Course Description

To an extent greater than in most governments, Americans see their written Constitution as the foundation of republican self-government and the guarantor of democratic values. It is the hard core of American political culture. This works only if two conditions are met: the constitution facilitates government action where the public demands it; and the actions of government adhere to the Constitution’s rules. Understandings of what those rules are, and of what government can or should do, have changed over the years, by means both formal—through amendment and judicial interpretation—and informal—through changing consensus and adaptive applications; and those understandings are a constant source of disputation. This history contradicts the common mythology of a U.S. Constitution that has functioned smoothly for 230 years, unchanged apart from 27 formal amendments. American constitutional democracy today is under stress as seldom before; its continued viability depends on maintaining the public legitimacy of its importance and its limits.

This course examines the processes through which American constitutional democracy has developed, and some of its most pressing challenges. The first half focuses on the major historical episodes of major changes in constitutional understandings: the Framing, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights revolution. The second half examines some examples of the development of major institutional features completely absent from the written Constitution: political parties (especially their role in presidential elections) and the administrative state. These are just two examples of many, but are key to the controversies roiling American politics during the Trump presidency. The course finishes with an examination of threatened presidential removal, including Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, and the 25th Amendment.

Main themes of the course

  • The Constitution as a set of formal and informal institutions
  • The nature of constitutional development and change in American history
  • Internal limits on the actions of elected and unelected officials

As a result of this course, you should

  • be familiar with common claims by Americans about the Constitution;
  • be able to recognize the political, ideological, and rhetorical content of such claims;
  • have a richer understanding of the nature of Constitutional “rules” and mechanisms underlying their effect; and more generally of how political and social institutions work;
  • gain an improved ability to read and write analytically, particularly concerning politics.