Spring 2009

The American Founding

Listed in: Political Science, as POSC-37


Hadley P. Arkes (Section 01)


(PT, AP) Lincoln famously said at Gettysburg that the nation had been brought forth “four score and seven years” earlier. Counting back 87 years from Gettysburg brought the beginning of the republic to 1776, not 1789. The American Founding included the ingenious crafting of the Constitution, but the Founding, and the Union, did not begin with the Constitution. It began with the Declaration of Independence and the articulation of that “proposition” as Lincoln called it, which marked the character of the regime: “all men are created equal.” From that proposition sprang the principle for government by consent, and as Lincoln and the Founders understood, the case in principle against slavery. Lincoln thought it a stroke of genius on the part of Jefferson that, on the occasion of a revolution, he inserted in the Declaration an “abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.” And yet, now, that truth of the Declaration has become controversial; it is often denied on both sides of the political divide, by conservatives as well as liberals. But the claim for the Founders remains: if that central moral “truth” of the Declaration is not true, it may not be possible to give a coherent account of the American regime and the rights it was meant to secure. The course will explore the writings and work of that uncommon generation that made the case for the American revolution and framed a “new order for the ages.” The topics will include the political philosophy of “natural rights”; the debates during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and during the contest over ratification; the Federalist and Anti-federalist papers; the political economy of the new Constitution; the jurisprudence of Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and John Marshall; and some of the leading cases in the founding period of the Supreme Court. Spring semester. Professor Arkes.