The first phase of this unit will seek to address the questions of what democracy and government are. We will begin with a discussion of foundational ideas of government and democracy. In this vein we will look at the work of Aristotle, whose work will offer an early picture of democracy as it was first envisioned, in its purest form. In
Aristotle outlines various forms of government, kingly rule, aristocracy, and constitutional government. He fully defines each and outlines potential abuses of these systems. Aristotle explains that a constitutional government, when taken to extremes, can result in a democracy, which he cites as one of these abuses. Aristotle’s skepticism comes from his mistrust of the masses to govern judiciously.
Aristotle goes on to discuss the possible perversions of democracy, and to define the problems of democracy as he sees them, and the many forms democracy might take. This will allow us to begin with a sound definition of democracy that goes into some depth on the ideas that underlie a democratic form of government. Furthermore, a study of Aristotle will ground the unit in a time long before the foundation of the United States.
Perhaps Aristotle’s most important contribution to this unit is his skepticism regarding the value or appropriateness of democracy to all situations. He offers the students a chance to step outside of their prevailing views about the supremacy of democracy, and see that democracy and popular sovereignty have not always been taken for granted. Furthermore the chosen excerpts from
will allow for definition of democracy in the context of other forms and systems of government.
Thus we will use Aristotle as a means of introducing the concepts of comparative government, and democracy from the perspective of a man and a time not wholly given to democratic sentiment. In this way the students will have the chance to look into the wisdom of democracy through a lens that is outside of their culture and experience, and define democracy much more clearly than they might have otherwise.
With a sound understanding of democracy as a concept, we will then progress to a study of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, as originators of modern governmental theory.. While their work is not the only work we could study at this point, it allows us to shift to the Anglo-American tradition, and continue studying works that influenced our founding fathers. Specifically, we will read excerpts from Hobbe’s
Leviathan Revised Student Edition
edited by Richard Tuck, and Locke’s
Two Treatises of Government A Critical Edition with an Introduction and Aparatus Criticus
edited by Peter Laslett. As with Aristotle, Locke and Hobbes allow us to focus our study on the history of American democratic values. In this way students will be able to trace, albeit loosely, the progression of the democratic ideas that would become theirs and their cultural heritage.
Through a brief study of Locke and Hobbes, the students will begin to see the state of governmental theory in the English-speaking world prior to the Revolution. In this way, we will ensure that the students have a strong understanding of the basics of governmental theory in addition to their understanding of democracy. It will be very important at this point for the students to understand that many of the ideas that underpin our governmental structure were by no means pre-ordained, and that the form they took in our Constitution might well have been very different if taken as a whole unit, unencumbered by our specific history.
Each of these men left us with core ideas that serve as the foundation of our current system of government. From Hobbes, we take the purpose of government as a protector and bringer of order. Locke refined these ideas to include protection of life, liberty and property, but also added that the governed should have a say in their government. He even went on to note that if a government becomes tyrannical, the governed have a right to revolt.
The ideas put forth by these two men constitute the core of much of our system of government; so much so that the best parts of each are interwoven into our worldview. The ideas that the founders took from Locke especially are nearly household terms. It would therefore be negligent to leave them out of a unit of this kind. Additionally, it is important for the students to have a strong sense of a time when these ideas we take as truth were new and revolutionary.
Locke and Hobbes also offer an interesting dichotomy between authoritarianism and representative government. This is a tension, which was a constant source of debate during the Constitutional Convention that is an essential idea in any government course. Furthermore, Locke offers the students a glimpse into the future with his recurring discussions of representative government and property. These ideas, which are distinctly anti-democratic, found their way into the Constitution and allow us to introduce the notion that America was founded with a republican rather than a democratic spirit.
These basic notions of government and democracy will serve the students well as we move on to the next phase of our unit in which we study the Constitution and selected Federalist Papers. It is my hope that through a close reading of the Constitution, and Federalist 51 and 10, the students will begin to understand the United States was set up as a republic rather than a democracy and judge it accordingly. This will offer the students an opportunity to move beyond merely understanding theories of government and definitions of democracy. At this stage of the unit we will look at how our government functions, and why the framers made the decisions they did.
This will be the first time we delve into our essential question as well, asking ourselves whether or not the United States is a democracy. In this way, I intend to frame the debate in terms of our founders’ republican ideals and therefore question whether or not the early republic set up by the founders can be rightly called democracy.
