What the Founders Read

What the Founders Read
English 212-01 / Political Science 212-01
MWF 12:00 PM – 12:50 PM
Canevin Hall 204


Dr. Gregory D. Specter
Office: College Hall 632
Email: specterg@duq.edu
Office Hours: MWF 10:15-11:30 & by appointment

Many of us are interested in knowing more about the Founding Fathers and their world in which the lived. This tendency can border on obsession and hero-worship. We focus on the places they slept, the things they touched, the locations, the visited, and they voluminous things they wrote. The desire to know more about the founding of the United States drives much of our contemporary politics. Across the political spectrum people want to know what the Founding Fathers thought and how might they address the pressing issues of our own times. Often the focus on getting to know the Founding Fathers centers on what they read, specifically the legal, political, and historical works that shaped many of our founding documents. In this course we’ll explore several works that many of the Founding Father’s read. We’ll consider the role of political works and works of history, but we’ll also read works that capture the vividness of the Founders’ era—and our own. We are often curious about what the Founding Fathers read, especially those text that providing context for the idea of American and help us understand our founding documents. History, philosophy, political writings, and legal writings were a significant part of what the Founding Fathers read, but their world of reading was much more than that: it included plays, fiction, poetry, and personal correspondence. In order to start our journey we will we will work backwards from our own time starting with the musical Hamilton and focusing how it has created a popular phenomenon about what the Founders wrote and read. We’ll use this musical as a lens for moving backwards through the eighteenth century to explore the dynamic world of the Founders and their reading. During our time together we will also have an opportunity to visit and Heinz History Center in order to explore first hand primary sources related to the course topic.

Course Goals

  1. Together we’ll strive to gain an understanding of the political, literary, philosophical, and other texts that the Founding Fathers and others in their circle read.
  1. Together we’ll seek to understand how the Founders (and those in their circle) understood the function and purpose of reading and how that purpose resonates currently in today’s in debates about cultural and political life.
  1. Together we’ll strive to further develop our skills in navigating the research of primary and secondary sources via the Gumberg Library (and other sources). We’ll seek to understand the importance of available open access resources available through the National Archives, Library of Congress, and other major research repositories- such as the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
  1. Together we will further our understanding of the available scholarly resources for the study of the Founding Fathers and awareness of the resources available—both traditional print scholarly sources and other resources available online.


Required Texts

  • Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings, Penguin, 9780140424300
  • Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, Oxford, 9780192805928
  • Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, Oxford, 9780199536498
  • John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera and Polly, Oxford, 9780199642229
  • Richard Sheridan, The School for Scandal and Other Plays, Oxford, 9780199540099
  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Penguin, 9780140436679
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton, An American Musical


In Class Activities (10% total)
A range of activities including short writing, quizzes, participation, & other activities.

3 short reflections on the readings (15% total)
These reflections invite you to engage with one of the texts we read, an idea or concept, or etc in a short paper that relies on either close reading or the application of appropriate modes of analysis from your academic discipline. The reflections should be two pages (double spaced). You may revise the first two short reflection assignments provided you make an appointment to meet with me to talk about revisions.


Ben Franklin’s World Short Responses (15% total)
Throughout the semester we’ll listen to several episodes of Ben Franklin’s World. To help make the most of these podcasts and bring them into class discussion we’ll write short responses to these episodes. Think of the responses as tools to help you. The responses should include 3 parts. The first part will include a short summary of the episode highlighting important arguments, key points, and major ideas. In the second part of the response you’ll write a short reflection on the episode’s content. Take ownership of this space and focus your attention on what you want! In the third part you’ll keep a list of keywords or buzzwords from the episode. Think of your list of keywords as a record. Use these short reflections to help gather your ideas. These documents should be short: 1 page (single spaced). Have fun with these short responses. Liz Covart created Ben Franklin’s World to share the many facets of early American history in a fun and engaging manner; I encourage you to stay to true to that spirit in your reflections! I encourage you to listen to episodes of Ben Franklin’s World that are not included on our syllabus. As a class we might add additional episodes to the syllabus. New additions will likely reflect the evolution of our course over the semester or aim to pull in new episodes connected to our course. Check out the page for Ben Franklin’s World and explore episodes of interest to you!

