Political Science | Political Philosophy: American Political Traditions
Y576 | 17954 | Hanson


Topic:   American Political Traditions

In this seminar we will explore two traditions in American political
thought. One is inspired by the Declaration of Independence and is
concerned primarily with the use of political authority to uphold
rights, on the one hand, and the abuse of rights by political
authorities, on the other. Debates over specific rights are an
important part of this tradition, as are disputes about who is
entitled to claim them. In the seminar we will examine several of
these debates, showing how various rights-based movements, including
the civil rights movement, drew on the Declaration of Independence
to advance their cause.
The Constitution is the touchstone for a second tradition in
American political thought. This tradition is concerned mainly with
the basis of political authority and its proper distribution in a
federal system.  Key moments in the evolution of this tradition
include the movement from confederation to union, the reconstruction
of the union after the Civil War, the assumption of regulatory
powers by the national government during the Progressive era, and
the construction of a “welfare state” during the New Deal. On each
occasion important constitutional issues were debated, and in the
seminar we will review primary sources from some of these debates,
including the Founding period.

These two traditions are deeply entwined in the United States, and
always have been: metaphorically speaking, they are the “double
helix” of American political culture. Understanding their twisting,
turning relationship is the main goal of this seminar.

Of course, this is only one way of construing the evolution of
American political thought. There are others, and we will review the
leading alternatives in the last weeks of this seminar. To compare
alternatives, however, we must have a passing acquaintance with some
of the most important expressions of political thinking in U.S.
history. With that in mind I’ve chosen a limited set of primary
texts to explore in depth, including Federalist and Antifederalist
papers and later commentaries on the Constitution for the United
States.