American Political Thought: Syllabus


Kenneth Dolbeare and Michael Cummings.  American Political Thought, 7th ed.  (Washington: CQ Press, 2014).  This book is available at the campus bookstore. 

All other required readings are on Canvas 

Week 1: Introduction

1. Introduction to the course: Watch: Welcome to Leith before next class.
2. Discussion of movie and course themes.
3. Introduction pp. 1- beginning of 10. Stop before “Pre-revolutionary Period”

Week 2: Natural Law

1. Monday MLK Day: No Class
2. John Wise pp. 18-23; 3 Min Philosophy on Natural Law and Locke
3. Ben Franklin pp. 24-34

Week 3: Reasonable Disagreement

The Federalists
1. In Favor of Adoption of the Constitution: Madison:  Federalist No. 10
2: Madison: Federalist No. 39
3. In-Class Group Assignment #1 

Week 4: Urban vs Rural

1: Against the Constitution: Dissent of the Pennsylvania Minority (ONLY)
2: Letter From Samuel Adams to Richard Henry Lee; Richard Henry Lee’s Letters from the Federal Farmer (Letter 1 only).
3: In-Class Group Assignment #2

Week 5: The Federalists

1. Madison Federalist #51
2. Hamilton Federalist #23
3. Hamilton Federalist #78

Week 6: Anti-Federalists

1. Brutus Anti-Federalist #78&79 (Part 1 Only)
2. Madison: Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785)  (p. 1-7; skim 8&9).
Supplementary/Optional Reading: Locke on Religious Tolerance and the State
3. In-Class Group Assignment #3

Week 7: WWFS? (What Would the Founders Say?)

1. 1/2 group work/ 1/2 America is Not a Democracy
2. America is Not a Democracy
3. Review Session

Week 8: 

1. Midterm Exam
2. An Old Whig V
3. Brutus IX

Week 9: No Classes-Spring Break

Week 10: The Role of Government in the Economy

*Hamilton the Musical* Clip 1; Clip 2

1. Hamilton: Report On Credit; Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank
2: Hamilton: Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank, Report on Manufactures
3. Hamilton’s Influence on Today: 

  1. Hamilton’s Advice to the Obama Administration
  2. The Case Against the Bailout
  3. skim:  Government Subsidies to Farming and Oil
  4. In-Class Group Assignment

Week 11: Madisonian vs Jeffersonian Democracy

1. Madison’s Report to the Virginia General Assembly 1800 (Included in the Franklin section of A Revolutionary Experiment chapter).
2. Jefferson: Letter to William S. Smith (1789), Letter to James Madison (1787), Letter to the Abbe Arnoux (1789), and Letter to John Adams (1813)
3. Short paper assigned. How to write a good paper

Part 2: Development and Democracy

Week 12: Wealth Inequality and the Labor Movement

1. Frances “Fanny” Wright: On Existing Evils, and their Remedy (1829)
2. Orestes Brownson: The Laboring Classes (1840)
3. In-Class Group Assignment

 Week 13: Compact vs National View

1. John Marshall: McCullough vs Maryland (1819)
2. Sojourner Truth: On Race Relations (1863) and Confederate Declaration of Independence (1852) Reread the first two paragraphs of the US Declaration of Independence.
3. In-Class Group Assignment

Week 14: Civil War Era

1. Fredrick Douglass: Speech at the Anti-Slavery Association (1848); What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852); The Various Phases of Anti-Slavery (1855).
2. Abraham Lincoln: Letter to Boston Republicans (1869); First Inaugural Address (1861)
3. In-Class Group Assignment

Week 15: Civil Rights Era

1. MLK: Letter from Birmingham Jail
2. LBJ: The Great Society
3. Peer Review Session.

  1. Mandatory attendance.
  2. Bring TWO hard copies of your paper.

Week 16: Neoliberalism and Political Liberalism

1. Friedman: Capitalism and Freedom
2: Sandel: What Money Can’t Buy (Selections)
3. Tying it all together; brief intro to contemporary political philosophy and public reason.

Week 17: Exam Week

Menu of Additional Possible Units

Rural/Urban Divide Post Civil War

1. Populism pp. 368-372
2. Progressivism pp. 469-474

 Civil Disobedience 

1: Thoreau pp. 191-201
2: Mark Twain and Black Elk pp. 311-319

Communism/Socialism vs Capitalism

1: Orestes Brownson pp. 224-230
2: Eugene V. Debs pp. 433-447


1. Elizabeth Stanton pp. 248-251
2. Emma Goldman pp. 420-432

 African American Rights

1. W.E.B. Du Bois pp. 408-419
2. MLK pp. 578-584


1. June Jordan pp. 522-528
2. Karla Moskowitz pp. 566-573

 The Environment 

1. Aldo Leopold pp. 608-618
2. Barack Obama and Al Gore 844-859


1. John Dewey pp. 397-405


We will place into context and examine influential political ideas that continue to impact the lives of millions of Americans. At times buried almost without a trace in our institutions and in our daily habits, ideologies also flare up unexpectedly to draw lines between right and wrong, friend and enemy. We begin by discussing more traditional modes of American thought that were present at the time of this country’s founding. We then proceed to engage with the social and political movements that arose and shaped the current nature of political and social discourse in this country. Though we will study ideas as they emerged in their historical context using, where possible, primary documents, we will also assess core arguments in light of the specific social, political, and economic realities we face today.   


Grades are based on readiness assessments on the readings (25%),  three short group assignments (25%), one short paper (15%), one midterm exam (15%) , and one final paper (20%). 

1) Readiness Assessments: At the beginning of class there will be a readiness assessment. There are 2 readiness assessments/week. These assessments will vary between multiple choice and short answer. There will rarely be more than 5 questions. Make-ups are not allowed. However, you may retake 1 assessment each week any time after the class until Saturday evening of that week. Your two scores will be averaged. For example, if you scored 1/5 the first time you wrote a quiz and 5/5, your average for that quiz will be 3/5.

2) Group Assignments: There will be 3 group assignments. In groups of 3 or 4 you will be given in-class time to apply different political perspectives from the readings to contemporary political issues. Group work will typically be during a Friday class and due the following Tuesday by 5pm. Group work also contains a peer assessment component. If your peers score you below 3/4 on any criteria you automatically receive a full letter grade below your group’s grade. If you score below 3/4 on more than one criteria, you receive a D for the assignment.

3) Short paper: You will write one short paper of about 3 pages. 

4) Midterm: You will be given the midterm questions in advance. For this reason I will expect excellent answers. No make-up or extensions without prior University approval or arrangements with myself.

5) Final Paper: You will write one 5-6 page paper. There will be a selection of topic. You may also select your own topic with my prior approval only. Your final paper grade is made up of 3 parts: Peer editing of two classmates’ papers, responsiveness to peer editing of your paper, the quality of your paper (rubric will be provided when the paper is assigned). 

 a. Assignments should be submitted to Canvas via Turnitin.  Late assignments will be accepted at a penalty of 5% per day (starting at the beginning of class the day they are due).

b. Assignments must be typed and double-spaced.