Principles of American Government

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Course Level:
Course Length:
16 weeks
3 hrs

Course Texts

Required Texts:

The Federalist Papers, ed. Robert Scigliano  (Modern Library, 2001)

James Q. Wilson, American Government – Brief Version (Wadsworth, 2010)

Martin Diamond, The Founding of the Democratic Republic  (Wadsworth, 1981)

Joseph Bessette, The Mild Voice of Reason  (University of Chicago Press, 1994)

William Rehnquist, The Supreme Court  (Vintage, 2002, revised)

Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency  (W.W. Norton, 2009)


[Selected readings from primary and secondary sources.]

Course Purpose

This course examines the fundamental principles and political institutions of American government. Its aims are two-fold: first, to introduce students to the fundamental documents and events associated with the founding and subsequent development of our constitutional government; second, to prepare students to be active citizens knowledgeable about the American political tradition and the relevance of founding principles to the present practice of politics.

Course Requirements

Grading Percentages

5% - Attendance                                                                  

10% - Participation/Discussion/Homework

15% - First Paper (5 pgs)

20% - Mid-Term Exam

25% - Second Paper (7 pgs)

25% - Final Exam

Attendance and Participation

Attendance is mandatory. Students are required to attend each class session, and to participate in class discussions–listening attentively, making comments, and taking notes. Active participation is strongly encouraged. Liberal education is never compulsory; the free mind must learn to educate itself. Sincere efforts to contribute to our class discussion (with thoughtful observations and questions as well as comments) will assist all of us to form sound opinions and arrive at reasoned judgments about questions raised in and by these texts. All readings should be prepared in advance, according to the Schedule of Readings.

Reading and Studying

Class discussions depend on your presence and participation, as well as preparation. For each hour of class time per week, please be ready to spend at least three hours outside of class preparing, reading, and writing. Endeavor to think seriously about what you are reading. In preparing for class, please pay attention to current political events at the national level, particularly those involving constitutional issues and/or disputes between the three branches of government. 

Criteria for Grades

Written work or examinations meriting the grade of “A” (excellent) must:

  • address the assigned question(s) and topic(s) directly;
  • demonstrate a careful and considered reading of the relevant primary text(s);
  • offer a lucid and coherent thesis defended by a persuasive, detailed argument;
  • weave together thesis and argument, with fitting quotations and full citations;
  • use correct grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, and academic style;
  • exhibit thoughtfulness, originality, and insight.

Written work or examinations awarded the grade of “B” (good) fulfill a majority of these criteria with areas of improvement indicated in grading remarks and comments. The grade of “C” (average) is assigned to submissions that fail to meet at least half of these criteria; students should make an appointment to discuss specific methods for improvement. The grade of “D” (unacceptable) is assigned to work that fails to meet a majority of these criteria, in which case students must make an appointment to discuss revising and resubmitting the assignment.

Graded Work

Late submissions that are not pre-approved will be subject to a grade deduction and are unacceptable after five days (including weekends). Written work suspected of plagiarism, cheating, collusion, or other flagrant violations of the Academic Honesty Policy will not be graded; students will be asked to meet formally with the professor to discuss the suspected violation. Further action may be taken if the student cannot account for the suspected violation to the professor’s satisfaction.


Students are strongly encouraged to visit me during office hours or to make an appointment for some more convenient time to discuss any aspect of the course, especially any assigned readings. I’ll look forward to hearing your questions and thoughts on the readings.

Additional Resources

Websites devoted to the Founding Era and the Constitution as well as to official documents from later epochs and figures in American political and legal history:


            The Library of Congress  

            U.S. State Department    

            The Founders’ Constitution

            The Constitution Society

            Emory Law Library         

            Cornell Law Library        

            American Presidents       

            Online Library of Liberty

Schedule of Readings

I. Fundamental Principles – Establishing Good Government

The arguments of Publius in The Federalist defend the core principles and institutions incorporated in the original Constitution of 1787, especially in the terms of a new “science of politics” aimed to render popular government (or democracy) deliberative, and to establish a stable federal structure sufficient for the expressed purposes of union and consistent with both the spirit of republicanism and a vision of national greatness. A firm grasp on founding principles helps us to evaluate and critique contemporary national politics; to make informed judgments about political practices and policies; and to engage in reasoned debate as to the proper ends and legitimate means, as well as inherent limits, of American constitutional government. To begin, we must first try to understand the historical circumstances that preceded and, to a certain extent, necessitated the establishment of the new federal Constitution in 1787.


