New center traces gov’t origins

A new academic center will bring a variety of historians and political scientists to campus to discuss the origins of constitutional government.

The Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions was inaugurated at a ceremony Friday that attracted about 80 undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members, as well as staff from the non-profit organization that will fund the new project. Political science professor Steven Smith and history professor Keith Wrightson, co-directors of Yale’s new center, said the project is meant to revamp Yale’s approach to studying the development of American democracy through classes, research and conferences.

The Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions was inaugurated Friday.
The Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions was inaugurated Friday.

“Students aren’t getting enough about early government and constitutional government­­­­­­ — that used to be a staple,” Smith said in an interview with the News. “We want to put that back on course.”

Next year, the Center will host a series of speakers and conferences related to its mission.

So far, Wrightson said, two conferences are planned. The first will focus on the statecraft of Abraham Lincoln, he said, and the second will invite professors from both the United States and the United Kingdom to discuss the “whole trajectory” towards democracy from the English Civil War in the 17th century, through the American Revolution and ending with the American Civil War — a major theme of the center itself, he added.

“We want to encourage innovative ways of looking at these issues,” Wrightson said. “It’s a classic story and often told in a way that seems inevitable, but it was hard-fought for at every step of the way.”

The center already brought post-doctoral students Steve Bilakovics and James Vaughn to campus to write books about democracy and the British empire, respectively. The two students are also teaching the undergraduate courses “Exploring the American Dream” and “The British Empire and the Making of the Modern World” this semester.

Political science major Alexander Keller ’11, who is taking Vaughn’s course on the British Empire, said Yale could benefit from offering more classes about the development of American government.

“I do indeed think there should be more courses on our origins,” Keller said. “I would argue that understanding the current institutional arrangement of America … necessitates a familiarity with British history and political thought.”

The Yale center’s focus won support from the Jack Miller Center, a non-profit organization that funds efforts to educate students about American history, said Mike Ratliff, president of the Jack Miller Center.

Any future funding for Smith and Wrightson’s new project from the Jack Miller Center will depend upon its performance, Ratliff added.

“I think it is clear that they have a powerful concept of what can be done and how the resources of Yale University can support this project,” he said. “If they succeed in doing what they said, we will do what we can to find additional resources.”

Success cannot be measured by only simple measures such as attendance at talks, Ratliff said, but should take into account the quality of the programs. He said he hopes the center will become an integral part of Yale’s campus, which could possibly encourage Yale to support the project as well.

Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for social sciences and faculty development, said her office does not normally fund such projects, though it sometimes provides a “bridge” between two sources of outside funding should one source end its support before the next goes into effect.

Wrightson said next year’s speakers will include Joyce Appleby, former president of the American Historical Association, and Jack Greene, a historian of colonial America.

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