Next semester I will teaching the Constitutional Law I class at Denver University. It’s the standard class that almost all 2d or 3d semester law students must take at all law schools:
This required introductory course examines the role of the United States Supreme Court and, in particular, the Court’s power in exercising judicial review in cases interpreting the U.S. Constitution. The course focuses primarily on two topics. First is the doctrine of Separation of Powers: examining the structure and interrelationship of the three branches of the federal government, Congress, the Executive Branch, and the federal judiciary. Second is the doctrine of Federalism: the relationship and power distribution between the federal government and state governments. In addition, all sections will devote part of the course to an introduction to at least one aspect of the large field of individual constitutional rights. The specific rights covered will vary by instructor. . . . Students who wish to gain a deeper understanding of these topics are strongly encouraged to take Constitutional Law (Advanced): Individual Rights.
My particular class will pay special attention to some topics of great modern relevance: the interstate commerce power and the N&P clause, since the Supreme Court will be hearing the most important case in decades on those topics. We will also get into some depth on the President’s war powers under Article II, since those were the subject of much debate under Bush, and remain so under the current administration–including the war with Libya.
I’ll be using Randy Barnett’s textbook, which is mostly chronological. One of the main purposes of the class is for students to learn how to practice constitutional law using originalism AND using living constitutionalism. The latter necessitates a chronological approach, since to counsel clients on how the Constitution might change in the future (or might change now), one must understand how the application of the Constitution has varied during different periods in American history.
In the class, I will explain some key facts in American history, for the benefit of students who may not have much history background. Some students, though, might want to do some additional reading to deepen their knowledge. So what American history survey book would commenters recommend for such students? I’d strongly prefer that the book be available in paperback, and not tremendously long, since first-year students have plenty of reading to do already.
FOLLOW-UP: Things are worse than I had feared. Several commenters mentioned some great books (e.g., Gordon Wood), but I want a survey that goes from no later than 1776 through most of American history. No textbooks for AP or college US History, although I wish my students had the time and the money for the Schlesinger textbook. No books that focus on a particular issue, even if it’s a broad one (e.g., Eric Foner’s book). I’m certainly not going to inflict Howard Zinn on my students. I read the 1st edition of People’s History almost as soon as it came out, and enjoyed it. But that’s definitely not the starting point for someone to learn the actual history of the United States; it’s a book for someone who already knows a lot of American history, and can discern the difference between some neglected stories that Zinn tells, and the incredible amount of chaff. Bill Bennett did so much damage to the Constitution during the Bush administration that I recoil from using his book in a constitutional law class. So in the realm of affordable survey paperbacks, we’re down to Brogan’s Penguin History and Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. Based on Amazon reviews, each book is way too didactic for my purposes. Not that the distinguished authors are not entitled to their points of view; I just want something without such a heavy hand. At this point, I’m leaning towards telling students to buy Samuel Eliot Morrison’s Oxford History, which ends in 1963, but is available used for almost nothing, plus shipping. Or his more recent Concise History of the American Republic, also available used for very good prices.