Power"
  • Abraham Lincoln, Selections

Reading Questions:

  1. Who should be responsible for interpreting the Constitution?
  2. Should constitutional interpretation be the province solely of the judiciary, or do the executive and legislative branches also have a responsibility to engage in independent constitutional interpretation?


Class 2: How should the Constitution be interpreted?
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
  • Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health (2003)
  • Roper v. Simmons (2005)
  • William Brennan, "The Constitution of the United States: Contemporary Ratification" (1986)
  • William Rehnquist, "The Notion of a Living Constitution" (1976)

Reading Questions:

  1. What is the difference between saying something is constitutional and advocating a political position? Why does Thomas defend the constitutionality of a law that he dislikes?
  2. How should a judge interpret the Constitution? What is the difference between interpreting it according to the original intent of the Founders, or by more contemporary standards?
  3. Make the case for the notion of a living Constitution. What are some objections to it?


Class 3: Guest Speaker: James R. Stoner, LSU


First Paper Due

Semester Break



A. The Executive and Legislative Branches

B. Federalism


Week 8

Class 1: The Executive
  • John Locke, "On Prerogative Power"
  • Federalist, No. 70
  • Neutrality Act of 1793 & Helvidius-Pacificus Debates

Reading Questions:

  1. What is the relation of executive power to the constitution? Is it harmonious or is it a threat?
  2. To what degree do liberal democracies need energetic executive power?


Class 2: The Executive (Cont.)
  • Abraham Linclon, "Habeas Corpus Speech," July 4, 1861
  • Lincoln, Letter to ALbert Hodgesm April 4, 1864
  • Harvey C MAnsfield, "Law and the President"
  • Benjamin A. Kleinerman "Lincoln's Example"

Reading Questions:

  1. What does Lincoln's example show us about the relation of executive power to the rule of law?
  2. Did Lincoln violate the Constitution or uphold it? Were his actions justified?


Class 3: The Legislature
  • Federalist, No. 55 and 63
  • Benjamin Rush, Letter on the Defects of the Pennsylvania Constitution, 1777
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 84-86

Reading Questions:

  1. What is the distinction between a representative democracy and a direct democracy?
  2. What is the case for bicameralism as opposed to having a single legislative assembly?
  3. In what ways was the Senate designed to have a different character from the House of Representatives?


Week 9

Class 1: Federalism
  • Federalist, No. 39
  • Martha Derthick, "America's Federalism"
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Reading Questions:

  1. What is federalism?
  2. How has federalism developed since the Founding?
  3. What is the difference between a unitary and a federal system?


Class 2: Midterm Exam



Class 3: Slavery
  • Benjamin Franklin, "An Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of SLavery,"
  • Alexander Hamilton, "Letter to John Jay"
  • Herbert Storing, "Slavery and the Moral Foundations of the American Republic"
  • Federalist, No. 54
  • John C. Calhoun, Speech on the Oregon Bill, 1848
  • Alexander Stephens, "Corner Stone Speech"

Reading Questions:

  1. What status did slavery hold under the Constitution, and what reasons were advanced to account for its status? How did some of the Founders expect to see the problem of slavery resolved?
  2. What were some of the early plans to advance abolitionism by Franklin and Hamilton? What was the logic of Hamilton's plan? Was it one of the few plans for a multi-racial society?
  3. What were the "new" views on slavery of the Southerners? How did Calhoun and Stephens (the vice-president of the Confederacy) deal with the claims of the Declaration of Independence?


Week 10

Class 1
  • Abraham Lincoln, "Speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise," 1854
  • Lincoln, first, fifth, sixth, and seventh of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858.
  • Stephen Douglas, Selections from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858
  • Lincoln, "Speech at Chicago"

Reading Questions:

  1. What were the different positions of Lincoln and Douglas on the crisis of the 1850s?
  2. What were the different views of Lincoln and Douglas on the Declaration of Independence?


Class 2
  • Abraham Lincoln, "Gettysburg Address"
  • Abraham Lincoln, "Second Inaugural Address"

Reading Questions:

  1. These two speeches of Abraham Lincoln are widely considered to be the greatest pronounced by an American Political leader. What accounts for this judgment?
  2. Does the Second Inaugural read as a speech that you would have expected from the Abraham Lincoln of the 1850s? What "new" themes are found?


Class 3: Guest Speaker: Lucas Morel, Washington and Lee University


Week 11

Class 1
  • Fredrick Douglass, Selections from the Autobiography
  • William Loyd Garrison, "On the Constitution and the Union," 1832
  • Fredrick Douglass, "The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?"

Reading Questions:

  1. How did Fredrick Douglass view the Declaration and the Constitution? How did he see these two documents in relation to the struggle for emancipation?
  2. How did Douglass' view of the Constitution differ from that of some of the other abolitionists, who considered it a "pact with the devil"?


