Cycles of American Political Thought

Course No. 4820
Professor Joseph F. Kobylka, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
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Course No. 4820
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Course Overview

America is often described as a nation of doers. Its folk heroes are men and women of action, like Daniel Boone and Annie Oakley, who subdued an untamed wilderness on the way to forging a great nation. But is that the whole story? Is American history really just a tale of dynamic movers and shakers who left philosophizing to their European counterparts?

In Cycles of American Political Thought, you'll examine the often neglected philosophical underpinnings of this nation's history. With renowned political scientist Professor Joseph F. Kobylka as your guide, you'll explore how this nation of "doers" has, from its birth, been deeply engaged with the most fundamental questions of political philosophy.

Over the course of 36 engaging lectures, Professor Kobylka weaves a tale of nation-founding and nation-building. You'll learn how, from its earliest days, the nation has borne the imprint of influential thinkers from the European continent, from the Reformation theology of John Calvin to the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke. You'll examine how these ideas have influenced the greatest Americans as, over the centuries, the nation has cycled between variants of a single revolutionary political theory.

But America's story is not simply one of ideas. From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression, Professor Kobylka's analysis shows how the actions and events of history have both affected and been influenced by underlying political philosophies.

The Ever-Changing Definition of "America"

Throughout this epic historical journey, you'll explore the many ways this nation has answered the question: "What is an American?" Professor Kobylka traces the many answers that have been offered over the centuries, showing how the idea of "We the People" has changed and expanded far beyond the founding fathers' original conception.

And just as the definition of what it means to be an American expands, so the ideas about governance have changed and grown. We'll navigate this ever-shifting political landscape and see how political trends in American history can be understood as variations on a single theme: the philosophy of liberalism. Derived from the writings of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, this conception of government is the source of some of our most deeply valued political notions, such as the idea that government is designed to serve the needs of the people. Professor Kobylka shows how the many twists and turns of the nation's history can be seen as a cycling back and forth between competing interpretations of this foundational political theory.

Founding Fathers and Freedom Fighters

You'll also meet the unforgettable men and women who, over the course of American history, have molded political thought and policy. We'll see how our most beloved leaders—Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan—acted from deeply felt philosophical convictions about government, and how apolitical observers—such as philosopher Henry David Thoreau and essayist J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur—offered insights into the strengths and shortcomings of American liberalism.

Our journey through the American political landscape includes the critics and activists who demanded equal access to the nation's promise of equality and liberty. We'll meet some of the courageous figures who fought to redress deeply rooted inequities, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Understanding the Past, Understanding the Present

Through Cycles of American Political Thought, you'll gain a deep understanding both of the nation's past and how this rich political history continues to influence us today. Even if you've studied American history before, you'll encounter something new: a unique synthesis of viewpoints, ideas, and events that's enlightening and compelling.

