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Arguments that Made History

HIST 326

Arguments that Made History

  • Course ID:HIST 326
  • Semesters:1
  • Department:History
  • Teachers:Mark Grannis

Description and Objectives

Argument is frequently seen as unpleasant or unproductive, but it has historically been a primary engine of social progress.  It is how we conduct shared inquiry, communicate truths to each other, and influence thought and action. In this course, we will study the historical moments in which accomplished speakers and writers have risen to persuade, to inspire, to celebrate, or to console.  We will study these essays and speeches not only for their literary merit, but for the insight they can give us into the men and women who produced these arguments, the times in which they lived, and the eternal questions about the human condition which they sought to answer.

By the end of the semester, you will:

  • Learn and apply classical techniques of oral and written persuasion;
  • Gain familiarity with crucial episodes from the last 450 years of Anglo-American history;
  • Deepen your understanding of history by learning how to think about it from the inside;
  • Sharpen your ability to give close and critical readings to primary texts; and
  • Develop the confidence to take up your pen in rebuttal to some of the leading men and women in history.


We will take as our primary texts the great speeches and essays that have literally made our history at critical times.  (Think Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.) All of these will be distributed in class, generally with introductory material that places the speech or essay in historical context. We may occasionally look to current events for examples that are less edifying but still instructive in their own way.  

Outline of Topics Covered:

We will spend a little time at the beginning of the semester learning what people like Aristotle and Cicero thought one needed to do in order to craft a great argument. After that, we will move through the material (mostly) chronologically, attending not just to the eloquence of the argument but to its historical context and consequences.

As students of history, we know that almost every great argument builds on a rich context of previous arguments shared by the speaker and the audience; you cannot truly appreciate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address unless you know why men died there and you are familiar with the Declaration of Independence. So we will consider these arguments in more or less the same order in which they were presented to the world.

But you will also notice that some of the most profound questions we face as a society do not seem ever to be settled once and for all; instead, they are always with us.  So we will find questions of church and state, or of slavery and human rights, recurring over five centuries. We should notice not only the diversity of opinion in any one time, but also the continuity of moral reasoning across time.

In a typical class, we will take a low-stakes quiz on the reading and then proceed to a consideration of the choices that faced, say, Socrates or Washington or FDR, at the time he crafted his argument.  We will then look at the choices the speaker or writer actually made; what he or she said and why; and what it might still mean for us today. The unit lines are fuzzy, but here they are:

  • Unit 1:  Classical Arguments about Fundamentals
  • Unit 2:  Arguments about Self-Government
  • Unit 3:  Arguments about Equality and a More Perfect Union
  • Unit 4:  Arguments about the Survival of Liberty
  • Unit 5:  Arguments about the Good Society

Course Requirements

You should expect daily reading assignments, frequent low-stakes quizzes, and three unit tests or other assessments per quarter.  Your quarterly grades will be based on your performance on quizzes and tests, the quality of your class participation, and any extra-credit projects you complete. Quizzes will test your retrieval based on the readings, but all unit tests will be open-note, so take good notes.  There will be a comprehensive final examination.

Successful Students

The successful student will exhibit not just technical proficiency with persuasive speaking and writing, but also a willingness to enter imaginatively into the speaker’s or writer’s own milieu.  The imaginative part requires a degree of self-forgetfulness that will stand you in good stead as you move through life.  The good news is that we can all do it. The bad news is that many people find it difficult, so start now.

Classroom participation will be very important in this class—not just because your grade depends on it, but because there is no better way to understand these arguments than to climb inside them.  I will grade class participation daily, and please be aware that (as with many things) too much is as bad as too little; like Goldilocks, we are aiming for “just right.”

If you need any help understanding the material after we have gone over it in class, please contact me right away so that we can get to the root of the misunderstanding and provide additional practice or instruction where appropriate.  I am generally at The Heights in the mornings and at my law office in the afternoon, but I promise we will find time to meet if you contact me by e-mail or phone. I encourage parents to contact me with any questions or concerns as well.