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Fall 2021 Reading Group


Prerequisite: None

Exam Type: No Exam

More books are said to have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other human being.  What is perhaps equally remarkable is that a fair number of these books take Lincoln very seriously as a constitutional thinker, perhaps uniquely so at least among American presidents following the period of the Founding.  Frederick Douglass never served in an elective office, but he is now regarded as one of the major figures of 19th century American politics and he, too, is taken fully seriously as an analyst of the American constitutional order.  

What joins both of these men is not only their abstract interests in American constituitionalism, but the obvious reality that their enduring fame and importance is linked to the single most important reality of the American constitutional order, which is the degree to which it established in the words of the late Stanford historian Don Fehrenbacher, a “slaveholder’s repubic.”  Lincoln’s enduring place as an icon of American civic religion comes not only from his having “saved the Union” by going to war to prevent secession by the slaveholding South, but also from his reputation as “the Great Emancipator.”  Douglass, on the other hand, is surely the best known fugitive slave in our history and was the most important single orator supporting the abolition of slavery and its handiwork from the 1840s until the 1870s.  Many of his speeches and writings not only addressed some of the same issues as did Lincoln’s, but also, even more directly, Lincoln’s actions (and perhaps limitations) as President.  

The course can thus be viewed as a dialectical encounter between two key figures in our political and constitutional history.  Each of our six weeks together will juxtapose writings of the two.

In order to promote more focused discussion, each of you will be asked (required) to write one “response paper” during a week of your choice, in which you set out what you believe to be the major issues raised by the readings and, just as importantly, the questions you would like to hear your classmates discuss. The papers should be about 600-750 words.  No further research beyond the assigned readings will be required (or expected).  

Note: This reading group will be held on the following dates: Sept 13, 27; Oct. 12, 25; Nov. 8, 22.