The series of newspaper essays collectively known as The Federalist are rightly regarded as classics of American political thought. Standing alone, however, they are only one half of a notable conversation. We will try to uncover the differing presuppositions, hopes, and fears of those who debated whether to replace the existing Articles of Confederation with the proposed Constitution of the United States.

Images: Albert Herter, Signing of the American Constitution, mural, 1916 | Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, oil on canvas, 1856

Ralph Lerner on liberty in the Declaration of Independence


Ralph Lerner

Ralph Lerner is the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus in the College and professor emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic (University of Chicago Press).

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some of the competing visions of public happiness that are implicit in these debates over America’s political organization?
  2. How might one account for there still being disagreement, even after securing independence from Britain, whether the thirteen colonies—now states—ought to be a single nation?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Are the anxieties voiced by those who criticized the proposed constitution better understood as expressions of parochialism, pessimism about human nature, realism, or something else?
  2. Are the supporters of the proposed constitution excessive in trusting that the structures built into its framework will suffice to prevent tyrannical rule, be it of the government or of the governed?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

American Political Thought

Engage key texts that have helped shape the political idea – and political ideals – of America.

American Ideas

Explore the central ideas that have given shape to American democracy.

The Constitution, The Courts, and Conservatism

Explore the debates within conservative legal thought on the courts and the Constitution.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

Study five landmark Supreme Court cases with a view to exploring how politics and law interact.

Varieties of American Conservatism

Discover the intellectual roots of modern conservatism.

Partisanship in American Politics

Explore how societal trends and political parties have reshaped the character of America's partisan attachments.