POLS 150-1: Democracy in America

Fall 2011

Prof. Ross J. Corbett

Class Meetings
Mon., Wed. 3:30–4:45pm
DuSable Hall 461

Office Hours
Mon., Wed. 12:30–2:00pm
Zulauf Hall 412


The United States of America is the first country founded upon the modern principles of liberal democracy. Its political life has since been defined by debate over how best to be faithful to those principles. The Civil War resulted in an augmentation of the federal government’s power and declared that principles of equality lay at the root of our Constitutional system, even if the realization of those principles was a long time in coming. The Civil War was itself a conflict over the true principles of American Constitutionalism. The Constitutional Convention and Ratification Debates in turn centered on fulfilling the promise of the Revolution. The principles for which the Revolution was fought were themselves subjects of dispute at the time of the Revolution. Disputes in the United States have, since the beginning, revolved around what principles defined what it means to be American.

This class will begin with a number of contemporary themes—civil disobedience, civil rights, affirmative action, abortion, women’s issues, and the role of government in the economy. These will provide the questions that we will pursue for the rest of the class.

We will then turn to an exploration of the debates which preceded these and set the framework within which all subsequent American discussion has taken place. The period of the American Revolution saw a range of possible interpretations of what it meant to be American—or what it would mean to be so. How these ideas were to be applied in the American context was the core dispute surrounding the ratification of the Constitution.

This course will conclude with its namesake, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville provides an outsider’s perspective and reveals how the new union actually functioned following its creation. We will use Tocqueville for both purposes.

Attentive students can expect to leave this course with a deepened understanding of the questions which retain their salience in American political life and an increased facility in speaking about the fundamental principles of the United States and its government. This possibility presumes a good working knowledge of the basic structures of the federal government; students who lack this knowledge might be better served by taking POLS 100.

Understanding ideas requires an engagement with them, something that can be had only by questioning and discussion; as such, class discussion is more than just encouraged, it is imperative. In order to facilitate this discussion, I will direct your attention before each class to certain questions of particular importance. I will come prepared with lecture notes, but it is best if that material comes to light in the course of class discussion.


American Political Rhetoric. 6th ed. Ed. Peter Lawler & Robert Schaefer. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. ISBN: 978142202948

Hamilton, Madison, & Jay. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics, 2003. ISBN: 0451528816

The Anti-Federalist Papers and Constitutional Convention Debates. Ed. Ralph Ketcham. New York: Signet Classics, 2003. ISBN: 0451528840

The Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History. Ed. John Grafton. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000. ISBN: 0486411249

Henry David Thoreau. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993. ISBN: 0486275639

Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN: 0226805360

Course Packet


25%     Attendance and Class Participation.

20%     Midterm Exam.

25%     Essay, due November 18.

30%     Final Exam, December 5 at 4:00–5:50pm in DU 461.

Attendance and Participation

It is impossible to understand an idea without rolling it over in your mind, and this is most easily accomplished by talking about it to someone else. I will interrupt my lectures to ask the class questions, and you are encouraged to interrupt me to ask questions of your own.

This course centers around ideas that are found in classic texts of American government and politics. It is vital, therefore, that you read the assigned texts at least once before we discuss them in class. We will focus on the arguments presented in these texts and, just as importantly, what arguments were not made and why. Some assumptions are left unquestioned, for example, because they are shared by all mainstream participants in the debate. At other times, something is not stated precisely because it would be controversial, or because it would reveal that the author is begging the question. Able readers will be on the lookout concerning questions such as these, without losing sight of what is more readily apparent on the surface of the arguments.

Success in this class requires that you attend every scheduled class and participate knowledgably. Attendance will be taken before the start of each class. This also helps me learn your name. Students not in their seats when attendance is taken will be considered absent. Students who leave class early without prior permission will also be considered absent for that class.

Fruitful participation includes answering questions intelligently, probing and challenging what is said in a manner that shows knowledge and understanding of the text, and otherwise advancing the level of discourse in the class.

Students may earn a “C” by attending almost every class session and complying with basic expectations of decorum. Those who participate intelligently almost every week can expect to earn a “B” for this portion of their grade. Students who contribute to almost every class in a fruitful manner can expect to achieve an “A” for their attendance and participation.


You will write one essay on a topics assigned approximately two weeks before it is due. It should be roughly 1000 words (3 double-spaced pages) in length; it should be submitted through Blackboard and will be run through SafeAssign. The best thing you can do for yourself is to see me during office hours to discuss the essay topic.

