American Prophets: Jefferson, Lincoln, King & ?

Professor Richard Fox, Department of History

To grow up in the United States, or any country, is to be shaped by national stories, myths, and heroes, and by many local and global forces too. This course centers on the three most iconic heroes in U.S. history, whom I call the “major prophets” of the nation’s past: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. They’re “prophets,” by my definition, because they left behind words that later generations cherished as virtually “sacred.” They’re “major” prophets because a majority of U.S. citizens, at least through the end of the 20th century, venerated those words for encapsulating American ideals. For generations, U.S. schoolchildren memorized them. 

The 80 percent of U.S. citizens who tell pollsters they believe in God realize that Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are not sacred in the same sense that the Bible, the Koran, or Book of Mormon are sacred. But most treat the civic documents reverentially just the same. And the 20 percent of U.S. citizens who don’t believe in God (though only four percent say they are “atheists,” and five percent “agnostics”) seem just as likely as the God-fearing public to “believe” in the main texts of the American “civil religion.” The special distinction accorded to Jefferson, Lincoln and King in U.S. history reveals the pivotal paradox that has underlain that history: the nation “conceived in liberty” in 1776 was also founded on slavery. All three of the main U.S. prophets achieved their status as “major” by authoring eloquent words that spoke, directly or indirectly, to this original contradiction. Within a few decades of their composition, their texts entered the U.S. pantheon of holy writ, etched (in whole or in part) into marble at their memorials on the National Mall in the District of Columbia. 

The course will look in passing at some “minor” prophets too – among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Barry Goldwater, Nina Simone, William F. Buckley, Jr., James Baldwin, Ronald Reagan, Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, and Barack and Michelle Obama. All of them played prophetic roles in their day (three of them are still alive), and some may become major prophets in the future. Frederick Douglass, for example, who died in 1895, has recently emerged as a much more prominent force in U.S. public memory than he was in the 20th century. One can easily imagine a Douglass Memorial built someday on the National Mall. 

In light of recent cultural and political developments, the course will also consider whether Jefferson, Lincoln, and even King may someday slip out of their still uniquely exalted positions. In the spring and summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, massive demonstrations sparked a campaign to rid the public landscape of Confederate statues. That campaign swiftly morphed into an assault on monuments celebrating famous presidents who had owned slaves (Jefferson and Grant) or been depicted in public monuments lording it over a kneeling slave whom he had just formally emancipated (Lincoln). No one has yet found fault with the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington (except on aesthetic grounds), but his “dream” and his commitment to non-violence—already mocked in his own day by Malcolm X and other black activists—are now under assault from white and black critics who belittle them as anachronistic. 

Each student will write an original 15-20 page research paper on an American prophet of their choosing, using primary and secondary sources. The paper will go beyond producing a profile of, or surveying the literature on, a particular prophet. Each paper will develop an “argument” (a “thesis”) consisting not of your “opinions,” but your “judgments,” based on primary and secondary sources. Several “research exercises” will help you hone the skills for producing such a paper. In April, students will all make 20-minute presentations of their papers to the rest of the class. 


Michael Johnson, ed. Abraham Lincoln, Slavery and the Civil War.
Toni Morrison. Beloved.
James M. Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King.
Additional articles and documents will be assigned for class discussion.

Third World Documents

Professor Olivia Harrison, Departments of French and Italian, Comparative Literature, Middle East Studies, and American Studies & Ethnicity

What we now call the developing world, the poorer nations, or the Global South used to be known under a much loftier title: the Third World. This course explores the Third World as a political project of transnational solidarity, social justice, and cultural independence that continues to have resonance today. We will travel back to the 1950s, 60s and 70s to examine a trove of documents that attest to the aspirations and inspirations of the formerly and still colonized world, from Cuba to Africa, Vietnam, and the Americas. Far from studying this period in isolation, we will draw connections to contemporaneous movements like the Black Panther Party, as well as more recent ones like Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter. We will analyze a wide range of documents: journals and magazines such as Souffles-AnfasLotus, and Tricontinentale; films by Gillo Pontecorvo and Ousmane Sembène; essays and manifestos by Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire; and new media documenting the ongoing migrant crisis. The course will culminate in individualized research projects exploring little known archives that document global struggles for social justice in our recent past and present.


Gloria Anzaldúa. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.
Aimé Césaire. A Tempest.
Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, eds. Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture
and Politics.

(Change and the Future – Untitled)

Professor Sharon Lloyd, School of Philosophy

For millennia, human societies have been forged through institutions of political authority, law, and religion. These institutions evolve, reform, collapse and reemerge. Democracy is as new as the Arab Spring and as old as ancient Greece, while theocracies and authoritarian regimes exist in our century again as they did in humanity’s distant past. Religious fundamentalisms and codes of law are resurging today even while secular systems of international law are expanding.

This course provides a conceptual foundation for understanding and assessing systems of political, legal, and religious authority. Through study of some major works in Western philosophy, social theory, and literature, we will address such questions as: What justifies some having political authority over others? How does technological advance raise new problems in containing institutional control of individuals? How are conflicts between personal conscience and religious authority, or between religious and secular authorities, to be resolved? What justifies private ownership of resources that everyone needs? Is the authority of law due to human convention, to its connection to morality, or to an origin in divine command? Does human nature require government? How should we deal with unjust or oppressive regimes?

Addressing these normative questions concerning the moral justification of our institutions and what values are worth promoting requires more than an empirical investigation of how various institutions actually operate. Rather than learning social science, we will be doing philosophy, with the help of playwrights and novelists.


Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale.
—. Oryx and Crake.
Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan.
John Locke. Second Treatise of Government.
John Stuart Mill. On Liberty.
—. Utilitarianism.
Plato. Apology.
George Bernard Shaw. Saint Joan.
Sophocles. Antigone.
Excerpts from works by Ronald Dworkin, David Hume, Karl Marx, John Rawls, William Shakespeare, and Robert Paul Wolff will be provided digitally.