In order to accomplish this task, we will take a look at the founder’s words through a close reading of the Constitution as well as a study of the history behind it. It will be particularly important to pay close attention to those clauses and ideas, which are most republican in nature. We will look at the initial plan for the election of senators, the requirements for voting and citizenship, and the Electoral College as examples of this republican philosophy.
Without a look into the history of the Constitution, and the men who wrote it, it would be difficult for the students to understand the decisions that they made. Furthermore, while it is possible to understand American government without reading every word of the Constitution, one could not answer our guiding question without an in depth understanding of it. Thus we will not only address whether or not the government is a democracy through this reading, but also address what the government is and how it was intended to accomplish its task.
In the interest of developing a clearer view of the founders’ thoughts when writing the Constitution, we will also read Federalist 10 and Federalist 51. These two documents comprehensively lay out some of the main ideas behind the Constitution and offer an argument in favor of the choices the Founders made when drafting the document. In particular, we learn Madison’s views on the necessity of federalism, the reasoning behind checks and balances, and most importantly, his concern over controlling the rise of factions.
In the same way that Locke and Hobbes offer views into complex ideas that the students may take for granted, Federalist 10 and 51 give us a window into why specific decisions were made in the writing of the Constitution. This is a valuable look into the process by which theories of government become laws of government, and how the ideas held by the founders became the bedrock of our current society. Most importantly, Federalist 10 and 51 allow the students to, once again, explore ideas they take for granted in their understanding of government.
Additionally, Federalist 10 and 51 raise specific concepts that enrich the students’ understanding of government and governmental structures. Without a clear view of factions, separation of powers, pluralism, majoritarianism, and federalism, it would be difficult to engage in a conversation about American government. As with other readings in this unit these two papers help us to peel back our conceptions of what is right in our government and delve more deeply into the wide range of possibilities that exist outside of our system. This may even offer the students the chance to, “what might have been, had other choices been made”
It is my hope that through these documents, and through our discussion of them, I will be able to help the students in building a mental picture of American government at its inception. This picture will not only be necessary to move forward with this unit but also will be necessary in their study of American history and government in general. In order for the students to fully understand and appreciate the debates, battles and conflicts to come, they must fully understand the foundations of our system.
Our next phase in the unit, and in their understanding of American democracy, will be the writings of Alexis De Tocqueville. De Tocqueville came to America in the 1830’s and made a full, accurate, and predictive study of American democracy in his book
Democracy in America
. His work is poignant and timeless, offering a picture of America that is still relevant almost 200 years later. The class will read excerpts of
Democracy in America
and evaluate De Tocqueville’s critique.
Our study of
Democracy in America
will mark our transition from understanding what American government is in its formal structure and how it works, to a critical look at our democratic culture. Having studied the theory, and the documents that made that theory governmental practice, we will turn our attention to the effects of that governmental structure, and those theories on our society as a whole. This will lead us back to our guiding question, is America a democracy? With this question in mind we will look at De Tocqueville’s critique of democracy in America, evaluating his perspective on American democratic traditions, and evaluating whether or not democratic traditions as outlined by De Tocqueville make the United States a democracy.
The central theme of our study of De Tocqueville is his idea that America is democratic in nature, not as a governmental requirement, but as a result of culture and economics. As a class we will evaluate this idea, comparing it to our existing notions of democracy, and once again revisit the essential question. In this way, the students will broaden their understanding of democracy, or at the very least, evaluate another example, which they declare to be undemocratic.
This discussion will require that the students consider an expanded view of what democracy is. If indeed it is a cultural idea, as well as a governmental one, then our questions progress, requiring more sophisticated answers. If we are indeed a democracy, is it more than our laws that make us so? I expect this will be a difficult concept for students to approach at first, and were it not for Tocqueville I might not even attempt it. His perspective however is so compelling that it is difficult to disagree with him, even when one believes his conclusions to be incorrect. Thus I expect that when our study of his work is complete the students will agree with his conclusions regarding the democratic nature of our society. In particular I expect that when they have read his perspective on the history of American democracy they will come away with a more polished view of government in America.