And while the story is epic, you'll never lose your way. Professor Kobylka illuminates both the larger patterns of history and the finer details—the lives, events, and ideas that bring history to life. This course will change the way you think about American history.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    America—The Philosophical Experiment
    Although Americans have a reputation as pragmatists, not philosophers, they've relied from the nation's inception on an ever-evolving framework of political theory grounded in liberalism. This lecture provides an overview of this tradition and establishes a context for exploring and defining American political thought. x
  • 2
    Historical Baggage
    The colonies' first European settlers from Great Britain were shaped by ideas of government developed in their home country. In this lecture, we explore the centuries of British political tradition that influenced the forging of a new notion of governance. x
  • 3
    Theoretical Baggage
    While the historical events of British history helped shaped America's definition of government, the colonists were influenced profoundly by the two dominant theoretical traditions from their time: the Protestantism of Martin Luther and John Calvin, and the theory of liberalism developed by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. x
  • 4
    A Puritan Beginning
    The first European colonists sailed to the new world to gain freedom to practice their religion. In this lecture, we examine how the Calvinist world-view of these settlers dominated early colonial life, as exemplified in the leadership of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. x
  • 5
    Expansion and Individualism
    As the colonies grow and expand, cracks begin to appear in the Puritan control of government. New communities and their leaders, such as Roger Williams and John Wise, develop competing views of political governance that replace Winthrop's theocracy with a more democratic notion of governance, paving the way for the advance of liberalism in the colonies. x
  • 6
    The Revolutionary Context
    With the French and Indian War (1754–63), Britain breaks from its policy of benign neglect regarding the colonies and imposes new taxes to support the costs of war. Viewed as unjust, the taxes galvanize the colonists and help forge a sense of their own political identity and inalienable rights. x
  • 7
    The Road to the Declaration of Independence
    In this lecture, we examine the combination of events and ideas that contributed to the development of America's ultimate petition to the British government for its rights: the Declaration of Independence. x
  • 8
    A "Natural" Revolutionary—Thomas Paine
    This lecture explores the life and legacy of Thomas Paine, an influential writer who through his countless pamphlets and other works acted as town crier for the new world order of liberalism. x
  • 9
    The Unconscious Dialectic of Crèvecoeur
    Although not an explicitly political theorist, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur contributed an informal meditation on political philosophy in his eyewitness account of the early years of the republic. Crèvecoeur extols America as "the new Eden" of liberty, but his work is haunted by the inescapable brutality that persists alongside the tenets of liberalism. x
  • 10
    John Adams—"Constitutionalist"
    Arguably the least heralded member of the revolutionary and constitutional generations, John Adams was also the most theoretically inclined American thinker of his time. In this lecture, we examine Adams's contribution to American political history through his works and writings. x
  • 11
    A Political Constitution
    While the Constitution broke new philosophical ground in establishing ruling principles for a modern democracy, it was also a product of its specific historical and political context. In this lecture, we investigate how this landmark document was shaped by the competing needs and concerns of delegates from all over the 13 colonies. x
  • 12
    A Philosophical Constitution—Faction
    Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote The Federalist Papers, a set of essays designed to defend the Constitution and support its ratification. In this lecture, we trace how these essays contended with majority factions. x
  • 13
    A Philosophical Constitution—Structure
    In applying the "science of politics" to the Constitution, the authors of The Federalist Papers described political structures—including the separation of powers and the system of institutional checks among governmental branches—intended to inhibit faction and stem. x
  • 14
    A Philosophical Constitution—Interpretation
    We take a closer look at The Federalist Papers, examining three modern interpretations: the Pluralist and Republican interpretations, and the Elitist critique. In these, we discover the open texture of interpretation that underlies the signal document of America's political foundation. x
  • 15
    Disorganized Losers—The Anti-Federalists
    Opposing the authors of The Federalist Papers were the Anti-Federalists who argued against adopting the Constitution. Although history has deemed them the losers in this battle, their efforts led to the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and their arguments have recurred throughout American history. x
  • 16
    The "Genius" of Thomas Jefferson
    Thomas Jefferson is one of the best known and most revered figures of the American founding, due in no small part to his role as author of the Declaration of Independence. We examine the complicated, sometimes contradictory, political views that underpinned his life and writings. x
  • 17
    Jacksonian Democracy—The "People" Extended
    During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the nation expanded westward, and as it did, the definition of "We the People" expanded as well. This expansion introduced into government a wider range of competing demands that helped fuel the debate between two conceptions of the Constitution: Federalist (in favor of a strong central government) and Jacksonian (in favor of preserving states' rights to self-determination). x
  • 18
    Iconoclastic Individualism—Thoreau
    With his championing of the individual and his suspicion of coercive authority, Thoreau served as a liberal critic of a developing liberal society. His iconoclastic individualism would later resurface in movements for civil rights and environmentalism. x