Class 2
  • Booker T. Washington, "The Atlanta Exposition Address"
  • W.E.B. DuBois, Selections from Souls of Black Folk
  • Plessy v. Ferguson 1896

Reading Questions:

  1.  What positions did Washington and DuBois adopt in the quest for achieving racial equality?
  2. What are the grounds for Harlan's dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson?



 Class 3
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 62-70, 87-98, 196-201, 231-245, 250-253; also review pp. 503-508

Reading Questions:

  1. What are the chief threats that Tocqueville identifies to the health of American democracy?
  2. Tocqueville admits that decentralized administration is often inefficient. Why then does he prefer it to centralized administration?
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of democratic government and society as observed in America, to aristocratic government and society?


Week 12

Class 1: Democratic Culture
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 429-436, 451-454, 459-468, 509-517, 525-530; also review pp. 503-508

Reading Questions:

  1. Is Tocqueville right that the democratic mind tends to be both independent and conformist? How can it be both?
  2. Considering what we've already read by Tocqueville concerning religion in America, what is the significance of his saying (p.436) that "religion is strong less as revealed doctrine than as part of common opinion"?
  3. Explain the doctrine of "self-interest rightly understood," why it appeals to Americans, and why Tocqueville recommends it, despite his disagreements with it?


Class 2: Democratic Culture (Cont.)
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 530-541, 555-558, 627-632, 671-678, 690-705

Reading Questions:

  1. How do features of American democratic culture such as associations, restlessness, spirituality, taste for physical comfort, and the pursuit of self-interest increase or decrease individualism?
  2. Why are democratic peoples drawn politically towards centralization, but culturally toward individualism and the love of equality? How do these trends contribute to the possibility of soft despotism? Is soft despotism our fate?


Class 3: Guest Speaker: TBA



Week 13

Class 1
  • Condorcet, selctions from Sketch of the Human Mind
  • Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
  • Herbert Croly, selections from Progressive Democracy
  • Herbert Croly, selections from Promise of American Life

Reading Questions:

  1. What is the meaning of the idea that history progresses? Do you accept the proposition that things have gotten better? Does the record of the Twentieth Century provide evidence in favor or against the idea?
  2. What, in terms of American politics, is progressivism?
  3. What is the progressive critique of the Founding? In what way was the Founding, especially the Constitution, inadequate?


Class 2
  • John Dewey, "Renascent Liberalism" from Liberalism and Social Action, 1935
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The Commonwealth Club Address"
  • re-read FDR's "Second Bill of Rights" (Last three pages) in the State of the Union Address, 1944.

Reading Questions:

  1. Compare and Contrast progressivism and liberalism. How do both inform contemporary partisan debates?
  2. How does Dewey understand the relation of liberalism and socialism?


Class 3: Guest Speaker: Jean Yarbrough, Bowdoin College


Week 14

Class 1: Conservatism
  • James Ceaser, "Four Heads and One Heart: The American Conservative Movement"
  • Thomas G. West, "Jaffa v. Mansfield" 2002

Reading Questions:

  1. Is Conservatism one or many things? If one, what is its core principle? If many, what orients all such that they can be considered "conservative"?
  2. How do conservatives duffer in their interpretation of the American political tradition, at least as illustrated by the debate between Jaffa and Mansfield?


Class 2
  • Ronald Reagan, "First Inaugural" (1981)
  • John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, "Reaganism," Wall Street Journal (2004)
  • George W. Bush, "Second Inaugural Address"
  • Charles Kesler, "Critique of Second Inaugural"

Reading Questions:

  1. What do you think conservatism's future holds? Has the political landscape changed so fundamentally that conservatism itself will have to change in order to remain viable?
  2. Is conservatism in danger of unraveling at the seams? If so, will one "branch" win out over time? Is there a viable alternative to conservatism today?



Class 3: National Security
  • George Washington, Selections from "Farewell Address"
  • Woodrow Wilson, "Fourteen Points"
  • Dwight Eisenhower, Selections from "Farewell Address"
  • President George W. Bush, Selections from "National Security Statement" 2002

Reading Questions:

  1. What are the ends of American Foreign Policy? Are they different today than at other times, especially at the time of the Founding?
  2. Should our foreign involvements be limited to our own security concerns, or do we have an obligation to further the cause of democracy abroad? In both cases, what means are permissible for the attainment of that goal?
  3. What are the shortcomings of both an "isolationist" and "expansionist" foreign policy?

Please note that these questions should be brought to bear on the readings for our next class


Week 15

Class 1
  • Atlantic Charter
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 226-230
  • Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," from Foreign Affairs
  • Robert Kagan, "Power and Weakness," from Policy Review


Second Paper Due

Final Exam