American Government and Politics

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Course Level:
Course Length:
1 Semester

Course Objectives

In this course we will examine the theoretical underpinnings of American government and the unique brand of democracy which that thought has brought about. We will examine the role of government in America in several different time periods: the Founding, the period between the Founding and the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and finally, present-day America. In order to understand our present condition, it is necessary to understand our past. This is by no means a history class, but the historical component is quite pervasive.


Course Requirements:

Given the low enrollment for this class, we will be operating in seminar fashion. This format places much of the responsibility of the running of the class on your shoulders. You should always do the assigned reading, and be fully prepared to discuss the reading in class. There will be quiz before each class session begins, so it is important that you be on time. Your lowest quiz grade will be dropped if you should happen to do poorly on one, or be late for a class session. The quizzes will be quite simple, and you should achieve perfect scores with relative ease if you do the reading. They will be all but impossible to pass, however, if you have not read. These quizzes will be worth 20% of your total grade.

You will also be required to write three short papers (not to exceed three pages in length) which you will present at the relevant time during the course. Each of these papers will be worth 10% of your total grade. The remaining 50% of your grade will be a reflection on your performance on a take-home final exam. You will be given this question at least a month before it is due, and you may speak with me or have me read rough drafts before turning it in if you so desire. Details will be included on the assignment sheet when you get it. Because of the extensive amount of time during which you should be at least thinking seriously about your final project, late papers will not be accepted for any reason. Competence in written English is expected. Papers with excessive spelling and/or grammatical errors will suffer severe grade penalties before the substance of your argument is assessed. Attendance and participation are both expected and required.

Learning begins with reading and thinking, but is greatly enhanced by argument and debate with others who share dissimilar views. While argument and debate is expected and encouraged, so too is respect for your fellow students with whom you will invariably disagree. In a class this small, discussion should be quite extensive, and I assure you that it is the fastest way to master the material at hand. You will be penalized for excessive absences and/or insufficient participation, so it is in your interest to try. Please note that this syllabus is not a contract, and should not be understood as such. I reserve the right to alter any of the terms and conditions contained herein as I deem necessary. We will be reading in class extensively. It is important that you bring the assigned readings with you for each session.




Required Texts

We the People: An Introduction to American Politics, Second Edition, by Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir. The Federalist Papers, Clinton Rossiter, ed.

All other readings on this syllabus will be made available to you in the form of handouts.


I The Coming of the American Revolution and the Political Thought of the Time.

Readings: Thomas Paine, Common Sense. James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved.

II The Declaration of Independence: the First “New Nation.”

Readings: The Declaration of Independence. Film: Thomas Jefferson.

III The Articles of Confederation and the Critical Period.

Readings: The Articles of Confederation. Federalist Nos. 21, 22. We the People (hereafter WTP) 77-83.

IV The Constitution of the United States: An Institutional Approach to the Problem of Republican Government and the Importance of Federalism.

Readings: Federalist, Nos. 10, 32, 46, 51. WTP 83-99.

V Selling the Constitution: The Federalist Papers and some Anti-Federalist Writings.

Readings: Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States 152-188. Brutus: Essays I, VI, X. 'The Federalist Nos. 23-31, 33-36. WTP 100-104. The Bill of Rights. WTP 151-191.

VI A Nation Emerges.

George Washington, First Inaugural Address. Federalist, Nos. 39, 40. WTP 117-147.

VII John Marshall and the Nationalization of American Politics.

Readings: Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Federalist Nos. 49, 78.

VIII Slavery, the Civil War, and the Disintegration of Federalism.

Readings: Federalist No. 54. Plessy v. Ferguson, Dred Scott v. Sandford. Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, Cooper Union Address, First Inaugural Address, Second Inaugural Address. WTP 195-231. Film: The Civil War Volume 1.

IX A New Nation Emerges: Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Amendments.

Readings: 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Brown v. Board of Education. Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.”

X The Progressive Reinterpretation of American Politics: A Second American Founding?

Readings: Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life. Frederick W. Taylor, The Nature of Scientific Management. Woodrow Wilson, The Meaning of Democracy. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems. Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Commonwealth Club Address, An Economic Bill of Rights.

XI Where Are We Now? American Institutions in Light of the Thought of the Founders and the Progressives: Congress, the Presidency, the Court, and the Bureaucracy. WTP 445-613.
XII Public Opinion, The Media, Parties, Elections, and Interest Group Politics.

Readings: WTP 237-439.

A Note On Plagiarism: Please refer to your student handbook for a precise definition of plagiarism. Simply put, I will fail you if you engage in this activity. I will also do everything within my power to see to it that you are expelled. If there is any doubt in your mind, always err on the side of caution and cite your source. I will be more than happy to answer any questions about this matter, so please do not hesitate to ask.