The Right to Write in America

Law and Literature
ENGL2165 & AMER2046 & LALS3005 & LLAW3226
   Spring 2022
   Location: CPD- 3.28
    Mondays: 9:30am -12:20pm

Prof. Kendall JOHNSON
   kjohnson [@]
   Office Hours:
Tuesdays: 10am-12; RR Shaw Tower 7.43

   Office: Run Run Shaw Tower 7.43; or by Zoom appt.

"The government of the Union rests almost entirely on legal fictions. The Union is an ideal nation that exists only in the mind so to speak;
intelligence alone reveals its extent and its limits."

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

Course Description and Primary Texts| Course Requirements | Learning Outcomes | Schedule | American Studies 1050 |
NOTE: Links jump to points further down on this page

In 1776, the idea of self-evidence grounded the philosophical assertion that “all men are created equal.” And yet, political, economic and social equality in the democratic republic of the United States has often proven less of a guarantee and more of a promise. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the “Declaration of Independence,” the recognition of a person as fully human has depended on assumptions regarding race, class and gender. The course examines the changing definition of United States citizenship by putting legal texts (the U.S. Constitution, federal and state laws, Supreme Court decisions) in dialogue with literary writings and film. In this course we will read stories by people whom federal and or state law barred from full citizenship. Through autobiographies, fiction, poetry and speeches, we will examine the cultural legacy of legal terms such as “domestic dependent nation” and “unlawful enemy combatant.” Our goal will be to pay careful attention to the language and genres of the American legislative and judicial system, and conversely to contextualize literature in relation to the legal history through which the U.S. Constitution has been reinterpreted and amended to broaden its terms of equality. We will also consider how different kinds of writing -- legal, scientific, autobiographical and fictional -- employ different rhetorical strategies to reach audiences, affect readers and influence the world.

BOOKS: available in the University Bookstore:
PDF files are read by a program called Acrobat Reader.
It is standard on most computers.
You can also download it from the Adobe site.



  1. Attendance and participation in course sessions: Scheduled meeting times will consist of both lectures on and discussions of assigned reading. It is your responsibility to read the material before hand and be able to discussion this material during class. Unexcused absences and being late will affect adversely your final grade.

  2. Posting to the Moodle Group discussion (ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021): Please notice that there is a Moodle Group for this course; you can access it by going to the HKU Portal and logging in. Click on the "My eLearning" tab and it will take you to a page with the link to: Moodle group for ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021

    At points during the semester (five times), I will assign a short (approximately 200-500 words) response that you will post on Moodle. This will enable you to read and engage to other students' interpretations of the course materials. These posting will be part of your grade-- they are an excellent way of participating in the discussions (especially if something occurs to you outside of class, or you don't get a chance to say what you wanted during the course time).

  3. Class Presentation: Throughout the course schedule are "Presentations" (see below) on a Supreme Court decision, piece of legislation, or topic. At some point during the semester, you will work individually or with a partner to prepare a short class presentation (5-10 minutes) in which you provide an overview of your assigned topic. As part of your presentation, please prepare a one-page summary, distribute this summary to members of the class before you speak, and post the summary to Moodle.

  4. Two essays exams as midterm and final: The essays two exams should be 6-8 pages in length. I will provide topics from which you will choose.

    Note: When writing your essays it is important that you acknowledge through proper citation any secondary sources that you use. If you borrow someone else's words or ideas be sure to mention this in the body of the essay or in a footnote. Here is the University definition and policy on plagiarism. In regard to formats for proper academic citation (APA, Chicago, MLA), please consult: Purdue University OWL: Citation Chart

    The weighting of these requirements is: Attendance (20%); Moodle (15%); Presentation (15%); Midterm (25%); Final (25%)


  • Students will be able to convey key concepts and philosophies behind the creation and development of the United States, law, theories of nationalism, and print culture. They will be able to trace in contemporary political events the historical patterns of the national constitution and its development in relation to civil rights, issues of indigenous sovereignty, and protest movements in the United States.

