Pivotal Moments in American Institutions and Public Law, 1791-Present


Course Code:
LAW 680
Law Honors/Pass/Restrd Cr/Fail


(Same as PoliSci 323) American lawyers and policymakers work today in a system of institutions that are strikingly unique in comparative and historical terms. With some exceptions, that system is characterized by relatively stable political and legal institutions, low levels of explicit corruption, high bureaucratic capacity in public organizations, and relatively open, impersonal access to political, policymaking, and legal institutions. Although these characteristics are now often taken for granted, the process through which they emerged remains remarkably opaque. In the 1780s under the Articles of Confederation, the United States was a poor developing country on the fringe of the Atlantic community with limited capacity and a striking inability to provide basic public goods, such as security. One hundred years later, it well along the way to becoming the richest nation in the world. How did this transformation occur? Drawing on judicial opinions, legal scholarship, political science, economics, and history, this course explores how institutions evolved to create such a system. It traces the problem of institutional development through several critical periods in the history of American public law, including the emergence of the Constitution, the events leading up to and following the Civil War, the Progressive era, World War II, institutional changes occurring roughly during 1964-75, and the emergence of the modern administrative state. Although the primarily focus is on the American experience, we place these developments in comparative context as well.

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