Introduction to the American Government Module

“Even amid a state of open warfare, these law-abiding men felt obligated to issue a formal document, giving a dispassionate list of their reasons for secession. This solemn, courageous act flew in the face of historical precedent. No colony had ever succeeded in breaking away from the mother country to set up a self-governing state, and the declaration signers knew that the historical odds were heavily stacked against them.”    – Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton


Now that we have discussed various forms of argument and the importance of argumentation in scholarly work, it is time to examine the tangible effects of argumentation on our world. We will do this by analyzing and writing about the documents that inspired and shaped the American revolution in the late eighteenth century.

While written arguments sometimes seem to be nothing more than “words, words, words” (to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet), those words are—under certain circumstances—capable of conveying real power. The foundation of the United States of America demonstrates the ability of the written word to express and legitimize action: specifically, the unification of the thirteen American colonies into a collective, and the separation of that collective from Great Britain. Both during and after the Revolutionary War, the architects of America took great pains to ensure that the United States would function as a democracy ruled by its citizens, rather than a monarchy ruled by one individual or family. In order to achieve this goal, they constructed the foundation of this country out of text. The cornerstone of that foundation is the Constitution.

What does it mean to live in a country with a textual foundation? For one thing, it means that the United States of America was formed by strokes of a pen, not slashes of a sword. Yes, the colonists fought Britain for independence, but victory at the Battle of Yorktown did not create this nation. The ratification of the Constitution did. The Constitution is America’s brain, without which the body politic would shut down. It is this country’s most vital organ, and since 1789, every man or woman who enlists or receives a commission in the United States Armed Forces has sworn to protect it. Currently, that oath reads as follows:

I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

Yes, American soldiers must obey the directives that ultimately come from their Commander-in-Chief. But their first and primary duty is to “support and defend” a text. Their allegiance is to the Constitution—not to one person, office, family, or group. And the Constitution is a special kind of text, because it is alive. Embedded within the document is the genetic code of its own evolution. Article Five of the Constitution spells out the rules by which the text may be amended:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to the Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress.

It is important to note that neither the President of the United States nor the Supreme Court has the power to change the Constitution. Only Congress, in conjunction with the state legislatures, has that ability. And since representatives of both Congress and state legislatures are elected officials, the power to amend the cornerstone of the nation ultimately resides with its citizens.

The Constitution is a written argument that articulates the structure and operating principles of the United States of America. It is an organic text that can be, and has been, revised. But it did not arise ex nihilo, nor was it handed down on stone tablets. It was created by well-educated men who were themselves influenced by a variety of ideas.

In this module, we will first study some of the philosophical arguments that inspired scholars and leaders in the American colonies to reconsider the efficacy of British rule. Then, we will analyze several of the most important early American texts—all of which are themselves arguments—that still serve as the foundation of American law, government, and ideology today. We will examine both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution before closing with an analysis of George Washington’s Farewell Address—an argument woven from the vision, hopes, and concerns of this country’s first President. The culminating project of the unit will be the creation of an essay in which you join this conversation. The specific prompts for this assignment may be found [here]. RCC’s library has many resources that will be able to help you contextualize, analyze, and write about these texts. The EBSCO History Reference Center’s section on American History will be a good place to start.

Throughout this module, remember to pay close attention not only to the substance of our course texts, but also to their organization, structure, and rhetoric. You should be able to talk about what each author is trying to persuade you of and how that author is making his argument. You will also want to be on the lookout for contemporary applications of the arguments we are reading. Texts are always in need of interpretation, and interpretation is the work of human beings. Every generation must reinterpret these foundational documents in the context of America’s contemporary concerns. Many of the debates around the formation of this country are still relevant today.

In the end, it will be up to you to articulate a persuasive argument that proposes a change (or set of changes) for the better—either to the text of the Constitution itself, or to our interpretation of the document as it currently exists. That power, after all, belongs to you.