The end of the school year is drawing near. I have much to say about different topics, issues and pedagogy that were encountered from November-April.
Once the curriculum moved beyond the Early Republic in late October, the narrative turned to issues that were equally important to understanding the nation’s development and provided context for some of the challenges we face as a nation today. Slavery and its impact on the political, economic and social institutions was the driving force of so many events from 1820-1865. One might expect to see a more explicit reference to the “peculiar institution” in the South Carolina high school US history standards. You don’t. In both the 2011 and 2019 versions, slavery is only referenced in one indicator. Specifically it mentions “the slave states.” As I often joke, the US Constitution and the South Carolina US curriculum share one thing in common; the omission of slavery. And yet, it is inherently connected to almost every major event of antebellum America.
Jill Lepore notes that slavery was a clear point of division between Republicans and Federalists in the early 1800s. The invention of the cotton gin, the textile industry and new land revived what the founders believed was a dying economic practice. By 1820, the addition of territory through the Louisiana Purchase and the political pressure to make some decision about race and the future led to the Missouri Compromise. She referenced Baltimore attorney Daniel Raymond who noted in his pamphlet The Missouri Question that slavery “will every year become more inveterate and more formidible.”
It was that prediction that led me to The Journal of American History article by historian Lacy Ford titled “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838.” It’s an interesting read and chronicles how Southern leaders constructed rationales for slavery that were accepted by most whites. By the late 1830s, Ford suggests that any meaningful attempts to overthrow the institution by abolition arguments was met with “a full ideological reconfiguration that pronounced slavery the firmest possible foundation for republican liberty.”
My decision to turn this article over to my three honors classes was definitely a gamble. Experience told me that a 28 page article would be a hard sell. And it was. We read and discussed the introduction together as a class. This gave everyone exposure to his overall thesis. Students were then assigned specific pages to investigate one of his supporting claims. These included responses of southern leaders to slave rebellions, economic issues and the abolition movement. Dividing up the reading definitely made things manageable.
Once students identified and explained the different ways politicians crafted their positions on slavery from their assigned sections, we looked at the primary sources Ford used to write the article. The Organization of American Historians has an amazing resource called Teaching the Journal of American History. The site pairs articles with a curated set of primary sources used by the historians . This allows your classes to evaluate the sources, discuss their strengths and better debate the quality of the arguments in the article. In other words, you can take a deep dive with these resources and give students some great practice with historical thinking skills.
I created a graphic organizer to help students identify arguments in the article and to interrogate the primary sources using questions from the JAH resources. Students were responsible for adding their own information from the assigned readings. We then did a debrief of Ford’s arguments and sources. The graphic organizer needs revisions, but it helped foster a thorough discussion of the article.
One bonus to our work was Lacy Ford joined one of my classes to discuss the article. This was at the height of the pandemic, so he joined us via Google Meets. Students submitted their questions in advance and after he talked about some general issues in the article and the review process for the JAH, I read and he answered the submitted questions. He spent about an hour with the class. It was a nice way to wrap up our work with the article.
Lapore wrapped up her observations on the slavery debate in this period by looking at the political career of Thomas Morris of Ohio. His antislavery arguments in the late 1830s reflect an awareness of the way slavery had been constructed socially, politically and economically in the United States. She emphasized his denunciation of slavery as “the putrid mass of prejudice, which interest has created, to keep the colored race in bondage.” Lacy Ford certainly gave ample evidence and analysis to support Morris' argument. The degree to which this prejudice has been dismantled over the last 160 years continues to be up for debate.
No doubt, 2020 will be an election year that will be scrutinized by historians. It was hard to pass up creating a lesson that compared the current campaign and the 1800 election. Most of the time, this event is used to highlight the development of the Two Party System and the peaceful transition of power between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. For those who have looked at the issues in 1800, it's almost eerie. There are a number of similarities in both the tone and the substance of the campaign that are worth investigating with students.
Lapore writes "Jefferson believed that the election of 1800 would 'fix our national character'." Driving to work this morning listening to the radio, the Editor and Chief of the Economist was making a similar declaration in their endorsement of Joe Biden. It was a contentious election for sure. The Federalist press attacked Jefferson for being an atheist and the Democratic-Republican press declared that Adams was of "hermaphroditical character" along with other abuses. The candidates faced serious scandals in their personal lives. Adams had essentially cut off ties with his son Charles, who died in 1800 due to alcoholism. Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings was first mentioned in the press in the late 1790s.
What is remarkable about the two contests are the issues. The ongoing debate over First Amendment rights, immigration, manipulation of votes, Supreme Court appointments and protest of racial injustice bring into focus how much continuity there is in American political life. One event Lapore highlights in the midst of the election year was Gabriel Prosser's Rebellion in 1800. Inspired by events in the Caribbean, Lapore says "Africans in America found inspiration in news of events in Haiti." The rebellion, led by Prosser, failed to overthrow the slave system in Virginia, but Lapore adds "opponents of slavery predicted that Gabriel's rebellion would not be the last." In a year where racial injustice has been at the forefront of the news, a major rebellion in the midst of a significant historic election, reminds us how our society is still grappling with the issue of race over a 200 year period.
I thought it would be useful for my students to evaluate the issues that were similar to both elections by using a sort activity. Student pairs matched evidence in two rounds of time for seven different topics: immigration, insults, Supreme Court appointments, vote manipulation, protest/revolt, scandal and free speech. I found the evidence for the sort rather quickly using a variety of websites. In the first round, students had to do their best to match similar issues just using the evidence. In the second round, they received category cards to help them finalize their sorts. During the debrief, we talked about evidence matches, the context of some of the evidence and the best comparison between the two elections. I was surprised how many students were not aware of Sally Hemmings. I was also interested in how they interpreted some of the material to make their matches. The excerpts from the Alien & Sedition Acts were often misunderstood and therefore matched with unrelated issues.