Essays will be graded on the ideas they contain, but good organization and grammar are essential to getting those ideas across. All written work should conform to the rules of standard English, and students should also expect that better-written work will get a higher grade. Poorly-written work will suffer. A good (and brief) guide for avoiding the most common grammatical and stylistic pitfalls is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White; Fowler’s Modern English Usage is also a valuable reference concerning English composition, albeit more detailed. Essays should be submitted through Blackboard and will be run through SafeAssign.

Essays will warrant a "C" if they bare the marks of having genuinely grappled with the question and are relatively clear. A "C" should not be beyond anyone's abilities. Short or impenetrable essays will receive a "D" or an "F," as will those that demonstrate a failure to have read the text. Historically speaking, the only people to have failed essay assignments in this class are those who have plagiarized or did not submit the assignment at all. Students desiring a "B" will accurately describe the problems with the text, support their thesis with a variety of arguments, and ground those arguments firmly in the texts discussed in class. In order to earn an "A," you must demonstrate real understanding of the issue and of the reasons why people might disagree with your thesis.

Essays will be penalized 3% per day if submitted late, including weekends and holidays, up to a maximum penalty of 21%. All essays must be submitted by the last day of class to be counted.


There will be a midterm exam during class time and a two-hour written final exam during the university-scheduled exam time and in our usual classroom. You may use the books assigned in class but not your own notes or outlines as aids during the final exam but not the midterm. The midterm exam will be multiple-choice and short-answer. The final exam will consist of an essay question and a number of short answers. During the last week of class I will distribute 4–6 potential questions, two of which will actually appear on the exam; from these two you will choose one to write on. The standards for grading will be the same as those for the essays, with the caveat that illegible handwriting will not be deciphered.

Course Expectations & Policies

ACADEMIC DISHONESTY: All work must be the product of the student’s own original effort. The undergraduate catalog states,

Good academic work must be based on honesty. The attempt of any student to present as his or her own work that which he or she has not produced is regarded by the faculty and administration as a serious offense. Students are considered to have cheated if they copy the work of another during an examination or turn in a paper or an assignment written, in whole or in part, by someone else. Students are responsible for plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources without identifying and acknowledging those sources or if they paraphrase ideas from such sources without acknowledging them. Students responsible for, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university.

It is the student’s responsibility to familiarize him- or herself with university policy regarding plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Students should take the university’s Academic Integrity tutorial (http://www.ai.niu.edu/ai/). Those uncertain how to avoid plagiarism should consult the resources that the Political Science Department has made available on its website (http://polisci.niu.edu/polisci/audience/plagiarism.shtml). All work will be run through SafeAssign.

APPOINTMENTS: I can arrange to meet students by appointment if the above office hours are inconvenient. Students are encouraged to come to office hours to discuss course material or any problems they might be having in the course. It is best to discuss incipient problems before they become large ones.

CANCELLATIONS: If I am more than fifteen minutes late to class, you may assume that I have been delayed and that class is cancelled. Leaving earlier than this risks being marked absent.

DECORUM: Use your common sense. Turn off your cell phones. Do not insult or threaten anybody, or use abusive language. Do not eat—it only makes the rest of us hungry. There is no nap-time. Refrain from private discussions, interrupting people, texting, surfing the internet, and in general anything that would disrupt the class.

INCOMPLETES: Incompletes will only be given in rare circumstances, such as illness, death in the immediate family, or other unusual and unforeseeable circumstances. Incompletes are given at the discretion of the instructor and only when it is possible that the completion of the remaining work could result in a passing grade. An incomplete must be resolved within the appropriate time limit or it will automatically be changed to an F. The student is responsible for seeing that incompletes are made up before the expiration date.

DISABILITIES:A student who believes that reasonable accommodations with respect to course work or other academic requirements may be appropriate in consideration of a disability must (1) provide the required verification of the disability to the Center for Access-Ability Resources, (2) meet with the Center for Access-Ability Resources to determine appropriate accommodations, and (3) inform the faculty in charge of the academic activity of the need for accommodation. Students are encouraged to inform the faculty of their requests for accommodations as early as possible in the semester, but must make the requests in a timely enough manner for accommodations to be appropriately considered and reviewed by the university. If contacted by the faculty member, the staff of the Center for Access-Ability Resources will provide advice about accommodations that may be indicated in the particular case. Students who make requests for reasonable accommodations are expected to follow the policies and procedures of the Center for Access-Ability Resources in this process, including but not limited to the Student Handbook.

