Democracy in America: Revolution to Reconstruction
In this course, we will think of democracy as a controversial and contested value in the history of the United States. With attention to the period of American history between the ratification of the Constitution and the conclusion of the Civil War, we will explore a range of problems in American political thought and culture, such as the challenges of applying the nation’s founding principles of justice and equality in a stratified society; changing forms of civic engagement and political activism; the growth of the federal government and debates over its role in public life; the forms and meanings of citizenship; and the terms on which different groups have been included within or excluded from the political community, with special attention to slavery and its abolition. Our exploration of these themes will be structured around a semester-long reading and discussion of French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840 . Supplementing our reading of this text with other contemporary sources and modern works of scholarship, we will consider, as Tocqueville did, the interconnections between democracy and other historical trends, such as the rise of industrial capitalism, religious awakenings, moral reform, the changing ethnic and cultural composition of the nation, the spread of Enlightenment ideas of science and learning, and the growth of an American empire across the western part of North America. Ultimately, we hope to gain a better sense of what it means to live in a democracy and how best to nurture and maintain democratic practices.