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The American People and Their Constitution, 1776-1896: "To Form a More Perfect Union"


Admission requirements

This course is intended for students from a limited number of programmes. Because of the limited capacity available for each programme, all students who will enroll are placed on a waiting list. The definite admission will be made according to the position on the waiting list and the number of students from each programme.


In American political culture, the US Constitution is far more than merely a legal text. Besides being a ‘fundamental law’, the Constitution, along with the declaration of independence, serves as a statement of political principles; a foundation of national identity; and, in many cases, the ‘holy scripture’ of a ‘civic religion’ that perceives the American national project as the very embodiment of human progress.

In an apolitical community that lacked even the pretense of a shared ethnic, linguistic, or religious heritage, the imagined community of the American nation rested largely on shared political ideals embodied in its founding documents. It is not surprising then, that both political elites and the public often frame political struggles in constitutional terms. This seminar explores this constitutional dimension that underpinned so much of nineteenth century American politics.

This class approaches the American constitution from a broad perspective that looks beyond the narrow legal issues involved in Supreme Court cases and formal legislation, to focus instead on the myriad and contested interpretations of the constitution in popular political discourse from its framing and ratification in the late 18th century through the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, partisans on both ends of the political spectrum justified their interests and ideological positions as the only true representation of the founding principles embodied in the constitution.

Focusing on a series of key conflicts and crises – including the founding era, the emergence of political parties, the nullification crisis, slavery, secession, Reconstruction, immigration, economic regulation, and segregation – the class will develop a diachronic analysis of the twin themes of federalism and racial equality that animated nearly all major constitutional conflicts of the nineteenth century.

Power struggles between the individual states and the federal government repeatedly roiled the nation during the early nineteenth century, culminating in secession and Civil War in the 1860s. The expansion of federal power as a result of the war proved short lived, as the states reclaimed much of their traditional preeminence in the second half of the 19th century. Meanwhile, Americans sought to reconcile the ideals of freedom and equality embodied in the constitution with the existence of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy.

Although the Civil War resulted in the abolition of slavery as a legal institution, attempts to provide substantial civil and political rights to the black population floundered, in part as a result of a series of Supreme court decisions that emasculated federal enforcement and enshrined the constitutionality of segregation.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only): The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    • in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800.
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    • in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. Understands the importance and role of the constitution in American political discourse in the 19th century;
  2. Is familiar with the historiographical and theoretical debates regarding federalism and racial equality in the 19th century;
  3. Has a working knowledge of key events and supreme court cases during the 19th century in which constitutional conflicts came to the fore;
  4. Can independently do research using digitally available and published primary sources on 19th century American history;
  5. (ResMA only): Has the ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources and identify new approaches within existing academic debates.


The timetable is available on the MA History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Attending class: 26 hours

  • Preparing class (including individual presentation): 24 hours

  • Required reading: 80 hours

  • Researching and writing paper: 150 hours

Assessment method

  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-17

  • Oral presentation
    Measured learning objectives: 3-7, 9, 11-17

  • Participation in discussions and peer review groups
    Measured learning objectives: 8-15

  • Contribution to Black Board discussion
    Measured learning objectives: 9, 11-15


Final Paper: 70%
Presentation: 20%
Participation: 10%
Contributing to BB discussions: required (no grade)

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • General communication between instructior and students

  • (required) Postings and responses to readings in the forum

  • Submitting final paper through Turnitin

Reading list

To be purchased prior to start of class:

  • Lucas A. Powe Jr., The Supreme Court and the American Elite, 1789-2008 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

Additional literature will be made available through Blackboard and/or a course shelf in the University Library.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.




Dhr. Dr. M.L. (Mark) de Vries