Course Description

Americans' understandings of their constitutional rules have changed over the years, by means both formal—through amendment and judicial interpretation—and informal—through changes in conditions and application. It is a history that contradicts the common mythology of a U.S. Constitution that has functioned smoothly for 230 years, unchanged apart from 27 formal amendments. Our constitutional understandings have been a constant source of dispute, but American constitutional democracy today is under stress as seldom before.

The course examines the processes through which American constitutional democracy has developed in four areas that most challenge the notion of simple definition by constitutional text, and that are the most fraught in our politics today. These are: the electoral process, especially for presidents; our standards of citizenship and civil rights; the "administrative state" by which the federal government carries out the execution of increasingly complex programs; and presidential powers and limitations.

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
  • Challenges facing American constitutional government

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;
  • learn tools for researching constitutional and political issues, and distinguishing fact from fiction;
  • gain an improved ability to read and write analytically, particularly concerning politics.

This page written by Randall Calvert ©2019