Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy


This course proposes to examine the history of the United States thematically, using three broad categories of analysis: capitalism, slavery, and democracy. We will explore the history of the United States using each of these themes as a lens to understand the major events and developments that have shaped the nation and its people from the colonial period to the present day. Proceeding chronologically, each week will be dedicated to one of the three themes, and readings will provide background and context on the period, as well as more fine-grained explorations of the specific theme and its relevance to that period of American history. Although this course requires little or no background knowledge in history, it will challenge students to consider how familiar events and figures look different when viewed through our course themes, while introducing them to the major events and developments in American history—including, but not limited to, the American Revolution and Founding, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the Great Depression and New Deal, the Cold War, and the Rights Movements of the postwar era.

Since capitalism, slavery, and democracy are big and contentious topics which defy easy definition, part of this course will be dedicated to developing working understandings of these terms and analyzing their historic relationship to one another as well as their role in shaping U.S. history. What was American slavery, and how did it differ from other historic forms? What is capitalism, and how has it evolved historically, both as a global phenomenon and in its specifically American variant? Are capitalism and democracy uniquely compatible—or, as a recent body of historical literature has suggested, was the development of American capitalism deeply intertwined with the enslavement and exploitation of African and Native American peoples? If the Founders envisioned the United States as a republic, why do we usually consider the modern U.S. to be a democracy, and how have the meanings of these terms changed over time? What are some of the legacies of capitalism, slavery, and democracy for the United States in the Twenty-first Century, and how can our understandings of these intertwined histories help us to meet the challenges of our times?