In The US Constitution through History, Professor Eric Berger of the University of Nebraska takes you on a journey through America’s constitutional history. In 24 riveting lectures, unpack the ideas of America’s founding and trace the evolution of those ideas through the schisms of the 19th century, the transformations of the 20th century, and into our present era.
The US Constitution through History
Eric Berger is the Earl Dunlap Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law. His scholarship focuses on constitutional law, including judicial decision-making in constitutional cases. He received his JD from Columbia Law School and then clerked for the Honorable Merrick B. Garland on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He went on to practice with Jenner & Block, where he worked on litigation, including in the US Supreme Court. He has been voted Professor of the Year by law students at Nebraska six times.
01: America’s Founding Ideas
America was born out of a group of ideas and a series of conflicts with England. Begin your course on the US Constitution with a look at the English tradition that underpins American law and the tensions with England that led to revolution.
02: Failures of Early American Governments
When war broke out between England and the American colonies, the Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation, a loose framework by which the colonies could be governed as a nation-state. Reflect on the origins of this system, as well as its inability to deal with economic, military, and diplomatic crises of the day.
03: Dilemmas of the Constitutional Convention
While America’s original Articles of Confederation were an imperfect system, transforming the system with a new Constitution was a heavy lift. Delve into the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 to witness the high-stakes debates about a new national system of government.
04: The Ratification of the Constitution
After the Philadelphia Convention approved the new Constitution, at least nine states needed to ratify it. Travel the new nation in the late 18th century to see how different states viewed a new federal government—and why so many states ultimately voted to ratify the Constitution.
05: The Bill of Rights as a Concession
During the ratification process, many states complained that the Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights. A movement started to create amendments to protect individuals against governmental tyranny. Explore the role of James Madison and others in creating the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution.
06: The Rise of Federal Power: Hamilton’s Bank
The size and scope of the national government has been at the heart of American political debates for centuries—and this debate has been part of the country’s dialogue since the beginning. Here, consider Alexander Hamilton’s argument for the central bank’s role in paying debts and setting the economic direction for the country.
07: Constitutional Issues of Westward Expansion
The early republic’s population grew quickly, approximately 35% every decade. This growth required more land—and more farms—which led to incredible expansion. Survey the constitutional issues surrounding American growth during the time of Thomas Jefferson, whose Louisiana Purchase set the tone for an expanding nation.
08: The Law of Slavery under the Constitution
The US was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” but America has not always lived up to that ideal. How do we reconcile the aspirations of the Constitution with the travesty of slavery? What did the Framers and citizens in the 18th and 19th century think of slavery? Dive into the heart of the great American tension.
09: Constitutional Roots of Sectional Tensions
Disagreement over slavery divided the country along sectional lines. In the infamous Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a person of African descent could not be a citizen. Dive into the rising tensions of the 19th century that culminated in secession and war.
10: Lincoln, Civil War, and the Constitution
Although Abraham Lincoln was not elected as an abolitionist president, the era’s tension between North and South boiled over into the Civil War shortly after his election. Here, reflect on the many constitutional questions posed by the war, from the right of habeas corpus to the legality (or illegality) of secession.
11: Emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment
President Lincoln’s most momentous constitutional decision involved emancipation. Whereas the Framers had assumed slavery as an institution gradually would fade away, Lincoln bore the responsibility of ending slavery—first by executive order and then via a constitutional amendment.
12: The Fourteenth Amendment and Freedom’s Meaning
The 13th Amendment ended slavery, but it did not define what rights freed persons would enjoy. After the Civil War, the nation engaged in a prolonged debate about the meaning of freedom and equality. Here, consider the goals and shortcomings of Reconstruction and the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which outlined the rights of free citizens.
13: Reconstruction Politics and Voting Rights
Continue your study of Reconstruction and the political power struggle between President Andrew Johnson (who was obstructing rights for freed persons) and the Congressional Republicans. Unpack the impeachment of Johnson and the struggle to win voting rights for freed persons.
14: Reconstruction’s Broken Legal Promises
In this final lecture on constitutional changes during Reconstruction, consider the new role of the federal government in securing rights for all citizens. Find out how the realities of Reconstruction fell short of its promises, thanks in large part to corrupt politicians, as well as a national economic depression in 1873.
15: Equal Protection at the Turn of the Century
African Americans had made gains during Reconstruction, but that era came to an end when white Southerners seized control of state governments. Here, shift your attention to the myriad state laws that enacted formal racial segregation and disenfranchised African American voters. Then, reflect on discrimination faced by American immigrants and women.
16: The Constitution in the Progressive Era
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw disruptive economic and social transformations. The anxieties of this age inspired major political reform movements—including new constitutional amendments dealing with the federal income tax, the election of senators, and women’s voting rights.
17: World War I and the Birth of Free Speech
Today, we think of the First Amendment as offering nearly unlimited free speech, but when you step back 100 years, you see surprising restrictions on speech. Here, go back to World War I and explore the Supreme Court’s most important early decisions on freedom of speech.
18: The New Deal: The Constitution Transformed
Interpretations of the Constitution often are intertwined with the economy. Following the stock market crash of 1929 and his election in 1932, President Roosevelt made the case for dramatic changes to save the country. Survey the changes and reforms FDR enacted as part of his “New Deal”—and reflect on their constitutionality.
19: Challenging Jim Crow in the Courts
The legal transformations of the New Deal brought about remarkable constitutional change, as well as new protections for everyday Americans. But with Jim Crow laws still on the books in many states, not everyone benefitted from the New Deal. Delve into many post-World War II-era civil rights cases that broke the back of Jim Crow.
20: The Backlash against Brown v. Board of Education
The landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education legally ended segregation, but it did not provide a blueprint for desegregation in American schools. For that, a nationwide civil rights movement was needed, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
21: The ERA and the Battle over Women’s Rights
Alongside the push for civil rights, women were engaged in their own battle for equality of the sexes. Review the case law and the push for an Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing rights for women—and find out why activist Phyllis Schlafly worked to defeat it. Although the amendment failed, see what litigation and legislation accomplished in the 1970s.
22: Conservatism, Christianity, and the Court
In another swing of the pendulum, the progressive movement of civil rights and women’s equality in the mid-20th century gave way to religious revival and a conservative backlash in the 1980s. Dive into the Reagan era and the new battle for control over the Supreme Court.
23: History in Constitutional Interpretation
How much, if at all, should history figure into constitutional interpretation? Throughout this course, we have seen how historical events have shaped constitutional law. In this penultimate lecture, take a step back to consider the debate over the Framers’ intentions and the “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution.
24: The Unresolved Constitution
The American experiment continues. Despite more than two centuries of debates, disagreements, reforms, and setbacks, Americans continue to push for change. In our present age, the political divide and media noise arguably pose a unique threat to the Constitution. What happens next? Will we continue the search for a more perfect union?