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American Political Culture

Seminar Leader:
Rogers Smith


A long tradition of scholarship dating back at least to Alexis de Tocqueville’s great work, Democracy in America, has argued that the United States has from its beginning had a distinctive political culture, dominated by beliefs in popular self-governance and individual rights and liberties. Many writers argue that commitments to popular self-governance have grown more truly democratic over time, and some have quarreled over whether beliefs in self-governance or devotion to individual rights (including property rights) have been more fundamental in America.

But in recent decades especially, scholars have contended that American political culture has always included much more than beliefs in democracy and individual liberties. It has included powerful religious traditions, originally mostly Protestant, but more diverse over time; traditions of racial and ethnic identities, some repressive, some liberating; contested traditions of gender roles; ideologies of nativism, and also rival ideologies celebrating multi-culturalism.

Participants in this seminar explored primary sources of American political culture – political speeches, government documents, excerpts from some influential political novels, plays, and films – from the nation’s founding to the present. Together, we sought to understand and asses the different, often interwoven, and historically evolving traditions that have made up American political culture, producing an array of curriculum units geared to introduce students of all ages to topics both historical and current that highlight the American experience.

Unit TitleAuthor


The African American and the Woman Suffrage Movement

Myrtle Bastien
Keywords: African American, African American women, class discrimination, disenfranchised, gender discrimination, High School, important struggle, partisan interests, racial discrimination, right to vote

The Media and Its Impact on Institutions of National Government

Stephanie R. Felder
Keywords: American Government, American political culture, Electronic Journalism, English political culture, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Magazines of Opinion, Media, political culture, public opinion, The Party Press, The Popular Press

Reconstruction: The Promises and Failures of Post-Civil War America

Hye-Won Gehring and Shanee Garner
Keywords: 10th grade, 11th grade, African American History, American History, economic tropes, English, High School, historical contexts, literacy skills, political, Reconstruction, social, student-centered

Fashion Trends: A Reflection of Our Political Culture

Ardeth Gilmore
Keywords: 20th century, American Colonial period, American History, change, European history, fashion, fashion and politics, fashion fads, fashion trends, Industrial Revolution, major political events, political attitudes, political culture, postindustrial

The Intersections of Law and Health

Jordan Solomon
Keywords: American History, childhood health, Health, health legislation, law and health, legislation, persuasive writing, physical education, writing

From Little Rock to Philadelphia: A Look at School Desegregation

Alison McCartney
Keywords: Arkansas, Central High School, desegregation, little rock, Little Rock Nine, Philadelphia, racial inequalities, Research, school desegregation, Warriors Don't Cry

Early Abolitionists in Philadelphia

Sandy O’Keefe
Keywords: 8th grade, abolitionists, African American, anti-slavery, Colonial America, end to slavery, Philadelphia, Quakers

Civil Rights Era and the African American Experience: Investigating American History through a Literary Lens

Erin Swan-Potras
Keywords: 1950s, 1960s, African American figures, Alabama, American Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham, Children's March, Civil Rights Movement, commercialism, discrimination, Historical Context, Music, political context, segregation, social context, Technology, video

American Politics through Literary Exposures: Film, Essays, & Speeches

Bonnee Breese
Keywords: american politics, language arts

Philadelphia 1793: Yellow Fever, Race, Medicine and Politics

Mona Kolsky
Keywords: History, Medicine, Philadelphia, race, yellow fever