The 17th Century Origins of Contemporary American Politics

Lecture Series Description: A nation plagued by partisan divisions, obsessed with conspiracy theories, unsure about the how far basic freedoms extend, and fearful that our leaders are undermining the rule of law. Are we talking about 21st-century America, or 17th-century England? These lectures explain why the answer to that question is “both,” and why attention to world of Shakespeare, the Puritans, and John Locke helps our own world make more sense.

Lecture Series Information: Thursdays, 10:00-11:45 a.m., starting September 23, 2021, O'Shaughnessy Educational Center Auditorium, University of St. Thomas St. Paul Campus and simulcast online via Zoom.

Lecture Series Educator: William Cavert has taught British and European history, environmental history, and world history at St. Thomas since 2014. He is the author of the prize-winning book The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City, as well as other studies on urban pollution, energy consumption, and climate history during the 16th-18th centuries. His current research explores human-animal relationships and agricultural improvement in Britain and its growing empire. His previous Selim Center lectures have focused on “The Tudors” and “Globalization 1.0: The World After 1492.”

Fee for the series: $90.00 per person

To register on-line with a credit card on our secure page, click on this link:

To print out a form to complete and then mail in with a check or cash payment, click on this link: ‌Fall 2021 Paper Registration Form

Link to campus map: St. Paul Campus Map (82020)

Detailed Lecture Series Syllabus:

September 23

Reformation Legacies: Division and Popularity.

When Henry VIII’s divorce from his wife began England’s divorce from medieval Catholicism, the result was a permanent disagreement about basic issues of political authority and personal identity. This process helps explain why England had both an especially strong monarchy and also an increasingly strong parliament - both a strong government and a tradition celebrating liberty.

September 30

The State of the Nation and Culture Wars.

During the 16th and 17th centuries two new ideas changed English understandings of their status as subjects and citizens. Government came to be seen as something done by the “state” rather than the king and his servants, which in turn allowed people to think of themselves as united in one “nation.” These ideas, with all their implications and tensions, continue to structure our political life today. In particular they have led to recurrent culture wars, battles over the moral and symbolic meaning of the nation.

October 7

The Rule of Law: Impeachment and Habeas Corpus.

17th-century politics were divided over whether kings were above the law, and these disputes produced two innovations that were incorporated directly in the American constitution: impeachment of officers and the writ of Habeas Corpus. Attention to why these arose in the 1600s can help us understand why they remain significant today.

October 14

Plots: Conspiracies and Parties.

We seem to live a world of paranoia and conspiracy theories, in which political rivals each accuse their enemies of undermining the common good. This too originated in the early modern period, and was an important contributor to a key innovation of that period: the Whigs and Tories, the first political parties.

October 21

No Session


October 28

Freedoms: Toleration and the Marketplace of Ideas.

The 17th century saw the development of the classical liberal tradition, embodied most famously in authors like John Milton and John Locke whose arguments for freedom of speech, press, and religion were influential on the framers of the American republic. Exploring how these ideas arose helps illuminate how these rights can be at once “self-evident” and “inalienable,” and yet also contested and limited.

November 4

Empire of Freedom? Corporations and Race.

In 1600 England had limited foreign influence, but by the 1700s had become a major global power. Its ability to do so was aided by a crucial legal innovation – the corporation – that connected private profit at home with empire abroad in new and explosive ways. As English influence grew, its people began to think of their relationship to others in new ways. Skin color, a minor consideration in the 16th century, became a fundamental category that organized who the British thought deserved freedom, wealth, land, and power.