A wide range of services can be obtained by students with disabilities, including housing, transportation, adaptation of printed materials, and advocacy with faculty and staff. Students with disabilities who need such services or want more information should contact the Center for Access-Ability Resources at 815-753-1303.

AWARDS: The Department of Political Science will recognize, on an annual basis, outstanding papers written in conjunction with 300-400 level political science courses or directed studies. Authors do not have to be political science majors or have a particular class standing. Winners are expected to attend the Department’s spring graduation ceremony where they will receive a certificate and $100. Papers, which can be submitted by students or faculty, must be supplied in triplicate to the department secretary by the end of February. All copies should have two cover pages—one with the student’s name and one without the student’s name. Only papers written in the previous calendar year can be considered for the award. However, papers completed in the current spring semester are eligible for the following year’s competition even if the student has graduated.

POLITICAL SCIENCE WEBSITE: Students are encouraged to consult the Department of Political Science website on a regular basis. This central source of information will assist students in contacting faculty and staff, reviewing course requirements and syllabi, exploring graduate study, and researching career options. Undergraduates may find this website especially useful in tracking down department events and for accessing important details related to undergraduate programs and activities. To reach this site, go to http://polisci.niu.edu/.

Class Schedule

AF = Anti-Federalist Papers

APR = American Political Rhetoric

CP = Course packet

08/22  Introduction


Unit I: Preliminary Questions

08/24  Women’s Rights

A. Adams, “Letter to John Adams.” [APR, 265]

J. Adams, “Letter Abigail Adams.” [APR, 266]

Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. [APR, 266–70]

F. Douglass, “Women’s Suffrage Movement.” [APR, 270–2]

J. Addams, “Why Women Should Vote.” [APR, 272–74]

Study Questions:

  • Given the commitment to equality, how could intelligent and highly moral people feel that women should not have equal legal rights?
  • How do Jane Addams’ arguments for women’s suffrage differ from those of the Seneca Falls Declaration and Douglass? With which do you agree more?
  • What does a “natural right” to vote mean?

08/29  Women’s Liberation

B. Friedan, “The Problem That Has No Name.” [CP]

S. Okin, “Introduction: Justice and Gender.” [CP]

H. Mansfield, “The Gender-Neutral Society.” [CP]

Study Questions:

  • Do attempts at achieving a gender-neutral society make those who live in it more or less happy?
  • How do Okin and Friedan differ from the suffragettes and from each other?
  • How does an understanding of gender as socially constructed effect arguments for women’s rights based on natural right?

08/31  Abortion and the Constitution

Griswold v. Connecticut. [CP, not APR]

Roe v. Wade. [APR, 117–21]

Planned Parenthood v. Casey. [APR, 121–26]

Study Questions:

  • Which aspects of the debate about abortion does the Supreme Court consider to be constitutional issues? Which does it consider to be moral issues?
  • What does it mean for an issue to be a constitutional issue rather than a moral or political issue?
  • How does the Supreme Court find rights in the Constitution that are not explicitly enumerated?
  • What does the Supreme Court mean by a right to “privacy”?

09/05  [Labor Day]

09/07  The Question of Slavery

A. Lincoln, “Crisis of a House Divided.” [CP]

A. Lincoln, “Address at Cooper Institute.” [CP]

Dred Scott v. Sandford. [APR, 201–5]

Study Questions:

  • How does Lincoln object to the claims of “popular sovereignty” regarding the expansion of slavery into the territories?
  • Was a clash regarding slavery inevitable, given the U.S. Constitution prior to the Civil War?
  • Why does the Supreme Court rule that Congress cannot prohibit slavery from the territories?

09/12  Segregation & Civil Rights

Plessy v. Ferguson. [APR, 214–15]

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. [APR, 215–19]

M. L. King, “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” [APR, 219–28]

Study Questions:

  • What is meant by “equal protection of the laws”?
  • In what ways did Brown overturn Plessy? Why might it be technically incorrect to say that Brown overturned Plessy?
  • What is the relationship between King’s public rhetoric and the strategy of desegregation through the courts?

