Philadelphia, 1791. In the midst of Washington’s first term as President of the United States, two of his Cabinet members were embroiled in a debate over the constitutionality of the establishment of a National Bank. Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary, and Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, both knew that whichever Constitutional interpretation won would set precedents that could be used to either limit or expand federal authority for the duration of the new country’s existence.
Although Hamilton’s position carried the day, this debate continues to sit at the heart of American politics. How much is the federal government allowed to do under the limitations of the Constitution? How much power rightfully belongs to the states? How does that affect policy? What exactly is the president allowed to do, and has the Executive branch ever overreached and absorbed power that should only be wielded by Congress? Can the Supreme Court decide if something is constitutional, and does its opinion actually matter?
These questions will provide the theoretical backbone to our American Government course, and we will keep them in mind as we compare the government as described by the text of the Constitution to the version currently functioning in 2018. We will also have a weekly discussion of major current events and news items, which will lead up to our final unit on extra-Constitutional “branches” of government, including the media (and the role it plays in our democratic republic) and the lobbying apparatus.
As this is a government course, politics will, of course, come into play. This class is not intended to push a particular perspective; my goal is to challenge the students to analyze their individual beliefs and capably explain their views -- and I do not care whether those views change over the year or remain the same.
The course will meet twice a week and is broken up into six distinct units: Interpreting the Constitution, the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, the Judicial Branch, the Amendments, and Extra-Constitutional Influences. The first class of each week will focus on the Constitution; the second will alternate between student-led discussions on either recent news or pre-selected seminar topics covering related subjects. Reading will be light and limited, and primarily consist of reading assigned sections of the Constitution, occasional supplemental materials, and a daily news source. Students must submit journal entries with reading reflections and daily commentary on some piece of news through the class Moodle at the end of each week. There will not be any tests, but each unit will have a short essay (required of all students) and a unit research paper or project. Students do not need to do every unit project, but may choose any three of the first five; the final unit project is required of all students.
I must acknowledge the work previously done by Paul Christiansen. His thoughtful American Government curriculum contributed significantly to the development of this course.
Participation is essential to this course. Nearly every class session will be discussion based, and I will expect regular attendance and participation of every student. My attendance policy for this course is the same as for my others: any day that a student fails to participate will count as an unexcused absence and will negatively affect their grade; excused absences should be arranged ahead of time via email. Unexpected absences or emergencies can be excused by a parent within forty-eight hours of the missed class.
In addition to regular participation, students will be expected to submit weekly journal entries, meet all deadlines (which will be announced well in advance, so students should bring any conflicts to my attention as soon as possible), respectfully discuss and debate the various topics introduced by readings, myself, or their peers, and present well reasoned arguments.