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WPOL200 The Rise of Liberalism: Authority, Society and Freedom

Unit rationale, description and aim

Understanding how Australia and the United States evolved from colonies of British subjects to modern self-governing democracies is important for anyone wishing to contribute to public life today.

This unit offers a chronological-thematic survey of the key ideas, institutions and practices that characterized the emergence of modern democracy in Australia, the US and Great Britain, including shared norms such as the rule of law, self-government through accountable parliamentary rule, and the eventual extension of the voting franchise across economic, racial and gender lines. It sets such historical developments alongside major texts and thinkers, including John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, the American Declaration of Independence, the US and Australian (federal and colonial) constitutions, Mary Wollsonecraft, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, William Charles Wentworth, Edmund Barton, and more. As well as the influential liberal English enlightenment tradition, it explores 18th century "republican" suspicion of tyranny and centralized power in The Federalist papers, 19th century populist forms of democracy, and the function of the civic sphere in liberal democracies. The unit's examination of connections and comparisons between Britain, the US and Australia facilitates exploration of themes such as the distinctiveness of Australian democracy in relation to its shared heritage, the battle for and achievement of women's right to vote in Australia and overseas, and Indigenous engagements with democratic ideas, institutions and possibilities.

Learning outcomes

To successfully complete this unit you will be able to demonstrate you have achieved the learning outcomes (LO) detailed in the below table.

Each outcome is informed by a number of graduate capabilities (GC) to ensure your work in this, and every unit, is part of a larger goal of graduating from ACU with the attributes of insight, empathy, imagination and impact.

Explore the graduate capabilities.

On successful completion of this unit, students should be able to:

LO1 - Describe key aspects of the great works of Anglo, American and Australian political thought in relation to the evolution of democracy in those countries (GA4, GA5, GA8)

LO2 - Discuss social, historical, philosophical, political and ethical ideas and movements in texts drawn from, and related to, the development of democracy in Britain, the USA and Australia (GA2, GA6, GA8, GA9)

LO3 - Evaluate and synthesise knowledge from diverse sources and communicate complex ideas and findings with sophistication and confidence to a range of audiences (GA1, GA2, GA4, GA9)

LO4 - Apply disciplinary knowledge and skills to formulate intellectually grounded, evidence-based judgments about history and the modern world (GA4, GA7, GA8, GA9)

LO5 - Apply disciplinary knowledge and skills to understand complex, real-world issues, informed by western and other traditions, including the rich perspectives of Native American and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (GA1, GA2, GA7, GA8, GA9).

Graduate attributes

GA1 - demonstrate respect for the dignity of each individual and for human diversity 

GA2 - recognise their responsibility to the common good, the environment and society 

GA4 - think critically and reflectively 

GA5 - demonstrate values, knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the discipline and/or profession 

GA6 - solve problems in a variety of settings taking local and international perspectives into account

GA7 - work both autonomously and collaboratively 

GA8 - locate, organise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information 

GA9 - demonstrate effective communication in oral and written English language and visual media 


Topics will include: 

  • The emergence of parliamentary constitutional monarchy in England after the English Civil War and the development of self-governing institutions in colonial Virginia and New England
  • The context, nature and legacies of John Locke’s theory of government  
  • The intellectual sources and legacies of American revolutionary political thinkers (such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton)
  • The functioning of 19th century American democracy (as seen in texts such as Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America)
  • Connections and distinctives between Francophone and Anglophone democratic thought, including Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutions in France 
  • Early feminist theorising of women’s role in democracy, including Mary Wollsonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Sojourner Truth’s, Narrative of Sojourner Truth 
  • Populist definitions and practices of democracy (for example, in the era of Andrew Jackson)
  • Australian advocacy for self-rule and extension of the franchise
  • Leaders of Federation-era Australian political thought (for example, Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin)
  • Constitutional development and change in Australia and the US
  • First nations, such as Native American and Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, engagements with democratic ideas, institutions and possibilities in America and Australia
  • Campaigns for and achievement of women’s right to vote in Britain, the US and Australia

Learning and teaching strategy and rationale

Taught face-to-face in small groups with a Socratic method of teaching that stresses interaction and lively debate, this unit proceeds by inquiring into the meaning and significance of seminal texts in the history of democracy’s emergence in British, American and political thought.