09/14  Affirmative Action

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. [APR, 233–36]

Grutter v. Bollinger. [APR, 243–51]

Schlesinger v. Ballard. [CP]

Study Questions:

  • How can affirmative action be reconciled with the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws? Can it?
  • Is there a substantial difference between quota systems and using race as one consideration among others?
  • Is there a substantial difference between affirmative action based on race and that based on sex? How about that which favors historically disadvantaged groups and that which harms them?

09/19  Economic Democracy

W. Wilson, “Constitutional Government in the United States.” [APR, 167–69]

F. Roosevelt, “Commonwealth Club Campaign Speech.” [APR, 169–77]

L. Johnson, “1964 State of the Union.” [APR, 179–81]

L. Johnson, “1964 Commencement Address at the U. of Michigan.” [APR, 181–83]

R. Reagan, “1982 State of the Union Address.” [APR, 183–87]

B. Clinton, “Remarks at the Welfare Reform Bill Signing.” [APR, 187–91]

Study Questions:

  • Was the Progressivism of James, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson a perfection of Founding principles or a rejection of it?
  • Do new economic realities such as the rise of corporations alter the adequacy of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances?
  • Is the difference between Reagan and the Progressives one of principle? Is it instead contingent upon a different appreciation of economic theory?

09/21  The Commerce Clause

Gonzales v. Raich. [CP]

Study Questions:

  • What does the Commerce Clause say?
  • What sort of activities will the Supreme Court permit Congress to regulate under the Commerce Clause?
  • What is the relevance of the Commerce Clause to debates over Pres. Obama’s health care act?

09/26  Writing Workshop

Study Questions:

  • How does an essay differ from a reaction paper?
  • What is plagiarism?
  • How do I want to present myself in university-level writing?

09/28  [Class Cancelled]

10/03  Prohibition and the Purposes of Government

Readings on Prohibition [CP]

Study Questions:

  • Can government regulate morality?
  • Does it matter that Prohibition was a federal program rather than a state one?

10/05  Law & Obedience

M. L. King, “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” [APR, 219–28]

H. D. Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.”

Study Questions:

  • How can King say that civil disobedience is actually obedience to the law?
  • How do King and Thoreau differ on why one may be justified in disobeying a law?
  • Why should anyone respect Thoreau’s refusal to obey the law?



Unit II: Founding Principles

10/12  Revolutionary Principles

“Declaration of Independence”

T. Jefferson’s Draft of the Declaration of Independence. [CP]

J. Adams, “Thoughts on Government.” [CP]

Study Questions:

  • What is the theory of legitimate government contained in the Declaration of Independence?
  • How does the Declaration’s view that government exists for the protection of rights compare with Adams’ that government should promote virtue?

10/17  What Sort of Country?

J. Madison, “On Property.” [APR, 38–40]

T. Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia.” [APR, 47–48]

A. Hamilton, “Report on the Subject of Manufactures.” [CP]

Readings on Sumptuary Laws [CP]

Study Questions:

  • Should a republic encourage industry or frugality? Commerce or agriculture?
  • What is the role of civic education in a republic?

10/19  Religion and the Republic

P. Payson, “A Sermon.” [CP]

J. Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance.” [CP]

Lee v. Weisman [APR, 133–35]

Study Questions:

  • Can a republic care for virtue without caring for religion?
  • Does the disestablishment of religion demand the separation of church and state?
  • What are Jefferson’s and Madison’s arguments for religious toleration? Do they argue for the separation of church and state?

10/24  The Constitution and the Necessity of Union

Federalist Papers, Preface & No. 6, 8–10, 23.

“Federal Farmer,” No. 1 & 2. [AF, 256–69]

“Brutus,” No. 10. [AF, 287–92]

Study Questions:

  • Why does Hamilton begin with the necessity of union when arguing for the superiority of the Constitution to the Articles of Confederation?
  • What is faction? Why is controlling the violence of faction the prime goal of government? What is the place of virtue in checking violent factionalism?
  • What is the relation between republicanism and war?
  • Is the United States too large for republican government?

10/26  Republicanism, Federalism, and Checks & Balances

Federalist Papers, No. 39, 47–48, 51.

“Centinel,” No. 1. [AF, 227–37]

“Dissent of the Pennsylvania Minority.” [AF, 237–56]

Study Questions:

  • How does the vision of republicanism and representation offered by the Federalists differ from that of the Anti-Federalists? How can the indirect derivation of authority from the people be republican?
  • What problems attend the founding of a republic?
  • How do checks and balances alter a system of the strict separation of powers? Why are checks and balances necessary? Which branch of the government most needs to be checked?

