In this two-week course, students engage key texts that have helped shape the political idea – and political ideals – of America.

Over the first week, led by Professor Darren Staloff, students will engage the ideas of modern liberal democracy, exploring how the American system has sought to balance the deepest themes of ancient political thought against the imperatives of individual freedom, security, and economic progress that are so central to modern liberal thought.

During the second week, led by Professor Ryan Hanley, students will turn to the political philosophy of capitalism as explicated by Adam Smith. Students will read and discuss excerpts from Smith’s landmark works, examining the core concepts of Smith’s social vision and elaborating his views on economics, politics, ethics, religion, morality, and philosophy.

Image courtesy Architect of the Capitol

Darren Staloff on the Constitutionalism of John Adams

Faculty

Ryan P. Hanley

Ryan Patrick Hanley is Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His research in the history of political philosophy focuses on the Enlightenment. He is the author of Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life and Love’s Enlightenment: Rethinking Charity in Modernity.

Darren Staloff

Darren Staloff is Professor of History at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Professor Staloff has published numerous papers and reviews on the subject of early American history.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Would you like to live in Lycurgus’s Sparta? In the colonial New England Puritan regime described by Tocqueville?
  2. How do these systems differ from America’s form of liberal democracy?

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. What was the basis of the colonists’ objections to the British government and rule prior to the Revolutionary War?
  2. What do these authors mean when they refer to a state of nature and natural rights?
  3. The ultimate ground or foundation to which the Declaration appeals is stated to be the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God; what were the possible alternative foundations, as mentioned in the letter to John Cartwright? What are the implications of making “nature” the main foundation?
  4. What does the Declaration mean by a natural right to liberty? By the truth that “all men are created equal?”

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. What type of citizen is necessary in the new republic? In what measure does the citizen need to possess virtue?
  2. Why is the “extended republic” of the Constitution an innovation?
  3. What were some of the main objections to the Constitution?
  4. What were the Federalists’ chief arguments against the Articles of Confederation?
  5. Why study the Anti-Federalists? Have the fears of the Anti-Federalists been borne out?
  6. What are the purposes of the separation of powers? What particular qualities were sought from the Senate and from the Presidency?

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. What is a written constitution? How did it revolutionize the relationship between government and the people? For good or for ill?
  2. Is it a wise idea to “sunset” the Constitution every generation? What reasons does Jefferson give in favor of re-doing the Constitution every generation, and why does Madison oppose the plan? Whose position do you favor?

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. What are the direct and indirect consequences of mob rule, and how are they related to “the perpetuation of our political institutions”? According to Lincoln, who has the harder task in perpetuating the institutions — the revolutionary generation or the current generation?
  2. What were the different positions of Lincoln and Douglas on the crisis of the 1850s? Does Lincoln’s claim that the meaning of the Declaration of Independence was at the center of the crisis make sense?
  3. What were the different views of Lincoln and Douglas on the Declaration of Independence?

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. According to Lincoln, why is secession unconstitutional? Why is the suspension of habeas corpus constitutional?
  2. How does Lincoln understand the relation between Union and Emancipation?
  3. Before his election, Lincoln often stated that he had no intention, and no constitutional authority, to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. How, then, did he come to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and how did he justify it?
  4. How does Lincoln understand equality and freedom, the key terms of the American creed? Is there a difference between holding equality as a “self-evident truth” and regarding it as a “proposition” to which we must be dedicated? What is the “new birth of freedom” and how does it relate to the original birth of the nation “conceived in liberty”?
  5. Does the Second Inaugural read as a speech that you would have expected from the Abraham Lincoln of the 1850s? What “new” themes are found? What is Lincoln’s theology? What is the role of charity in political life?

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Why, in Madison’s view, is a separation of church and state good for religion?
  2. Taken together, do the three selections from Washington add up to a coherent view of the role of the state in relation to religion?
  3. Does the First Amendment affirm mere neutrality between religions or dictate a public stance with regard to religion vs. non-religion?
  4. Assess the decisions in Reynolds v. United States and Wisconsin v. Yoder. Would you have decided them differently?