The close-reading of seminal texts in their original context provides students the opportunity to develop insight into the complexities and foundations of a tradition at once over-familiar and poorly-remembered. Examining distinct thinkers and texts across time and place serves to untangle and disaggregate strands of democratic thought often wrongly rolled together, highlighting often profound differences in philosophical and religious emphases. Such differences were often as fundamental as an understanding of human nature itself. Liberal, republican and populist forms of democratic thought and practice are among the distinctions covered.

A second feature of the learning and teaching strategy that provides students with a high-quality learning experience is the careful approach use of transnational history to encourage students to think carefully about both points of connection and distinctiveness between Britain, America and Australia.

Although focussed on great books and thinkers, the unit also highlights some of the limits of that methodology for understanding the actual historical development and everyday experience of vast constituencies in each of the three countries.

The unit also offers an important opportunity to meet LO4 by focussing on Indigenous engagements with Western democratic thought over time in the USA and Australia. Examples might include the Cherokee nation’s promulgation of a constitution modelled on that of the US, or the 1930s activism of Aboriginal man William Cooper in Australia. 

This is a 10-credit point unit and has been designed to ensure that the time needed to complete the required volume of learning to the requisite standard is approximately 150 hours in total across the semester. To achieve a passing standard in this unit, students will find it helpful to engage in the full range of learning activities and assessments utilised in this unit. The learning and teaching and assessment strategies include a range of approaches to support your learning such as reading, reflection, discussion, webinars, podcasts, video, etc.

Assessment strategy and rationale

There are three types of assessment for this unit, each enabling students to develop a distinct set of skills and body of knowledge contained in the Learning Outcomes. A summative task demonstrating students’ understanding of the significance of a major Anglophone text in political thought [Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, or equivalent] A comparative research essay on the nineteenth century development of democracy in Australia and the US [topics may change from year to year]. A group presentation with accompanied media output (such as podcast, blog entry, video or multi-media presentation) on the theme of outsiders who became insiders, or equivalent. Students will research a micro-case study that sheds light on the obstacles and the milestones by which inclusion in deliberative democratic processes—including especially the right to vote—has been gradually extended to incorporate those outside of the narrow class of propertied gentlemen which British, American and Australian democracies initially restricted the franchise to. [Students may profile, for example, an individual, such as a civil rights leader, or a network of people or organizations such as women campaigning for the vote to be extended to women, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians’ developing means to enhance democratic inclusion].

The assessment tasks for this unit have been designed to contribute to high quality student learning by both helping students learn (assessment for learning), and by measuring explicit evidence of their learning (assessment of learning). Assessments have been developed to meet the unit learning outcomes and develop graduate attributes consistent with University assessment requirements. These have been designed so that they use a variety of tasks to measure the different learning outcomes at a level suitable for third-year studies of Western Civilisation.

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

Summative task on the significance of a foundational text


LO1, LO2

GA4, GA5, GA8, GA9

Comparative research essay on democracy’s development in 19th century USA and Australia


LO2, LO3, LO4

GA2, GA4, GA5, GA6, GA8, GA9

A group presentation with accompanied media output (such as podcast, blog entry, video or multi-media presentation) on a case study illustrating changing norms of exclusion/inclusion in democratic processes.


LO3, LO4, LO5

GA 1, GA2, GA4, GA7, GA8, GA9

Representative texts and references

Indicative primary sources 

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government 

The Federalist Papers [available at ] 

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia 

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 

Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution 

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty 

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense 

Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America  

Alfred Deakin, The Federal Story: The Inner History of the Federal Cause [available at;;toc.depth=1;;database=;collection=;brand=default

Indicative secondary sources 

Appleby, Joyce. Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996. 

Attwood, Bain. The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007. 

Dahl, Adam. Empire of the people: Settler colonialism and the foundations of modern democratic thought. University Press of Kansas, 2018. 

Hirst, J. B. The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy: New South Wales, 1848-1884. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988. 

Howe, Daniel Walker, and David M. Kennedy. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007 

Hulliung, Mark. The American Liberal Tradition Reconsidered: The Contested Legacy of Louis Hartz. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 2010. 

Marshall, John. John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 

Waugh, John. The Rules: An Introduction to the Australian Constitutions. Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1996. 

Young, Simon, Jennifer Nielsen, and Jeremy Patrick, Constitutional recognition of first peoples in Australia-theories and comparative perspectives, Federation Press, 2016. 

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