10/31  The New Congress

Federalist Papers, No. 52, 56–7, 62–6.

“John DeWitt,” No. 3. [AF, 311–6]

“Brutus,” No. 4 & 16 [AF, 324–35]

Study Questions:

  • According to the Constitution as originally ratified, who may vote in an election for the House of Representatives? How have subsequent amendments changed this?
  • Why was the term of office for Representatives and Senators such a grave issue at the Founding?
  • What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of small representative bodies compared with large ones?
  • How can the federal system be said to be democratic? Aristocratic?

11/02  The President

Federalist Papers, No. 67, 69–70

“Cato,” No. 5. [AF, 317–21]

T. Jefferson, “Letter to James Madison.” [CP]

A. Lincoln, “Special Message to Congress of 1861.” [APR, 79–81]

Study Questions:

  • How does a president differ from a prime minister and from a king? Why did the Founders opt for a president?
  • Why did they opt for a single president, rather than two, or a president and council?
  • Upon what authority did Lincoln suspend the writ of habeas corpus? Did he exceed his authority in doing so?

11/07  The Judiciary and Enumerated Rights

Federalist Papers, No. 78, 84.

“Brutus,” No. 11, 12, & 15. [AF, 293–309]

Marbury v. Madison [APR, 102–6]

Study Questions:

  • Why does Hamilton call the judiciary the “least dangerous branch”? What dangers does Brutus see arising from it? Who was closer to the truth?
  • Why is Marbury v. Madison considered the origin of judicial review of federal legislation? Upon what grounds did it refuse to order Madison to issue Marbury’s commission?
  • What dangers might proceed from enumerating rights?

Unit III: Tocqueville’s America

11/09  The Social State and New England Townships

Tocqueville, Volume I: Introduction; and Part I: chapters 3 & 5.

Study Questions:

  • What does Tocqueville mean by democracy? How does his definition differ from our own? What is its relation to aristocracy? How is it a providential fact?
  • What does Tocqueville mean by the social state? How does it differ from economic classes? Why is it of paramount importance?
  • Why does Tocqueville praise the way of doing things in New England townships rather than through a centralized administrative apparatus?

11/14  Tyranny of the Majority

Tocqueville, Volume I: Part II: chapter 7

Study Questions:

  • What is the tyranny of the majority? How does this relate to what Madison says about faction? What is the difference between the omnipotence of the majority and the tyranny of the majority?
  • How does the majority exert an influence on thought in America? Does Tocqueville’s analysis ring true?
  • How is the tyranny of the majority prevented in America?
  • How are republican institutions preserved in America? What role does religion play, according to Tocqueville? Is his analysis good?

11/16  Democratic Despotism

Tocqueville, Volume II: Part IV.

Essay Due Friday at 5:00pm

Study Questions:

  • What is the difference between the tyranny of the majority and democratic despotism?
  • How does Tocqueville’s concern with centralized power differ from that of the Founders?
  • What is the relation between democratic despotism and the ordinary understanding of democracy? What is its relation to tyranny or the ordinary understanding of despotism?

11/21  Influence of Democracy on the Intellect

Tocqueville, Volume II: Notice and Part I: chapters 1–5.

Study Questions:

  • What does Tocqueville mean when he says that Americans are Cartesians? In what ways is he serious? In what ways ironic?
  • Why might democracy breed intellectual conformity?
  • Is Tocqueville right about the relationship between the equality and the intellectual vitality of a country?

11/23  [Thanksgiving]

11/28  Influence of Democracy on the Sentiments

Tocqueville, Volume II: Part II: chapters 1–4, 8–13.

Study Questions:

  • What is the relationship between freedom and equality in democratic societies?
  • What does Tocqueville mean by “individualism”? How does it differ from bare “selfishness”? What is its relation to democracy? Why is it so dangerous?
  • What is the doctrine of “self-interest well understood”? Do Americans follow this doctrine?
  • How does democracy promote materialism? How can it be combated?

11/30  Influence of Democracy on Mores

Tocqueville, Volume II: Part III: chapters 8–12, 17–9.

Study Questions:

  • What does Tocqueville mean when he says that society is at once agitated and monotonous?
  • What effect does democracy have on family life and the relation between the sexes?