  • The course will foster students' abilities to read closely a variety of media and genres (literature, legal documents, paintings, film) and to connect the form of literature to key cultural and theoretical themes.

  • Demonstrate how consideration of a text's immediate and potential extended audiences are important factors in the interpretation of that text/

  • Exercise skills of interpretation and communication that enable students to think critically, to evaluate arguments and to respond constructively in writing and in speech, and in both formal and informal environments.

  • Establish an awareness of the international context to the foundation and development of US law and literature thus enabling students to evaluate, with historical perspective, contemporary international collaborations and crises.

  • Cultivate the enjoyment of intellectual experience in everyday life and continue to broaden students' visions of the dynamic relationship between literature, history, geography, science, and the arts.

January 17:
The Founding Documents of the United States and the Aesthetics of Revolution Recommended Reading:
  • Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1978)
  • Jay Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, & the Culture of Performance (1993)

John Adams
(HBO, 2008
(Clip 1) | (Clip 2)
January 24
Jefferson, selections from Notes on the State of Virginia -- Queries 5, 6, 11, 14, 18, and 19 (1785; pdf selections)

  • David Walker, Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America (1829)

    Moodle posting #1:          Moodle group ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021

    Posting #1: Consider the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. Choose a news event from the past 100 years that deals with one of these amendments; your news item can be from the United States or anywhere else in the world. In your posting to Moodle, please briefly summarize the event and its relation to a specific amendment. Please include a link to the new article if you can. Your posting should be from 200-300 words.

    Please post before Saturday, January 22 at 11:59 pm (midnight) please post a short response at Moodle group ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021.

    Recommended Reading:
    Frederick E. Church
    Fralin Museum of Art, Univ. of Virginia

    PART II: CIVIL RIGHTS: Slavery and Fugitive Writing

    WEEK 3:
    Jan. 31:
    Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845)

  • Consider Douglass's reflections on Garrison and the role of "the slave" at Abolitionist events, from "Chapter XXIII: Introduced to the Abolitionists," My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)

  • Fugitive Slave Acts (1850, Commager pdf file)

  • Kendall Johnson, "Revising Escape: Frederick Douglass's Civic Promise of Free Trade and Amitav Ghosh's Global Geography of Imperialism" (2019)
  • Moodle posting #2:          Moodle group for AMER2046LALS3005LLAW3226_2021

    Posting #2: Douglass begins his narrative by telling readers that he does not know his true age. Why does he begin the narrative in this way? (Related alternative prompt: How does Douglass's commentary on this lack of knowledge open to his deeper analysis of the system of slavery?)

    Group A: Please post before Saturday, January 29 at 11:59 pm (midnight); Group B: please reply to one of the posts by Sunday, January 30 before midnight (11:59 pm). Both via Moodle group for ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021.

    Anon., oil on wood
    The Met., NYC
    Feb. 7:
    No class. Happy Chinese New Year
    WEEK 4:
    Feb 14:
    Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

    Moodle posting #3:          Moodle group for AMER2046LALS3005LLAW3226_2021

    Posting #3: Compare the ways that Douglass and Jacobs represent literacy. What is one key difference and what significance does this difference have? Please cite a specific passage from Jacobs in responding.

    Group B: Please post before Saturday, February 12 at 11:59 pm (midnight); Group A: Please reply to a post by Sunday, February 13 at 11:59 pm (midnight) Moodle group for ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021.

    AMISTAD (1997)
    Steven Spielberg
    WEEK 5
    Feb. 21:
    Henry David Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government" (or, "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government" or "Civil Disobedience") (1848; 1849; p. 189-213 in Aesthetic Papers pdf)

    Moodle posting #4:          Moodle group for ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021

    Posting #4: How does Thoreau characterise the significance of the vote? Explain the rationale behind his characterisation and / or the implications of his characterisation.