Week 1           

Texts, Syllabus, Introduction

                        James Wilson, American Government, Chs. 1 & 15

                        Robert Dahl, How Democratic is the Constitution?, Ch. 1

                        Thurgood Marshall, “Remarks on the Bicentennial (July 1976)”

                        Joseph Bessette, Mild Voice of Reason, Preface, Ch. 1


Reading Questions:

  1. Why does Justice Marshall discredit the Constitution and the Founding?
  2. Why does Dahl think that the Constitution is insufficiently democratic?
  3. What would it mean to create a “deliberative democracy” and how has the Constitution managed to accomplish it?


Week 2

Revolution, Confederation, and the Problem of Sovereignty

            Declaration of Independence(4 July 1776) 

            Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (1 March 1781)

            Annapolis Convention(Sept. 1786)

                        Diamond, Democratic Republic, Ch. 1         

Revising the Confederation’s Defects – Foreign & Domestic Evils

            Madison,Report on ‘Vices of the Political System’ (Apr. 1787)

            Madison, Letter to Washington(Apr. 1787)

            Federalist1-2, 40 [also: 3-8, 15-16, 20(last paragraph), 21-22]

                        James Wilson, American Government, Ch. 2

                        Joseph Bessette, Mild Voice of Reason, Ch. 2 pp. 6-13


Reading Questions:

  1. Study closely the structure of the Declaration, especially its first two sentences.
  2. Why are “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” invoked in the first sentence?
  3. What is the logical sequence of events implied in the second sentence that leads readers from an acknowledgement of self-evident truths; to a consideration of the proper (or legitimate/just) ends and means of government and the circumstances under which government is established, altered, or abolished and reinstituted?


Week 3

Founding a New Confederation – Union and the Science of Politics

            Federalist 9, 37-38  [also: 11,31]

In Order to Form A More Perfect Union…

            Washington, Letter to the States (17 September 1787)

            The U. S. Constitution of 1787 – Preamble, Articles I-VII

                        Martin Diamond, Democratic Republic, Ch. 2 & Ch. 4 pp. 111-118


Reading Questions:

  1. How are the Constitution’s Articles structured?
  2. What principles of government are evident in the structure of the Constitution and where in the Articles are such principles (e.g. separation of powers, bicameralism, limited government, federalism, nationalism) embedded?
  3. Why did the Framers think that organizing the powers of American  government in such a form and laying the foundation on such principles would be most likely to effect their—and our—safety and happiness?


II. Constitutional Design – Republican Constitutionalism

Once we have examined the principles upon which the foundation of American government is laid, and the form into which its powers have been organized, we turn to a consideration of the republican and democratic character of the Constitution. Questions to consider: What is a republican form of government? How democratic was/is America? Is democratization always conducive to deliberation? Does the rivalry between the separate branches of government foster deliberation or cause gridlock? When is our constitutional commitment to limited government in tension with the necessities required to protect our progressive understanding of our civil rights and civil liberties? In the absence of an enlightened political order, within which philosophers rule or citizens philosophize, what prudent measures are needed to insure that a government of the people, by the people, for the people does not become tyrannical?


Week 4

Democracy vs. Republic – Constitutional Orders

            Federalist 10, 14

                        Robert Dahl, How Democratic…?, Ch. 2, App. A

                        Martin Diamond, Democratic Republic, Ch. 3 pp. 61-70, 79-85

Federal vs. National – Constitutional Experimentation

            Federalist 39

                        Martin Diamond, Democratic Republic, Ch. 4 pp. 118-132

                        James Wilson, American Government, Ch. 5 pp. 71-76


Reading Questions:

  1. What is direct democracy? What is a republic? How do they differ?
  2. What aspects of the Constitution anchor the federal principle and what aspects can be described as national? Where exactly – that is, in what Article/Section/Clause of the Constitution – do we find these principles embedded?
  3. How does Diamond refute Dahl’s contention that the Constitution of 1787 is undemocratic?


