The History of the Constitution
F 2017


The US Constitution is the most important document for our nation but many people really don't know much about it except for favorite clauses and amendments.  For example, how many people really know what the Constitution actually says or how a particular passage, such as the Commerce Clause or the Second Amendment, came to be drafted as it is?  In this SDG we'll take a comprehensive look at both the text of the Constitution and the political deeds that gave rise to that text.  We'll start with the Preamble and proceed through to the end of the Amendments, considering each section in the context in which it was enacted.  With the current political situation and threats to treasured rights embodied in the Constitution our discussion will include issues such as gun rights, money in politics, healthcare legislation, human, religious, voting and civil rights, among other issues in light of the actual language and history of the Constitution. 


Weekly Topics

1) In the Beginning:  Using the often overlooked preamble we will look at how the Constitution came to be and what the drafters were trying to accomplish.


2) New Rules for a New World:  We will examine the geographic/geostrategic considerations that led Congress to be structured as it is. 


3) Congressional Powers:  This will include discussion of how the Congress was expected to perform and how powers such as the Commerce Clause were intended to serve the nation’s interests.


4) America’s First Officer:  We will discuss the nature of the Presidency and how the Founders envisioned the job.


5) Presidential Powers:  The discussion will include the President’s central role in foreign affairs.


6) Judges and Juries:  What are the powers of the judiciary and what role was it expected to play? 


7) States and Territories:  How were the relationships between the states and the United States and the relationships between individual states defined?


8) The Law of the Land:  This will include Article V’s provisions for amendments to the Constitution, a topic of some interest given current suggestions for various amendments.


9) Making Amends:  How did the early amendments come about?  What was the context for the Bill of Rights?  This session will consider the origins and purpose of the First Amendment and the judicial powers amendments (Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth).


10) Further Discussion of the Bill of Rights Amendments:  How should this history inform our analysis of the Second, Third, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Amendments.


11) A New Birth of Freedom:  The Post Civil War Amendments:  How did these amendments impact the state/federal relationship?  How does this history relate to more current developments in areas such as voting rights, employment, women’s rights and education?


12) Progressive Reforms:  We will discuss the Income Tax Amendment--why was it necessary and what is its import as a statement of constitutional principle?  We will also consider Women’s Suffrage and issues regarding the scope of the freedom of contract and the Commerce Clause.


13) Modern Moves:  Why is the President limited to two terms?  What is the significance of the D.C. Amendment?  What does the 24th Amendment’s guarantee of the right to vote mean in the context of today’s debates about legislation related to voting requirements and procedures?


14) Where are we now?  Have the discussions of the preceding weeks suggested that we have followed the path the Founders would have intended?  Are there areas of the Constitution which are simply not suited to the way the world has evolved and which should be amended? 


Amar, Akhil Reed.  America’s Constitution:  A Biography.  Random House, 2005.


Amar, Akhil Reed.  America’s Unwritten Constitution:  The Precedents and Principles We Live By.  Basic Books, 2012.