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1. Citizenship: Making Government Work, Readings
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources





Readings Unit 1

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 1 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 1 Readings, Citizenship: Making Government Work

  • Introduction - Citizenship: Making Government Work

  • Thucydides, "Pericles' Funeral Oration" from Peloponnesian War

  • Plato, Apology

  • Aristotle, Politics

  • Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius


  1. What did Pericles say about the openness of Athens?

  2. Pericles and Socrates both begin their speeches with accounts of language. Compare and contrast their opinions of the comparative power of speechand action.

  3. How did Machiavelli describe a republic?

Introduction—Citizenship: Making Government Work

Socrates left his life and faced his death with a question concerning the value of life; fittingly, for someone who had faced his life and the life of his city with endless questions. What may be surprising about his life of questioning is how few satisfactory answers he received; perhaps only one, and that one was simply to question. To question and reflect on the meanings and demands of a person’s belief was for Socrates the only valuable course of human action and the real meaning of political commitment. As he said before the city during his trial, if he was to be forced to stop asking questions or to leave the city he would cease to be himself. In that light, for himself and his city, he questioned everyone about virtually everything. For Socrates, the first political theorist, and in order to follow his example of the proper role of the citizen, this series of readings begins with a question: What is government?

How does one examine such a question? Possibly, by looking at what others have said and done, much as Tocqueville looked at America to understand democracy in France. “In America,” wrote Tocqueville, “democracy is given up to its own propensities; its course is natural and its activity is unrestrained, there, consequently, its real character must be judged. And to no people can this inquiry be more vitally interesting than to the French nation, who are blindly driven onwards, by a daily and irresistible impulse, towards a state of things which may prove either despotic or republican, but which will assuredly be democratic.” Any understanding of government and democracy benefits from comparison and contrast; and this one is no exception.

Tocqueville looked elsewhere to understand democracy with both its republican and despotic futures; collected here are writings from a wide range of authors, locations, and themes in order to better understand government, democracy, citizenship, and the state of things. Total agreement about where to begin to understand government, democracy, and citizenship is neither possible nor desirable since the most basic question facing anyone attempting to study human government is the very meaning of “government.” Some of the readings, for example, confine the definition of government to the rules of behavior promulgated for citizens by the nation-state. In fact, this definition is probably the most common usage for day-to-day speech, and the definition most in need of examination in the light of alternative formulations. Some accounts of government challenge this usage, in fact, some find this definition to be fundamentally undemocratic in that it can be used to remove economic equality, for example, from the concern of politics.

This unit’s readings have been collected with several objectives in mind. First, to demonstrate the remarkably diverse ways in which thoughtful people have responded to the basic question of what is government. By balancing classic essays, neglected historical documents, and alternative accounts, these readings attempt to present you with new approaches to classic concerns.

Aristotle’s account of the types and purposes of government is one of the most commonly referenced definitions of government and democracy. His explanation of the types of government serves as a guide for many subsequent attempts to explain and categorize human political organization. Much of his account appears again, to new and different uses, in many later authors. The material collected in this unit circulated and re-circulated through the thoughts and writing of many others; for example, the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln appropriated themes of Pericles and Thucydides, and Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, lifted lines from John Locke. This unit presents readings on which other units will be built; defining themes and issues that will reappear in later texts. Into the context of Locke’s and Jefferson’s similar accounts of the value of work to political identity, for example, is introduced the more particular and peculiar debate within the United States over slavery and wage-slavery. This approach adds historical flesh to the bones of abstract theory.

The readings introduced here establish a background for many of the ideas taken to be essential to political society. This background provides an alternative frame for the concerns of our political life. It also facilitates the questioning of the basis of our own understandings of society by illustrating their limitations when they appear in other contexts. For example, Aristotle’s account of the natural meaning of gender differences appears quite limited—even wrong—to most modern readers. Historical distance, in this instance, helps illustrate broader problems in the appropriation of ancient models of social order.

Aristotle maintained, furthermore, a definition of democracy that serves to orient later historical criticisms. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, calls Aristotelian accounts of government and gender into question concerning the exclusion of women from participation in the public life of democracy. She refused, it could be said, to take for granted the common usage of democracy and subjected the term to scrutiny and transformation. Other writers questioned the ways in which the meaning of government fixates on the nation/state, they claimed that government (and perhaps democracy) extends beyond the understandings created by the conflation of government and state.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a nineteenth-century political observer and philosopher, reminds us of the value of examining even the ideas we are most attached to, such as democracy or equality. Like Socrates, Tocqueville reminds us of the political action of intellectual reflection—so that, like Socrates, we can lead our lives with questions more than answers.


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