The activity is attached in case you want to make those comparisons with your students. In the next lesson, we looked at the outcome of the election, particularly the addition of the 12th Amendment, the peaceful transfer of power, the impact of the Marshall Court and the aftermath of Gabriel's Rebellion. As we pivot to Westward Expansion, elections, race and the Supreme Court will continue to influence the narrative. It will be interesting to see next week, as the 2020 Election comes to an end, whether the tone and substance uttered by Jefferson in his inaugural address can be replicated and that our national character can be repaired. Jefferson thought the storm was over in 1801. As Lapore and experience suggests, it was not.
1800 & 2020 Election Sort Lesson Plan
1800 Election Evidence Cards
2020 Election Evidence Cards
Election Category Cards
When approaching an assignment about the influence of the Declaration of Independence, the major challenge is pairing down the thicket of required political events to consider other perspectives. The South Carolina high school curriculum offers only a few opportunities to examine other individuals and events that are not explicitly tied to the major political highlights of the US narrative. It takes some resolve to insert the voices of women, African Americans, indigenous people and the average laborer eking out an existence, while covering the traditional causes of the American Revolution, the failings of the Articles of Confederation and the creation and ratification of the US Constitution.
The school year in my district really began yesterday. I'm teaching in a hybrid model and I spent the day meeting with all six of my classes online. Besides the challenges that Covid-19 poses, history teachers are also facing a new war over what should be taught in the public schools. Earlier this week, the president told schools in California that funding may be withheld for teaching lessons related to the 1619 Project. A panel in Washington DC made recommendations about renaming buildings and parks with ties to slavery last week. Certainly an interesting environment to begin teaching US History to high school students.
It's an interesting choice teachers have to make on where to start a history course. The South Carolina state standards directs teachers to begin with colonial regions. It's fairly sanitized with a focus on the economy, religion and political institutions of New England, Middle and Southern colonies. It assumes that students have some prior knowledge about settlement---particularly in relation to indigenous peoples and slavery. These Truths provides a comprehensive look at the initial contact between American peoples and Europeans. What I appreciate about Jill Lapore's approach in her narrative comes from the introduction. She says "There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope." She also says "History isn't only a subject; it's also a method. My method is, generally to let the dead speak for themselves." Those are pretty solid tenants to stick to in building a curriculum.
The first activity of this week started with European settlement of the Americas and letting those voices from the past tell the story. As the introduction to colonial regions, students read documents referenced in These Truths, including the Spanish Requerimiento (1513), Richard Haklyut's Discourse of Western Planting (1584) and Metacom's complaints about the English from John Easton's A Narrative of the Causes which Led to King Philip's War. This was followed by a discussion about perspectives of "the other" and how each group justified control of the land. Some students argued that a religious hierarchy was constructed by the Spanish and the English that placed them above indigenous peoples and justified their land claims. Another student suggested that Haklyut wanted to enslave people, but promised the English would be nicer than the Spanish. The same student remarked that "nice" treatment of indigenous people in 1584 had already collapsed by 1675. Reading a section of the source that described how Metacom's father had generously given the English settlers land, a student noted how unjust the world had become for the Wampanoag. I closed the discussion by emphasizing their conclusions about what influenced the settlement of the Americas: the role of religion, new social and political hierarchies and injustice.
I've added the links to these documents to this post if you are interested in them or you want to share them with your students. Next week, the topic shifts to political ideas and the colonies. I am confident that the the current debate will continue about what students should be taught in history classes. Following Lepore's lead---I'll let the dead do the talking.
The Requerimiento (1513)
Discourse of Western Planting (1584)
Metacom Relates Indian Complaints about the English Settlers (1675)
The school year has started in many parts of the country. My students will return after Labor Day. I've been at this for a number of years. This will be my 27th year of teaching. Like most of my colleagues in this profession, I recognize this will be unlike any year I've ever experienced. Most of the teaching world is focused on health issues, technology challenges and making connections with their respective flocks as they navigate hybrid, virtual and face to face instruction. I won't be ignoring those issues myself. However, I find my interest gravitating to the world that has been redefined in the wake of George Floyd's death and what this watershed moment means to history teaching and curriculum in the K-12 classroom. My hope is that most teachers can make the pivot and bring to an end the rather melba toast exceptionalism narrative of United States history and begin to explore a more robust and complicated examination of the nation's past with their students.
This blog will be dedicated to my observations and suggestions along the path to redesigning the US history curriculum. I expect to consult recent scholarship, collaborate and experiment over the next year. I've chosen Jill Lepore as my guide. As a history geek, I've been a fan of hers for a number of years. I consider The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity one of the most influential books in my career. Lepore also works with teachers and has appeared at a number of online professional development offerings during the pandemic. Her book, These Truths: A History of the United States, was published in 2018 and challenges the traditional narrative and if you listen to her read it on Audible---almost sounds poetic. Lepore examines, among other things, racial injustice, gender inequality and economic motive as she traces the evolution of the United States. I plan to dive into some other texts along the way, but Lepore's narrative will help frame much of my work on a new history curriculum.
In subsequent posts, I will provide some highlights from the book, supply links to primary sources, hopefully interview teachers and historians and reflect on how things are going in a pandemic classroom. Here's to a new and fruitful beginning.