READINGS:

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. What is the meaning of the idea that history progresses? Do you accept the proposition that things have gotten better? Does the record of the twentieth century provide evidence in favor of or against the idea?
  2. What, in terms of American politics, is progressivism?
  3. What is the progressives’ critique of the Founding? In what way was the Founding, especially the Constitution, inadequate?
  4. Compare and contrast progressivism with liberalism. How do both inform contemporary partisan debates?
  5. How does Dewey understand the meaning of liberalism?
  6. Is conservatism one thing or many? What are its different components?
  7. If it is one thing, what is its core principle? If many, what is their common denominator?

Recommended Reading:

Adam Smith, The Great Thinkers

 

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is “sympathy”? How does it compare to what we today might call “pity” or “compassion”? What role does Smith think that sympathy plays in moral life
  2. What role do ambition and “vanity” play in commercial life, on Smith’s account? What sorts of virtues does Smith think commercial life can encourage? What sorts of “corruptions” does he think it can lead to?
  3. What is the point of the story of the “poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger visited with ambition” (p. 211)? What does it reveal of Smith’s understanding of the relationship of economic ambition to human happiness?
  4. What is the “invisible hand” (p. 215)? And more importantly: what effect does it have on the distribution of goods?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between justice and beneficence for Smith? Why does he consider justice to be more important politically? Does this lead him to dismiss beneficence as worthless?
  2. Who does Smith consider to be “the man of the most perfect virtue” (p. 175)? How does this individual compare to conceptions of human excellence and perfection that various ancient and religious traditions value? That we value today?
  3. What is prudence, according to Smith? What sorts of concerns does the prudent man focus on? What sorts of actions does prudence prompt him to undertake?
  4. What is self-command, according to Smith? What sorts of actions does self-command lead us to perform, or not perform? What place might self-command have in a capitalist order?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Reread the end of TMS IV.1. What does Smith have in mind there when he speaks of “political disquisitions” (p. 217)? Is the Wealth of Nations a “political disquisition” of this sort?
  2. What role does the love of beauty play in the opening chapters of WN? What is it about the rhetorical presentation of the story of the pin factory that makes it so effective?
  3. Smith says that market orders are “not originally the effect of human wisdom” (p. 117). What then accounts for their regularity? What light might the story of the butcher, brewer, and baker shed on this?
  4. WN II.iii returns to the question of our efforts to “better our condition” (p. 441). How does Smith’s account here compare to that given in TMS? Does he still think that vanity drives this, or are there other dispositions in human nature that encourage our commercial ambitions?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Smith consider to be the likely social effects of the individual’s desire to better his condition? What role should the government play in encouraging or restraining this desire?
  2. WN III offers a history of the end of feudalism and the birth of commercial society. To what particular historical actions and human passions does Smith trace this transition? What are the specific beneficial effects of this transition?
  3. What is the difference between the practices of a “vulgar politician” and the true “science of the legislator,” according to Smith (p. 45)? What general rules does Smith think legislators should strive to follow?
  4. Why does Smith defend free trade? What are the specific benefits that he thinks it brings? Why is he so skeptical of political efforts to regulate trade?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Under the “system of natural liberty” (p. 274), to what three duties is the state limited? Why does Smith charge the government with these three responsibilities? What sorts of functions that we today commonly associate with government does he exclude from this list?
  2. What is Smith’s complaint with university education? How does he use market-based mechanisms to improve it? Do you think that these are likely to work? Why or why not?
  3. What is this “mental mutilation” that Smith discusses (p. 374)? How is it related to the division of labor for which he argues earlier in WN 1? What are its effects on political life? How does Smith propose to cure or manage these effects?
  4. What does Smith emphasize in his discussion of religion? What are its effects on political stability? How does he propose to cure or manage these effects? How does this cure or scheme of management draw on certain market principles that he elsewhere emphasizes?

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