American Political Thought

This course will explore three of the greatest works in the history of American political thought. Each work highlights a particular moment in American political history from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each encapsulates in its own way both the promises and the pitfalls of America’s democracy.

Each Thursday you will receive the reading assignment for the next week. You will be expected to have read that assignment by class time on the following Tuesday so that you can understand the lecture and take an active part in the discussion. Dates for readings are not listed in the syllabus so that the class has more flexibility to spend time on what it finds interesting or particularly challenging. I reserve the right to amend your grade on the basis of exceptional or poor participation or attendance. Exams will be in-class. The final exam will be given on the official day and time listed in the Fall line schedule.

Exam #1 (First Unit) (20%)
Exam #2 (Second Unit) (25%)
Final Exam (Comprehensive) (30%)
Paper (Described below) (25%)

If you are a graduate student, please introduce yourself so that we can discuss additional requirements.

Required Books:

The Federalist Papers, Bantam Classic edition edited by Gary Wills.
Democracy in America, Hackett edition translated by Stephen D. Grant.
Between Past and Future, by Hannah Arendt, enlarged Penguin Books edition.


I. What justifies a people setting themselves up as a new nation?

A. The Declaration of Independence: Are its principles true?
The Declaration of Independence (handout)

B. Are the principles of the Declaration relative to the times?
Charles Kesler, “Education, Cultural Relativism and the American Founding,” (handout)
Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence, Ch. 6 (handout)

Publius: The Founding

II. What is the Character of the Constitution?

A. The problem of popular government and its solution
Federalist, #1, 9, and 10

B. Is the Constitution republican enough?
Federalist, # 14-17, 39 and 45

C. Is the Constitution a tyranny in the waiting?
Articles of Confederation (handout)
Herbert Storing, What the Antifederalists Were For, pp. 53-63 (handout)
Federalist, #47-51

D. The Case For and Against the Bill of Rights.
Letter of Jefferson to Madison, Dec. 20, 1987 (handout)
Letter of Madison to Jefferson, Oct. 17, 1788 (handout)
Letter of Jefferson to Madison, Mar. 15, 1789 (handout)
Federalist, # 84

The Institutions

A. The House of Representatives
Federalist, #52-57

B. The Senate
Federalist #62-65

C. The Executive Power
Federalist, #69-75

D. The Judiciary: The “Least Dangerous” Branch
Federalist, #78-82
Federalist, #62-65

De Tocqueville: The American Character

“Democracy in America: An Introduction,” xvii-xxxviii in Democracy in America (recommended).

Tocqueville, “Introduction,” pp. 1-15.

Volume One, Part One

Ch. 2, “The Point of Departure and Its Importance for the Future of the Anglo-Americans,” 15-32.

Ch. 3, “That the Outstanding Feature of the Social State of the Anglo-Americans is to be Essentially Democratic,” etc., pp. 34-41.

Ch. 4, “The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People in America,” pp. 42-44.

Ch. 6, “The Judicial Power in the United States and Its Influence on Political Society,” pp 62-67.

Ch. 8, “The Advantages of the Federal System in General, and Its Special Utility for America,” pp. 68-73.

Volume One, Part Two

Ch. 1, “How it Can Be Strictly Said that in the United States it is the People That Govern,” pp. 73.

Ch. 2, “Parties in the United States,” pp. 74-79.

Ch. 3, “Liberty of the Press in the United States,” pp. 80-82.

Ch. 5, “Universal Suffrage,” etc., pp 82-87.

Ch. 7, “The Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and its Effects,” pp.102-117.

Ch. 8, “What Tempers the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States,” 117-127.

Ch. 9, “Principal Causes That Tend to Maintain the Democratic Republic in the United States,” 127-146.

Ch. 10, “Some Considerations on the Present State and Probably Future of the Three Races That Inhabit the Territory of the United States,” pp. 146-168.

Vol. Two, Part One: Influence of Democracy on Intellectual Activity in the United States

Ch. 5, “How, In the United States, Religion Is Able to Make Use of Democratic Instincts,” pp. 178-186; 186-187 (On the progress of Catholicism)

Ch. 8: “How Equality Suggests to Americans the Idea of the Indefinite Perfectibility of Man,” pp. 187-188.

Volume Two, Part Two: Influence of Democracy on the Sentiments of the Americans

Ch. 1: “Why Democratic Peoples Show a More Ardent and More Lasting Love for Equality than for Liberty,” pp. 201-204.

Ch. 2, “Individualism in Democratic Countries,” 204-206.

Ch. 4, “How the Americans Combat Individualism By Free Institutions,” pp. 206-210.

Ch. 5, “The Use that Americans Make of the Association in Civil Life,” pp. 210-214.

Ch. 8, “How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Doctrine of Interest Rightly Understood,” pp. 219-222.

Ch. 9, “How the Americans Apply the Doctrine of Interest Rightly Understood in Matters of Religion,” pp. 222-224.

Ch. 10, “The Taste for Material Well-Being in America,” etc., pp. 224-226; 226-228.

Volume Two, Part Three

Ch. 1, “How Moral Habits Become Milder as Conditions Become More Equal,” pp. 248-252.

Ch. 8, “Influence of Democracy on the Family,” pp. 252-258.

Ch. 9, “The Education of Young Women in the United States,” etc., pp. 258-268.

Ch. 18, “On Honor in the United States and in Democratic Societies,” pp. 270-281.

Volume Two, Part Four

Ch. 2, “That the Ideas of Democratic Peoples Regarding Government Are Naturally Favorable to the Concentration of Powers,” etc., pp. 298-304.

Ch. 6, “What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear,” etc., pp. 304-316.

Ch. 8, “General View of the Subject,” pp. 316-319.



Arendt on America: Between Past and Future

Preface: “The Gap Between Past and Future.”

Ch. 1, “Tradition and the Modern Age.”

Ch. 3, “What is Authority?”

Ch. 4, “What is Freedom?”

Ch. 5, “The Crisis in Education”

Ch. 7, “Truth and Politics”

The Paper

You can choose one of the books listed below. Your choice cannot be a textbook, synthesis or history, but must be an original work. If you wish to choose an option not listed below, you should seek prior approval from the instructor before beginning your research to make sure the work you have chosen is suitable. Write an analytical review and then apply the author’s theory to a contemporary problem in American politics. The paper should be 8-10 pages long, double spaced with consistent notation style (please do not use the short MLA style–cite author, date, and page number either in parentheses, endnotes or footnotes).


John Adams, Adams-Jefferson Letters; Correspondence Between John Adams and Mercy Warren, and other books of correspondence, speeches, etc.
John and Abigail Adams, Book of Abigail and John, Selected Letters...
John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government
Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life
John Dewey, Freedom and Culture
The Public and Its Problems
Frederick Douglass, Papers of Frederick Douglass
My Bondage and My Freedom
W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
Black Reconstruction
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
Alexander Hamilton, Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton
Also, collections of correspondence and speeches
Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America
Thomas Jefferson (A collection such as Harvey Mansfield, Jr. ed., Jefferson: Selected Writings)
Martin Luther King, Jr. Letters From a Birmingham Jail
Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum