History 336: United States Constitutional History

The Instructor

Clayton E. Cramer, M.A.

Semester: Fall 2003


Room: MP201

Time: 12:40 – 1:30 PM


The purpose of this class is understand why and how the United States Constitution was written, and its influence on American society, in the past and the present.  You will learn about the often misunderstood role of the courts (sometimes misunderstood by judges themselves) in interpreting our Constitution.


My objective is that by the end of the semester, students will understand:


·        what a constitution is;

·        why constitutions are written;

·        the underlying ideas of the U.S. Constitution;

·        the different ways in which the Constitution is interpreted;

·        how the Constitution has changed (both through formal amendment and through judicial interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation).


I expect that by the end of the semester you will be able to intelligently critique the originalist and living constitution models, and argue for whatever interpretive model you find most compelling.


Reading and Class Discussion: I will assign regular readings from the textbook, as well as various primary sources.  Primary sources (usually decisions of the federal courts) will be available on the Internet.  I expect students to arrive for class having read the assigned readings for that week, and ready to discuss the issues that the reading raises.  Class discussion is worth 50 points.


Tests: I will give two objective tests, intended to verify that the basic facts of U.S. Constitutional History have soaked into your brains long enough to stick.  These tests will consist of multiple choice and true/false questions.  The mid-term will be worth 100 points; the final will be worth 100 points.


Research Paper: You will write a research paper, designed to exercise and test your abilities to research a historical topic, analyze a problem, and clearly (perhaps even powerfully) express what you have learned.  The research paper will be 15-20 pages long and double-spaced.  (Graduate students: 20-25 pages long.)  Please use 12 point type for the body of the paper.  (I’m getting old and blind, so I would rather have you go over the page length but keep it in 12 point type, rather than give me 10 pages in 9 point type.)  The research paper is worth 250 points.


The research paper is due on November 24.  If you turn it earlier, I will be appreciative.  A doctor’s note or some other clear evidence of circumstances beyond your control will the only valid excuses for turning this paper in late for full credit.  If you turn it in late, expect to lose 20 points for every day it is late. 


Your paper will analyze some provision of the Constitution and how the courts have interpreted it.  I am less interested in facts (e.g., the Lochner decision struck down state regulation of working hours based on freedom of contract) and more interested in the historical significance (e.g., the Lochner decision was characteristic of a laissez faire view of governmental regulation of the economy that remained dominant in the courts until the late 1930s—and why that view developed and changed).


Use Turabian for research paper style.  While I do not myself care strongly about the exact format of a paper, since I find aspects of Turabian somewhat illogical, there will be other professors along the way who will be sticklers for this.  I am doing you a favor by being so demanding.  As a general rule, aim for following Turabian exactly; minor deviations, as long as you follow the essential spirit aren’t going to injure your grade dramatically.


I would like papers turned in on paper, but I expect you to email me the paper as well to, in some standard word processing format.  If you are one of the unfortunate ones still using a typewriter, okay.  My reason for wanting an electronic copy of the paper is….


Having an electronic copy of your paper makes it a lot faster to find out if a student has plagiarized material, or has purchased a paper from a “research service.” 


Cheating or plagiarism in any form is unacceptable. The University functions to promote the cognitive and psychosocial development of all students. Therefore, all work submitted must represent a student’s own ideas, concepts, and current understanding. Academic dishonesty also includes submitting substantial portions of the same academic course work to more than one course for credit without prior permission of the instructor or instructors. 


Academic dishonesty may be punished by failure of an assignment, failure of a class, or even dismissal from the university, depending on the severity of the offense.  Academic dishonesty has become an increasing problem, not just for students at Boise State University, but across the country—and even professors have been subject to discipline for violations in the last few years.


Cheating on tests will be dealt with severely as well.  Cheating can become a bad habit, leading, in severe cases, to public office.


The ability to parrot stock phrases is not a sign of writing skill, or of being an intellectual, but of an unwillingness to think through complex ideas.  While parrots make fine pets, their output does not end up on the New York Times bestsellers list, except if that section of the paper is used as a cage liner.

Rules for Class

·        Even stupid ideas deserve a polite hearing.

·        Avoid political labels to describe the ideas of your fellow students, if at all possible.  Political labels often oversimplify complex ideas and demean complex individuals.

·        I will try very hard to finish class up with a minute or so to spare; please be patient if I lecture right up to the bell, or a minute over.

·        If you arrive late, be as quiet as possible while entering class.

·        I will make it very clear when class has started, and that all socializing and unnecessary noise should stop.



Our textbook will be Michael Les Benedict, The Blessings of Liberty: A Concise History of the Constitution of the United States.  The purpose of a textbook is to provide a basic knowledge of the subject, and to fill in the gaps that our other readings will inevitably leave.


In addition to the textbook, we will be reading a variety of other sources, all of them available online.  Many of these readings are primary sources, a few will be especially clearly written law review articles.  Make sure that you have thought through the implications of these documents, and how they relate to the textbook.


You will notice that some of the decisions that I have assigned are well-known cases, and some are pretty obscure.  Unfortunately, some of the well-known and important cases are also very long, and written in the sort of legal jargon that you might expect from the Supreme Court.  I’ve decided that it was more important to assign decisions of reasonable length instead.


Do not assume that a Supreme Court decision is always accurate or honest in its claims.  Your respect for the majesty and integrity of the Supreme Court is probably going to be injured by this course.


The readings list, by week, can be found at  I decided not to print it out because of its length, and because you will almost certainly want to click on the URLs, rather than type them in from a printed sheet.