Race and the Constitution: The First Century 1787-1896

Course Information

Registration Information

Meeting Times

Day Time Location
MON 4:15 - 5:55 pm ONLINE

Evaluation Method

Type Date Time Location


This course will be taught entirely online via Zoom.

What constitutes what might be termed “American constitutional identity”?  I.e., the Preamble speaks in the name of “We the People,” but who, exactly, constitute “the people” in whose name the Constitution is purportedly ordained?  Is there a single answer to that question, or, in fact, has that been an important controversy since 1787 (at least)?  The course will consist of close reading of some classic American texts, some of them cases, some of them not, such as the Declaration of Independence, Federalist #2, or a speech by Frederick Douglass.  Inevitably, the issue of race, within the United States, is inevitably intertwined with the reality of chattel slavery, legal until 1865 (save for some so-called “anti-slavery constitutionalists”), and succeeded thereafter by attempts to preserve white supremacy through, for example, racial segregation.  Thus the course will focus on the “first century” (broadly defined) of the Constitution from its formation and ratification in 1787-88 to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

The course will be shorter than usual, as is appropriate for a “reading course.”  Grades will be pass-fail.  There will be examination, though each of the students enrolled in the course will be expected to write three  “reaction papers” of approximately 500 words each to the readings assigned in any given week after the first.  What is most essential to the course, though, will be a willingness to engage in what might well be unusually intense discussion, given the continuing importance of the subject  What are the consequences, for example, of accepting William Lloyd Garrison’s view that the Constitution was a “covenant with death and an agreement with Hell”?  Does that mean, for example, that Dred Scott was basically “correct,” as against being the creation of essentially “rogue” judges.  To what extent were the Reconstruction Amendments clearly devoted to eliminating aspects of oppressive racialism (or even all reliance on racial categorization at all), at least as understood up to 1896?

Textbooks ( * denotes required )

No materials required


Log In to View Course Evaluations