  • 19
    Inclusionist Stirrings—Douglass and Stanton
    The original framers of the Constitution outlined the rights of "the people" but only the people who counted: propertied white men. In this lecture, we begin to consider those who lived on the fringes of the body politic—slaves and women—through an examination of the lives and works of freed slave Frederick Douglass and proto-feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. x
  • 20
    The Organic Socialism of Brownson
    In response to the explosion of industrialization in the North, the new nation experienced a widening gap between rich and poor, owner and worker. In a response that anticipates Karl Marx, Orestes Brownson offered a socialist critique of America's burgeoning capitalism that later influenced activist strains of liberalism. x
  • 21
    American Feudalism—The Vision of Fitzhugh
    Like Brownson, George Fitzhugh offers a perspective from outside liberalism, but from a completely different point of view. An unapologetic son of the South, Fitzhugh constructs a neofeudalist solution to society's woes, in which the "master race" will ensure the flourishing of a stable society. x
  • 22
    Constitutionalizing the Slave Class
    Another son of the South, John Calhoun reframes the question of abolition as one of protecting the rights of a special interest (slaveholders) against a tyrannical majority (abolitionists). But his argument ranges beyond the racism of the day, and Calhoun can be seen as the father of pluralistic theory in America. x
  • 23
    Lincoln's Reconstitution of America
    By applying the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, as the cornerstone of American governance, Abraham Lincoln reshapes the nation's definition of liberalism, ushering in a new justification for activist government. x
  • 24
    Equality in the Law and in Practice
    In the aftermath of the Civil War, another battle heats up between two opposing strains of the American political tradition—active state liberalism and minimal state liberalism. Congress's Reconstruction Acts represent the actions of a strong federal government advance a new egalitarianism, but they are gutted by a Supreme Court favoring states' rights. x
  • 25
    Social Darwinism and Economic Laissez-Faire
    Variance and diversity have very different meanings in the world of complexity theory. Grasping that difference puts you on the way to understanding how complex systems achieve diversity and why diversity enables them to be both innovative and robust, mai x
  • 26
    Looking Backward, Looking Forward
    Countering Sumner, Edward Bellamy offered a socialist solution to the economic disparities and social unrest resulting from the Industrial Revolution in his popular utopian novel Looking Backward. x
  • 27
    Teddy Roosevelt and Progressivism
    Following in the footsteps of Lincoln, Roosevelt saw government as an engine to advance liberal values through active involvement in social and economic policy. Through trust busting and economic oversight, he enacted his belief that government should regulate large corporations in the interest of the public good. x
  • 28
    Supreme Court and Laissez-Faire
    Populated largely by pro-business Republicans, the Supreme Court of the early 20th century embraced Sumner's Darwinian understanding of governmental power, striking down legislation regulating wages and work hours. x
  • 29
    The Women's Movement and the 19th Amendment
    Activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt re-energized the call for the inclusion of women in American political and economic life. Their crowning achievement was the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. x
  • 30
    Eugene V. Debs and Working-Class Socialism
    Influenced by Marx, Eugene Debs offered a critique of mainstream liberalism by emphasizing economic class as the crucial element in American society. As a committed socialist, union organizer, civil rights advocate, and candidate for the U.S. presidency, Debs strove to empower the working class as a means to ensure equality and liberty. x
  • 31
    Hamiltonian Means for Jeffersonian Ends
    Often called the "architect of the welfare state," Herbert Croly argued that to ensure the conditions of liberty, the government must create a level economic playing field for its citizens. His argument provided a theoretical underpinning to the progressive nationalism begun by Lincoln, advanced by Teddy Roosevelt, and opposed by the Supreme Court. x
  • 32
    FDR, the New Deal, and the Supreme Court
    Working to pull the nation out of the Great Depression, Roosevelt found little public resistance to his New Deal legislation, a series of programs that represented an unprecedented expansion of the reach of the federal government. His efforts were initially countered the Supreme Court, but eventually paved the way for a new wave of welfare-state liberalism. x
  • 33
    The Racial Revolution
    Responding to the long history of legislation supporting "separate but equal" treatment of African Americans, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois proposed alternative paths toward the meaningful inclusion of blacks in American political life. x
  • 34
    The New Egalitarianism and Freedom
    With the 1960s came new struggles for universal freedom and equality, especially in the reinvigorated efforts of the women's movement and the civil rights movement. American youth join the fight, critiquing traditional institutions through organizations such as the Berkeley-based Free Speech Movement and Students for a Democratic Society. x
  • 35
    The Reagan Revolution
    After the tumultuous 1960s, the American political climate swung back to a more conservative notion of limited, decentralized government. The movement reached its peak with the rise of Reaganism of the 1980s, which synthesized strains of minimal state liberalism with a theocratic moralism hearkening back to America's Puritan roots. x
  • 36
    Cycles of American Political Conversations
    A backward glance at the material covered in these lectures reveals a complex and ever-evolving philosophical tradition at the heart of American politics. Cycling between opposing strands of liberalism informed by nonliberal critiques, American political thought has repeatedly accommodated changing realities, giving the nation a philosophical flexibility to meet the challenges of a changing world. x

