July 8 – July 21, 2018

American Political Thought

Washington, DC
Application Deadline
February 12, 2018
Apply Now
Part of our 7-week Political Studies Program. Apply for this course or our full summer program. $1,000 stipend, plus course materials and housing.

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. They will examine the relation of nature, reason, rights, and citizenship in forming the core of the American political ethos and search for the philosophical roots of the differences between conservatism and liberalism in the contemporary world. How has the American system established at the Founding been recast through a series of conflicts and debates during the Civil War, the New Deal, and the contemporary period? Many of these conflicts and tensions remain active and vital points of political debate today.

For the second week, led by Professor James W. Ceaser, students will examine the underlying forces of a democratic society through close reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Democracy in America surprises and amazes by its breadth and depth, covering almost every important aspect of American life, from politics to economics to culture, and posing some the most penetrating – and troubling – questions about the future of democracy and of civilization.

Time and Location
This two-week course will take place in Washington, DC. It is a full-time commitment for Monday–Friday, with required sessions in the morning, afternoon, and some evenings.




Week I: American Politics


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?


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?”


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?

Week II: Tocqueville

Recommended Reading

Tocqueville, The Great Thinkers. Page assignments are pegged to the translation by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 2000).


  • (Tocqueville’s) Introduction, pp. 3–15
  • Aristocracy, pp. 535–41, 234–35 (begin with “What do you ask of society”)

Varieties of regimes under the modern condition of “democracy”

  • Mild despotism, pp. 661–65 (assigned last week), 671 (begin with “I shall finish”)–76
  • Centralized administration, pp. 82–93
  • Omnipotence (or tyranny) of the majority, pp. 235–50
  • Single-person (or party) despotism, pp. 52–53
  • Liberal democracy (no specific reading)

Discussion Questions:

1. How does Tocqueville use the word “democracy?” Be careful, it has a slightly different meaning than our normal use today.

2. What are the purposes or objectives of political science? What “work” is it supposed to do?

3. What drives historical development? Is the path of history inevitable?

4. Characterize each type or kind of rule under the modern condition of democracy.

5. Give the best characterization of the elements of aristocracy, as Tocqueville uses the term. Who rules, how do aristocrats think and feel, what do they value? Which “regime,” aristocracy or democracy, is preferable? Why?


The maladies (dangerous tendencies) of democracy and some antidotes

  • Egalitarianism (love of equality), pp. 479–82
  • “Individualism” (better defined as “privatism” or apathy), 482–84, 506–08, 489–92, 496–500
  • Materialism, 506–08, 517–24
  • Fatalism, pp. 469–72, 425–26

Discussion Questions:

1. Characterize each malady and think about how it threatens liberty/civilization. For each malady Tocqueville suggests a number of antidotes, some of which you will not encounter until later in the week. What are they?

2. If the maladies are as powerful as they seem, are the antidotes strong enough to counteract them? Is every antidote, over time, likely to be taken over by the maladies?


The “causes” of societal forms

  • Point of departure (culture or national character), pp. 27–44
  • Physical causes: geography, climate, demography (no specific reading)
  • Social state, pp. 45–49 (stop mid-page after footnote 3)
  • Laws: constitutional, statutory, civil (no specific reading)
  • Mores, pp. 274–82, 288–98

Discussion Questions:

1. How does the analysis of the causes help the practical task of the legislator in devising strategies to implement or save a liberal democracy? Which of the causes can humans influence by their choice? You can look here at pages 296–98, and also (unassigned) the paragraph that begins on the bottom of page 154, and the next paragraph on page 155.

2. A “hidden” theme is this: in reading the chapter on the point of departure—and now I can tell you this, even though you will not be reading his whole account of the Founding—you will notice that Tocqueville never mentions the Declaration of Independence or the doctrine of natural rights. It is clear as well that he thinks the founding of America can’t be discussed without talking as much about what happened in colonial New England as during the revolutionary and constitutional period (1775–1789). Any thoughts on this? How might Tocqueville criticize the syllabus on American political thought from last week?


  • The effects of democracy on thought (“intellectual movement”), pp. 399–400, 403–24, 426–33, 445–52, 452–58, 433–43

Discussion Questions:

1. What is Tocqueville’s plan for Volume 2? How far is it possible to explain or deduce thought, sentiments, and manners from the social state of equality? What are the limitations of this approach, sometimes called “the sociology of knowledge”?

2. Pages 403–24 are the most difficult or dense passages in the book, but they help open up much of Tocqueville’s thinking. Struggle with them, and try to see how successive chapters qualify previous ones.

3. How does democracy influence the practice of the arts and sciences?

4. Perhaps the chapter on monuments is not quite correct. Try reading it as a general description of democracy and aristocracy.

5. Try reading Chapter 15 (on the study of Greek and Latin) as the study of philosophy and the liberal arts, which you have been engaged in this summer.


  • The effects of democracy on sentiments and manners, pp. 500–03, 506–08, 510–14, 578–81, 599–604
  • The effects of democracy on political varieties (again), pp. 639–46
  • A few peculiarities of the American character: frontier and mobility, pp. 268–69; practical knowledge of politics, pp. 291–92; entrepreneurialism, pp. 387–89; religiosity, pp. 278–72
  • Family/gender, pp. 558–67, 573–78

Discussion Questions:

1. What is the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood? What is to be said for it, and what are its limitations?

2. What does Tocqueville mean by greatness?

3. Democracy in America continually compares democracy and aristocracy. Is there anything we learn about aristocracy that is helpful for guiding life in a democratic age? In what way(s), if any, can aspects of aristocracy be fit into democracy?

4. What is the status today of some of the special characteristics of Americans that Tocqueville identified?

5. Tocqueville’s chapters on the family and women provoke a good deal of controversy. Is everything he says here “dated,” or is there anything you think you may have learned from his account?

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