PW Broadside

Create a Broadside (15%)
For this assignment will create our own broadsides as part of a unit on broadsides and other print ephemera. This assignment invites your to imagine a piece of poetry as a broadside of your own creation. This assignment encourages you to create your own interpretation of a poem’s content and the physical form. The broadside will be accompanied by a short 2 artist statement discussing the selected poem and the creation of the broadside.

Annotated Bibliography (15%)
We will prepare an annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources that will aid in the completion of our major course assignment. This assignment should include 7 to 10 works. We’ll walk through the research process together, highlighting best practices for research.

Research Assignment (20%)
For this assignment we’ll dive deeper into the subjects related to course. For this assignment you’ll create a 5-page argument-driven research paper focused on a topic of your choice. You’re free to engage with a range of research topics related to any of the major texts that we’ve read this semester. This essay assignment aims to engage further with the topics we’ve covered and represents a place for you to explore your own interests. This is our main assignment of the course and should be 5 total pages.

Possible Topics

  • Print Culture
  • Book History
  • Material Culture
  • Race / Gender
  • Reading Practices
  • New York Library Society’s City Readers

A Adams

Redesigned Syllabus (10%)
This assignment presents the opportunity to redesign the syllabus in light of our conversations over the course of the semester. No syllabus is perfect and, as we will discuss / discussed this semester, the syllabus readings for this semester have limitations, in addition to illustrating a skewed picture of what the Founding Fathers read. For this assignment you’ll take ownership of the course content and redesign a 2 week unit (6 classes) of course readings, including both primary and secondary texts. You’ll explain your vision and reasons for the course in an accompanying 2 page reflection.

I’ve created a Twitter list containing a variety of accounts that might be of interest to our class. You’ll find the list contains scholars, museums, libraries and archives, and various other accounts. I recommend checking out the list—whether you’re on Twitter or not. You can access the list by clicking here.

Technology Policy
Our syllabus has a special section devoted to a podcast and another section devoted to Twitter. Plus, we’ll be making use of many online resources. Still- it makes sense to have a technology policy. Feel free to use cell phones, tablets, and computers in class as portals to content related to our class or as tools to aid in your work. Technology is a powerful tool for learning. Together we will do our best to make the most of this power. We will use these tools to facilitate our thinking and learning. Please be aware that technology can be a distraction to our own work and the work of others. Make sure that your devices are running muted or turned to silent. Occasionally we might make time to put away all electronic devices or turn off the WiFi access. We’ll revisit this policy throughout the semester– if needed.

Library Guide
Be on the lookout for a future update to the Library Guide.

Special Opportunities during the Semester
Over the course of the semester we will address several limitations of our course’s scope. Male voices dominate our course in both the course theme and in the writers we are reading. We will address these issues during class discussion and through our assignments. We are fortunate that     the Aphra Behn and The Burney Society Conference will be held in Pittsburgh in early November. The conference will occur on the campus of Duquesne University. You’ll all be able to attend the regular sessions of the conference when it meets November 2-3. As a part of the conference there will be several related events of note. On Novermber 1 there will be a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. You can find details here. Also, in conjunction with the conference, our own Red Masquers will be performing Susanna Centlivre’s The Busy Body. This was a popular play during the period we will be studying. We will likely have an opportunity to see the dress rehearsal of the play prior to the start of its run. These are great opportunities for our class and will help us to consider many of the gaps and omissions in the course. You can find additional information about the conference by clicking here.

Heinz History Center
We will have opportunity this semester to work with the Heinz History Center. This opportunity will provide the chance to work with archival material and benefit from the expertise of the staff at the Heinz History Center. I’m still working out the details; expect to hear more soon!

Syllabus Common Statements:

You can find a link to the applicable syllabus common statements here. Scroll towards the bottom of the page for applicable statements.

Course Schedule

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