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Your professor

Joseph F. Kobylka

About Your Professor

Joseph F. Kobylka, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
Dr. Joseph F. Kobylka is Associate Professor of Political Science at Southern Methodist University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. He earned his B.A. in Government and History from Beloit College, graduating magna cum laude, and his Ph.D. in Political Sience from the University of Minnesota. Professor Kobylka has received numerous awards for teaching, including the Golden Mustang Award, M Award, Willis M. Tate...
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Cycles of American Political Thought is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Several Kinds of Liberalism Professor Kobylka makes the case that liberalism is a sufficiently flexible political philosophy that it accommodates changes over the years. He begins with Locke as background for American liberalism and tracks the course of politics and philosophy over the years. Beginning in Britain, moving to the Puritan fathers, through the Revolution and setting up the debate for the Constitution, we are already treated to changes in political thought as times change. There is quite a bit of time devoted to the Federalists (and by extension, The Federalist Papers) and anti-Federalists, fitting as the similarities and differences between Adams and Jefferson still occasion today. I’m not so persuaded that “cycles” is an accurate descriptor for the course. Dr. Kobylka spends far more time addressing the changing types of liberal political thought. A bit confusing, as often what many think of today as “conservative” are viewed through a liberal lens. The course ends with the Regan era, not the last turn of the political wheel in American politics, but perhaps the last one that has had enough time to pass to assess accurately. Many reviewers have not liked Professor Kobylka’s delivery. He does speak slowly, but I did not find his style to be off-putting. What is missing, for me, is not the speed of his speech, but rather he is so measured that there he never seems to generate much enthusiasm for his subject. There is quite a bit of emphasis on the Supreme Court in the course, which makes sense when examining the ebb and flow of practical politics. For those who are interested, TTC course on the Supreme Court is a better bet (but those who are far to the right of the political spectrum should avoid it, unless they are able to view dispassionately). My favorite part of the course, were the lectures on Teddy Roosevelt, closely followed by those on the Women's movement. Here I think, there was a bit more overt enthusiasm for the subject matter than usual. I took the course on audio and do not think video would have added much. I’d recommend the course, if it is on sale, but it is not a must.
Date published: 2020-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deceptively Interesting This course is a non-standard American history; something like a psycho-analysis of political science. The deeper you go into it, the more interesting it becomes.
Date published: 2020-04-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from OK, But... Overall this course was pretty good, but with some serious concerns about the presentation and premises. First, it would have been helpful to define and put into context understanding of political labels. As Professor Kobyika moves through the lectures, the term liberal is used to describe a wide variety of political positions. The term is intended as the Founders used it from John Locke’s writings, but as the course moves on, widely divergent ideologies are given liberal status as understood in the 18th century. Conservative is used almost pejoratively to describe people who support vile institutions such as slavery. Those such as William Graham Sumner who espoused what one might currently attribute to modern conceptions of economic conservatism are called “Social Darwinists.” Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as the progenitor of progressivism, under the varnished term of active-state liberalism. Lincoln was a unique president, walking into a divided country, a war, and really no government outside of the executive branch. Comparing this to latter day progressives seems completely inappropriate. The biggest issue I have with the course is the conflating of equality under the law with material and economic equality. The latter is the purported justification for “active-state liberalism”, but it completely flies in the face of the original meaning of liberalism. Progressives justify every infringement into the private lives of citizens under this false rubric. Material equality can never be achieved without massive state tyranny, and even if it could be temporarily achieved it would soon fall apart as differences in intelligence, acumen, interests, physical capabilities and the like take over. The issues relating to bringing all into the tent of “we the people” are mostly related to assuring equal justice as it pertains to government action. Government involvement in attempting to provide equal material outcomes naturally produce the factional fighting and scheming that concerned the Founders. They were right about that, and about their fear of a too powerful government. Government does not have a check and balance as is the case with business, especially as it relates to the administrative state (we see how bad it can get with the government abuses of the past decade). The professor almost dismisses this concern by stating that “active-state liberalism sees the government, so long as it is controlled by the people, to be a shield and a sword by which they can protect their autonomy and liberties.” The issue is whether the people can control the behemoth that is the current administrative progressive state. True liberalism, or “minimal government liberalism” as the professor calls it, is right to see the state to be the greatest threat to individual freedom.