From De Tocqueville, we will deviate slightly from the canon of American governmental writings to branch into more popular and artistic depictions of democracy as it functions in the United States. To do this, we will refer to the paintings of George Caleb Bingham and the writings of Walt Whitman. These men represent a new, perhaps a first generation of Americans, and they both helped to lay the cornerstone of the legend of democracy in America. Furthermore, each of these men contributed to the early culture of democracy in the U.S. and they each present an argument about democracy in America. As with De Tocqueville, the students will look into these arguments and determine whether or not they agree with the picture of democracy in America that is presented. For each man we will look into his work ask, “is his perspective accurate?” and “if it is, is the United States a democracy?”
Through the genre paintings of George Caleb Bingham, we begin to see the culture of democracy as a part of the American landscape and the American mind. Bingham depicts a local election in his painting “The County Election” and a stump speech in the painting “Stump Speech”. Both paintings offer an iconic view of the democratic process in early America, and both lend artistic expression to commonly held ideals of their day. Bingham’s work gives us a glimpse into the early stages of democratic expression in the United States as well as providing us a visual representation of democracy in action. Given that democracy is notoriously difficult to depict in visual form, these paintings are an important grounding force in this unit. We will critically evaluate these paintings, summarizing the story they represent, and question their meaning and value.
These questions will lead us deeper into our cultural evaluation of American democracy, and help to demonstrate to the students their preconceptions about democracy. Given that the goal of genre painting is to create a sort of idealized portrait of reality, Bingham has brought to life scenes that are less descriptive of the reality of American democracy than they are representative of its spirit. His works successfully encapsulate the legend of American democracy, where people have their say in the public square through voting and debate.
Bingham’s is, however, not an uncritical view of democracy. While he depicts his candidates in white, and both paintings seem to rise to the action of voting or debate, each has its own critiques on American democracy. These negative pictures, the man accepting the bribe, the drunk being hauled out to vote, the aristocratic candidate at leisure, are honest ones. Furthermore, Bingham’s critiques of the system are not new. These views will call the students back to Aristotle, and his ideas of perversion of government. It will however, be important to stress that even though these views are not totally positive, the core of their message is. This will allow the students to remain focused on the legend of democracy inherent in the paintings and in American culture without getting caught up in the trap of believing that a legend must always be positive.
In this way the students will come away from the paintings with a great deal of fodder for discussion and evaluation. This will force the students to discuss and approach both the legend of democracy in our country and the reality of our system. By dealing with questions like “should a drunk be allowed to vote?” and “are these candidates really ‘of’ the people?” the students will have to deal with realities of mob politics, and potentially dishonest candidates. It is my hope that these conversations will lead us to move beyond our guiding question and into the realm of evaluating our system regardless of their answer to the question of whether or not our system is a democracy.
Our visual representations of democracy in America will then give way to literary and poetic representations. At this point, we will take a look at Walt Whitman, studying
Leaves of Grass
Specifically, the students will read “A song for Occupations,” “By Blue Ontario’s Shores,” “For you O Democracy,” and the first seven paragraphs of
, which lay out his thesis. These readings will allow the students to continue their evaluation of democracy in America through the lens of a pre- and post- Civil War perspective. This will allow us to expand into a discussion of the first major expansion of suffrage in the United States in the form of the 15
We will approach Whitman in the same spirit that we approached Bingham and Tocqueville. While we will keep our eyes on our guiding question, we will also question whether or not his is a fair depiction of America, and whether or not the America he depicts is a democracy. Whitman offers us a longer view of America through his work than our previous subjects. While De Tocqueville was only here for two years, and Bingham’s paintings were basically snapshots in his career, Whitman wrote over the course of turbulent decades.
Whitman also offers a link from the early Federal period to the period of Reconstruction. This is an important link at the end of the unit. Additionally, it allows us to assess a more mature America, one that is at once closer to our experience, and less optimistic than De Tocqueville’s America. Whitman will help to broaden the student’s experience as well, fleshing out their repetoire of depictions of American democracy, and cementing their skills of critical evaluation of those depictions. At this point the students should be in a position to evaluate American democracy, having taken a critical look at part of the history and culture of democracy in America. This is by no means an exhaustive study, but it covers a range of critiques and depictions of democracy and should sufficiently prepare the students to answer our essential question.
Our last step in our discussion of America as a democracy will be a tour of post- Civil War amendments that have had an impact on the democratic character of the United States. We will read and evaluate the 13
amendments, determining how they expanded American democracy to groups and to areas where it had previously been denied. This study will set us up for our final essay project in which the students will seek through argument to answer the question posed at the beginning of the unit: “Is America a Democracy?”