Week 5

Defining and Separating Powers, Internal Balances and Checks

            Federalist 47-48, 51                                                        

                        Martin Diamond, Democratic Republic, Ch. 3 pp. 85-102

“What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” [Federalist, No. 51]


Combating Majority Tyranny and Factionalism

            Federalist 10

                        Martin Diamond, Democratic Republic, Ch. 3 pp. 70-78


Reading Questions:

  1. Why does Madison predicate his arguments in Federalist 10 and 51 on an explicit account of human nature?
  2. By what means is a minority faction prevented from working its adverse effects?
  3. What are the means of preventing majority faction from adversely effecting the rights of a minority, or the good of the whole?


Week 6

Deliberative Democratic Institutions

                        Joseph Bessette, Mild Voice of Reason, Ch. 2 pp. 13-39

Progress or Return?

                        Robert Dahl, How Democratic…?, Chs. 6-7

                        Robert Dahl, “On Removing Certain Impediments to Democracy”

                        James Ceaser, “In Defense of Republican Constitutionalism”


Reading Questions:

  1. How does Bessette define “deliberation” and where does he discover it within the structure of the Constitution?
  2. How does Dahl’s liberalism depart from the Framers’ republicanism?
  3. What would be the ultimate outcome or cumulative effect of following Dahl’s many suggestions about how to ‘improve’ American government?
  4. What arguments does Ceaser introduce to counter Dahl’s contention that more democracy is always good? What alternative measure of good government does Ceaser propose?


First Essay due


Week 7           

Veneration vs. Revision – Preserving Constitutional Republics

            Constitutional Amendments I-X (1791) = Bill of Rights

            Federalist 49-50 [also: 84-85]

            Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIII

                        Robert Dahl, How Democratic…?, Ch. 8

                        Martin Diamond, Democratic Republic, Chs. 3-4 pp. 103-105, 147-151


Mid-Term Exam                   


III. Constitutional Structure  – Institutions in Theory and Practice

Our contemporary political institutions and processes have been substantially altered over time, through the rise of national parties, administrative agencies, special interest groups, congressional committees, and the growth of a federal bureaucracy. These changes influence the way American government works now and what it hopes to achieve. Questions to consider: In what ways have the intentions of the Founders been advanced or frustrated by the historical development of our political institutions? What changes have improved or impaired our capacity for institutional deliberation about, and a common pursuit of, national security, the public welfare, and justice – in domestic and foreign affairs?


Week 8

The Legislative Power                                                       

            Constitution – Article I  Amendments XVII, XXIII, XXVII

            Federalist 51[also: 52, 57, 62-66]


Campaigns/Elections and the Legislative Process

                        James Wilson, American Government, Chs. 8-9             

                        Joseph Bessette, Mild Voice of Reason, Ch. 3

                        Anthony King, “Running Scared”


Reading Questions:

  1. How does the process of electing members of Congress facilitate or frustrate the legislative process itself?
  2. In what way does the character of an elected representative matter to Madison? Why must “ambition” be present, and does its presence create problems?
  3. How does the Senate help to “refine and enlarge” the public voice?


Week 9

Deliberation and the Legislative Process

                        Joseph Bessette, Mild Voice of Reason, Ch. 6, also pp. 99-105, 135-136

                        Shep Melnick, “Does the Constitution Encourage Gridlock?”


Implied Federal Powers vs. States’ Rights

            Constitution – Article I, Section 8, Clause 18

            James Madison, Veto Message (1817)

            M’Culloch v. Maryland (1819)

            Andrew Jackson, Veto Message (1832)

                        Martin Diamond, Democratic Republic, Ch. 4 pp. 133-146

                        James Wilson, American Government, Ch. 5 pp. 76-89


Reading Questions:

  1. How are we to understand the “coordinate” powers of the three departments of government (legislative, executive, judicial)?
  2. Does the structure of the Constitution in fact encourage “gridlock” or paralysis?
  3. Why does the Constitution refrain from granting the explicit power of a “veto” or nullification of legislation to the President? How does the opportunity to register objections constitute another deliberative moment in the legislative process?


