This course will probe and reveal fundamental questions about the status of slavery and race in the American Founding, the tension between moralism and constitutionalism, and the problem of creating and sustaining a multiracial society on the basis of the original principles of the American regime.

Image: Eyre Crowe, Auction at Charleston, 1854

Thomas Merrill on teaching Ellison's Invisible Man


Thomas Merrill

Thomas Merrill is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He is the author of Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment. He is also the co-editor of three edited volumes, including The Political Thought of the Civil War.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • Declaration of Independence (Final Version)
  • Declaration of Independence (Jefferson’s Draft)

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the pros and cons of appealing to the Founders as authorities in a contemporary debate, as Lincoln does? Does Lincoln persuade you that the Founding generation would have agreed with him?
  2. What is the structure of the Declaration of Independence?
  3. What difference would it have made if Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration had been accepted rather than the version we know?


  • Thomas Jefferson, Queries VIII, XIV, XVIII, from
  • Thomas Jefferson, Observations on DeMeunier’s Manuscript, June 1786
  • James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, p. 73–81, 275–76, 285–87, 411–12, 502–08
  • James Madison, Memorandum on Colonizing Freed Slaves, 1789
  • Memoir of Madison Hemings
  • Henry Stevens Randall, Letter to James Parton, 1868

Discussion Questions:

  1. What position did Jefferson and Madison take on slavery in the 1780s? What obstacles did they foresee to ending slavery?
  2. What was the range of opinions about slavery at the Constitutional Convention?
  3. Based on the documents presented here, what should we think about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings? If the story told in Madison Hemings’s memoir is true, what difference does that make for our judgment on Jefferson?


  • St. George Tucker, A Dissertation on Slavery, 1796, p. 1–41, 76–106

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Tucker judge slavery in the United States in the light of natural rights and natural equality?
  2. What do we learn from Tucker’s text about the actual conditions of life for black people in the United States at this time?
  3. What is Tucker’s proposed solution to the problem of slavery? Was his proposal likely to work? Why or why not, in your opinion?


  • Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Edward Coles, 1814
  • John Taylor of Caroline, Author’s Preface, Letters 13–14, from Arator, 1813
  • James Madison, Letter to Robert Walsh, Nov. 1819
  • Jefferson, Letter to John Holmes, Apr. 1820
  • Jefferson, Letter to Albert Gallatin, Dec. 1820
  • Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, Jan. 1821
  • John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, Vol. 5, 1782, p. 1–12
  • John C. Calhoun, Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, 1836

Discussion Questions:

  1. Based on Jefferson’s letter to Coles and John Taylor’s discussion of Jefferson in Arator, did Jefferson’s position on slavery change by the end of his life? If so, how?
  2. What position do Jefferson and Madison take on extending slavery to the territories? How is that position similar to or different from Lincoln’s position in the 1850s?
  3. According to John Quincy Adams, was the Founding a success or a failure? Why?
  4. How does Calhoun’s position on slavery and race differ from Jefferson’s?


  • John C. Calhoun, Speech on the Oregon Bill, 1848
  • Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of the 4th of July for the Slave, 1852
  • Alexander Stephens, Cornerstone Speech, 1861

Discussion Questions:

  1. Both Lincoln and Calhoun appeal to the founders in the controversy over slavery in the territories. Which has the stronger argument, based on the evidence you have seen?
  2. Is Frederick Douglass positive or negative about the Declaration of Independence and the Founders?
  3. Frederick Douglass and Alexander Stephens offer very different judgments of the Declaration of Independence. Does their dispute change our sense of the meaning and weight of the document?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Lincoln with Douglass

Reflect on the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass -- and their crucial role in America’s confrontation with slavery.

The Words That Made Us

Revisit key constitutional questions through the lens of history and law.

African American Political Thought

Learn how the political tradition of Black Americans has made an indelible impression on American history.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Study this monumental work on race, identity, and citizenship in America.

Understanding Social Justice

Explore how the idea of social justice is transforming U.S. politics.

Democracy in America

Examine the political, religious, and social character of American democracy.