Fall 2017 Featured Courses

What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary
–James Madison, “Federalist No. 51”


The third installment in our Constitutionalism & Democracy course series with the MU Honors College, this class will certainly draw on the materials covered in the series’ first two classes—“Intellectual World of the American Founders” and “The Revolutionary Transformation of Early America”—but the focus here will be primarily on political thought in practice. Specifically, the objective is for students to arrive at a nuanced understanding of the issues and questions that shaped the design of the U.S. Constitution, a goal that can only be achieved by examining the practical concerns regarding governance that the Founders took it upon themselves to resolve, as well as the debates about the ultimate structure and function of the new government that raged during the process of drafting and ratifying the nation’s founding document.


In 1789, Americans faced a difficult, confusing, and often painful set of tasks: they needed to build working political institutions out of the Constitution’s vague instructions and at the same time create a stable, unified nation out of a divided and scattered collection of societies and peoples. American leaders also had to deal with a series of wars and international crises in which the U.S. was not a great world power but an underdeveloped country, weak and thus vulnerable to the designs of the European empires. The events of this period determined, even more than those of the Revolution itself, what type of nation the U.S. would become.

Perhaps more than Americans typically realize, the United States was truly a “young” republic in this period, with its character and even physical shape as yet unformed. Would the country be governed strongly and minutely from a capital of power and culture like London, or would the 13 separate capitals and innumerable smaller centers be allowed to retain their independence? Was union under the Constitution optional or mandatory? Would the country be predominantly rural and agricultural like the South and West, or increasingly urban and commercial like New England and the Middle States? Would there be one great nation on the North American continent, or a series of regional nations as in Europe? Would the tone of American society be set by the lifestyles and values of wigged, Latin-spouting gentlemen like the Founders, or by the lifestyles and values of ordinary Americans, who embarked in this period on a record-setting national drinking binge and joined raucous evangelical churches by the thousands? The major objective of this course is to help students abandon their preconceptions about the nation’s early history and think deeply about the choices that were posed and made in the years after 1789.