Week 10

The Executive Power

            Constitution – Article II  &  AmendmentsXII, XX, XXII, XXV

            Federalist 70[also: 71-74, 77]

                        James Wilson, American Government, Ch. 10


Energy in the Executive:  Domestic Affairs

                        Joseph Bessette, Mild Voice of Reason, Chs. 7-8


Reading Questions:

  1. What is the difference between a Presidential and a Parliamentary system?
  2. Why does electoral victory translate into popular “mandate” for a President?
  3. If the Executive office seems to have grown in power over the last century, who is to blame for this encroachment: ambitious Presidents or Congress?
  4. What are the Constitutional means available to the President, and why are such powers in the hands of an officer capable of acting with more energy than Congress or the Supreme Court?


Week 11

Energy in the Executive:  Foreign Affairs

            James Madison, Seventh Annual Address (1823)  = Monroe Doctrine

                        James Wilson, American Government, Ch. 14

                        William Rehnquist, The Supreme Court, Chs. 8-9

                        Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency, Chs. 1-3


            Contemporary Trends

                        Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency, Chs. 4-6, Afterword


Reading Questions:

  1. Why does the President, above all, represent the United States abroad?
  2. To what degree do Executive powers that relate to foreign affairs become problematic in domestic affairs?
  3. What democratic restraints on the President exist under the Constitution?


Week 12

The Judicial Power

            Constitution – Article III  &  AmendmentXI

            Federalist 78

            Marbury v. Madison (1803) = ‘Judicial Review’

                        James Wilson, American Government, Ch. 12

                        William Rehnquist, The Supreme Court, Chs. 1-4, 12-14

                        Hadley Arkes, “Beyond the Constitution?”


Original Intent or Judicial Activism             

                        Rehnquist, The Supreme Court, Chs. 5-7, 10-11, 15


Reading Questions:

  1. What makes Marbury v. Madison a “great” case, according to Rehnquist? And what makes Dred Scott v. Sandford a “bad” one?
  2. What do the Steel Seizure cases teach us about the limits of Executive power?
  3. Why must a concept of “judicial review” be balanced by “judicial restraint”?
  4. How is the argument for a “reasoning spirit” by Arkes grounded in documents from the first part of the course?


Week 13

Citizenship, Suffrage, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

            AmendmentsXIII-XV, XIX, XXIV, XXVI

                        James Wilson, American Government, Chs. 3-4

                        Thurgood Marshall, “Remarks on the Bicentennial (July 1976)”

                        Cass Sunstein, 2.0, Chs. 1-3


Reading Questions:

  1. What fundamental changes, according to Marshall, have been introduced by the Amendments in the wake of the Civil War and New Deal era, resulting in a democratization of the Constitution?
  2. Why are issues related to voting such a prominent part of these Amendments?
  3. Are the “public spaces” discussed by Sunstein sufficiently robust to improve the quality of public discourse about politics in America?
  4. What fundamental principles of American government are at odds with the analysis of Sunstein (cf. Dahl’s improvements)?


Second Essay due


Week 14

The Bureaucracy and the Administrative State

                        James Wilson, American Government, Chs. 11 & 13

                        Jonathan Rauch, Government’s End, Chs. 1-3

Reading Questions:

  1. What response would Madison propose to Rauch’s critique of American politics today?
  2. Why must all federal programs be – or become or behave as if they are – entitlement programs?
  3. How does the proliferation of the bureaucratic state endanger the founding principles enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution?
  4. How has liberalism influenced the demand of individuals for protections?


Week 15

Political Parties, Interest Groups, Media

            George Washington,Farewell Address (1796)

            Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural (1801)

                        James Wilson, American Government, Chs. 6-7

                        Marc Landy/Sidney Milkis, “Leadership in Mass Democracy”

                        E. E. Schattschneider, “In Defense of Political Parties”

                        Randall Strahan, Leading Representatives, Chs. 1-3


Reading Questions:

  1. Are political parties consistent with the fundamental principles that our earliest national leaders embraced? What has changed to require them?
  2. How do political parties negate or temper the effects of democratization, especially within a Presidential system?
  3. What kinds of leadership roles are assumed by Representatives (in the House or in the Senate) and by the President, within the framework of party politics and the rise of popular, democratic, even polarizing politics?
  4. What role does character play in democratic leadership? 


Week 16