Date published: 2020-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Under-rated Top Rate Course About How We Got Where If you want to understand American History more deeply - take Dr. Kobylka's course. If you want an antidote to the death spiral of present day political discourse - Professor K's course is it. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and information course which thoroughly explains the development and evolution of political thinking in the United States both before and after it became united. In 36 lectures Dr. K shows how both American political geniuses and genes have affected our thinking. This course both complements and informs other GC courses, such as, Dr. Guelzo's 'American Mind', Dr. Mancall's 'Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution', and Dr. Pangle's 'Great Debate'. Whatever your political leanings this course will either strengthen your positions, cause you to reconsider, or both. At the very least, this course will teach you how we got to where we are now in America.
Date published: 2019-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting historical information I read the negative reviews before buying this course but felt I had an advantage having taken several other Great Courses offerings such as The Conservative Tradition and Modern Political Tradition. I understood the difference between the philosophical definition of Liberalism and how it is used today by American political parties. I found the course very interesting in how our form of politics has changed since the beginning. Kind of like a wandering path through the trees. Yes, the professor has a measured pace in speaking but in my reckoning it is a plus as it left moments for his points to sink in. After taking the class I have much better understanding of how we got here and why things are the way they are.
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good course but overlaps with other courses I have heard almost all TGC courses on American history, and this was one of the last ones that I heard. I was very curious to see, after having read the lecture titles and the course description if this course would have much to add to what I have heard in the previous courses, or would it actually more or less repackage the content from the other courses. The course was interesting in and of itself and presented some very interesting content, including a large thread of lectures devoted to the forming of the constitution in philosophical and political terms, the question of slavery, labor aspects, the progressives, the new deal and so forth. I have two main criticisms. The first was that there was not a whole lot of cyclic behavior descirbed nor was this aspect of the historical process given great thought during the course. It felt as if TGC marketing simply wanted to attach a catchy title to the course to make it more sellable. The other criticism is that much, in fact most, of the course content was not new to me and was covered in at least one other TGC course that I have taken. The ones with which it overlaps most are “Great President”, “The great debate: advocates and opponents of the American constitution”, “America’s founding fathers” and “history of the United States”. Still the course was interesting and Professor Kobylca’s delivery was very good, so I still managed to get some new insights into American political history that were new to me. If you have not heard many courses yet focused on this topic this course is very good. If you have, it really depends on your level of interest.
Date published: 2017-07-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Informed content and balance perspective, but slow I bought this to watch with my elderly mother-in-law, as she is interested in historical and philosophical themes if well-presented. Bad choice for that purpose. The presentation is very slow but to be fair, very soothing. Dr. Kobylka seems to know whereof he speaks, but of all the Great Courses I've had (around 20?) this is the one I would consider the most boring. If you're well-supplied with coffee, are interested in American political thought, and have no desire to be entertained, by all means give this a try. Otherwise look elsewhere.
Date published: 2017-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional Review of American Thought The Professor's lecture, outline and subject examination are very easy to follow. I especially enjoy the distinction he makes between the arrival of John Winthrop and Company... and the later generation of American Founders. His use of the terms minimal state liberalism and active state liberalism are also a valuable tools in looking at American then and today. You will enjoy the links between ideas and events.
Date published: 2016-10-02
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