Anglo-American Political Imagination

MWF 10:30-11:20


course description
Constitution Annotated
Course Calendar
Political Theory
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course description:

How do we Americans talk about equality? Whence cometh freedom? How did slavery persist after a revolution justified by inalienable rights? This class considers how Anglo-America justified its new political order and how it dealt with the demands of an increasingly democratic polis.

The United States began as a republic with many constraints on the political power of the masses. The franchise was limited to an elite few and the federalist system was structured so as to limit factional interests and to thwart majority rule. The highest virtue was individual autonomy, a virtue limited to a small part of society. With the passage of the Civil War Amendments, the United States became more of a democracy, the virtue of individual autonomy had to share center stage with the virtue of equality. This class considers the tensions between republicanism and democracy, between liberty and equality, looking at how the Anglo-American political imagination shifted over time.

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative provides us with a case study of how Americans organize for social change. We'll pay particular attention to the normative language used by the residents of Dudley Street as they fight off urban renewal and constitute a vibrant and political community.


Hamilton, Madison, Jay, The Federalist Papers
Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Hannah Arendt , On Revolution
Cornel West, Democracy Matters
Peter Medoff & Holly Sklar, The Streets of Hope


The readings were chosen for their political eloquence for their ability to inspire both how we speak and how we act. As a way of developing your political eloquence, you will write two one-page essays each week for most of the semester. The first one-page (double-spaced) essay of the week will explore a passage from the day's readings. The second one-pager will explore a passage from the reading, in the context of having read a classmate's one-pager.

Exploring a passage is a fairly specific activity. First copy down the quotation. As you do so, pay attention to what words are used, what metaphors are employed, and what images are invoked. Move inside of the world created by this passage, palpate the meaning from the inside and then extend it gently into your experience. Exploring a passage does not mean quoting someone else and then running off in an entirely different direction. It does not mean springboarding into a random free association. It means letting the words in a book settle in your imagination and then seeing how your mind responds.

The weekly schedule will run as follows: At the end of Monday's class, you will exchange a one-pager with a classmate. On Fridays, you'll hand in a one-pager that engages with both the reading and your classmate's essay. The interdependent nature of this assignment means that you can't afford to blow off an assignment. First, it will jeopardize someone else's process. Second, it will jeopardize your standing in the class.

Along with these one-pagers, you'll also be growing two five-page essays and one extended essay. The five-page essay might be an extended argument, or a meditation, or maybe just a rant. It should be focused on a particular theme or a particular author; there just isn't room for taking on more. The ten-page essay should be beyond one position, one side, or one solution. It should be an experiment in multiplicity, of weighing and considering various positions, of moving out of polemics and into the hallowed halls of philosophy, of thinking beyond your personal preferences and into a larger synthetic whole. We're using the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative to remind us that political ideas have practical consequences. Those practical consequences deserve consideration in your longer paper. (top)

grading criteria:

Attendance is critical. If you have to miss a class, please let us know. Reading is essential. Class discussion assumes that each one of you has a good grasp of the reading. Active participation in the class discussion is necessary. Writing clear and lucid prose is the stuff of the whole affair. I am happy to look at early drafts as a way of helping the process along. (top)