    Group A: Please post before Saturday, February 19 at 11:59 pm (midnight); Group B: Please reply to a post by Sunday, February 20 at 11:59 pm (midnight)at Moodle group for ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021.

    Portraits of
    Abraham Lincoln

    WEEK 6:
    February 28:
    Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

    Moodle posting #5:          Moodle group for ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021

    Posting #5: Find a conversation or a scene in Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin that deals with an issue related to the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution or a law or judicial ruling of your choosing. (Please cite the novel in your response.) In choosing the scene, you might consider how and why the novel is asking you to think about the rights of citizenship, or federal or state law. Or, you might explain how Stowe is illustrating a crisis regarding the definition of rights.

    Group B: Please post before Saturday, February 26 at 11:59 pm (midnight); Group A: Please reply to a post by Sunday, February 27 at 11:59 pm (midnight) at Moodle group for ENGL2165LALS3005LLAW3226_2021.

    Reading Week:
    March 7:
    No class

    Midterm Exam (TBA); due March 18 (Friday) by 11 pm via email


    Suggestions in regard to film and music-video analysis:
    WEEK 7 & 8:
    March 14 and March 21:
    Herman Melville, "Benito Cereno" in The Piazza Tales (109-270) (1856)

  • Greg Grandin, "Obama, Melville and the Tea Party," New York Times (18 January 2014)

  • Bamboozled (2000)
    Spike Lee

    PART III: SOVEREIGNTY: Removal, Allotment, Self-Governance, Self-Determination

    WEEK 9:
    March 28:
    James Fenimore Cooper, Last of the Mohicans (1826)

  • Presentation 11: Johnson & Graham's Lessee v. McIntosh - 21 U.S. 543 (1823; first decision of the Marshall Trilogy) (Nicole-- the Marshall Trilogy)
  • Presentation 12: The Indian Removal Act (1830), (Ingrid) The Library of Congress
  • Presentation 13: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia - 30 U.S. 1 (1831; second decision of the Marshall Trilogy) (Nicole)
  • Presentation 14: Worcester v. Georgia - 31 U.S. 515 (1832; third decision of the Marshall Trilogy) (Nicole)

    Recommended reading:
  • Eric Cheyfitz, "Savage Law: The Plot Against American Indians in Johnson and Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh and The Pioneers"
  • map
  • Francis Prucha (editor), Documents of United States Indian Policy:
    The Marshall Trilogy (1823, 1831, 1832); Indian Removal Act (1830); General Allotment Act (1887) (Jolie and Wing)
    ; Commissioner Cato Sells on competency (1917); Indian Reorganization Act (1934); Termination, Self Determination
    Prucha I (Removals)     |     Prucha II (Allotment, Reorganization, Termination, Self-Determination)
  • The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann; 1992)

    Michael Mann

    Thomas Cole
    WEEK 10:
    April 4:
    Black Hawk, Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak (1833)

       US Treaty with the Sauk and Foxes, 1804, from C. Kappler

       The Cherokee Memorials

    Williams Apess, "An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man" and "Eulogy for King Philip"

       First editions:
  • Presentation 15: The General Allotment Act (1887) (TBA)     |     Indian Land Tenure Foundation
    Painted by Charles Bird King
    in Thomas McKenney & James Hall's
    History of the Indian Tribes of North America (Philadelphia, 1837-44)
    WEEK 11:
    April 11:
    Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories (1921)
    Day following Easter:
    April 18:
    No class

    WEEK 12
    April 25:
    Charles Eastman, From Deep Woods to Civilization (1916)

    Poems by Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Adrian Louis, Luci Tapahanso (TBA)

    Luci Tapahonso
    "Hills Brothers Coffee"
    WEEK 13:
    April 28 and May 2:
    Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water: A Novel (1993)

    Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman (2021)
    Final Essay due Wednesday, 5pm, May 18, by email

    SFTL Online Evaluation (until Friday, May 6th)