08 November 2016

The Founding

Since my last blog, we've decided to blog every other unit. That means this entry applies to the units on the Revolution and the Early Republic. That's a huge sweep of history, but one linked by the activity of the Founders.  All of our themes feature here, and are at least partially transformed by the stresses of Revolution and Independence. Again, I'll be suggesting articles for each theme.

The American Dream

I've decided to start with this topic because it comes up early during the Founding. Taxation upset Americans precisely because it touched on their economic aspirations. Colonists displayed their economic success by consuming British imports, such as tea or clothing. So it seemed as though Britain spurned American admiration by taxing precisely these goods. The first article addresses colonial imitation of Britain. The second talks about how they turned against British goods, organizing the first boycotts in history. After the Revolution, other Americans aspired to be self-sufficient farmers. The third link discusses the place of this idea in Thomas Jefferson's thought.





This is another topic that emerges during the later colonial period. Immigration became controversial as soon as it started to change, with Germans beginning to replace British Protestants in certain regions. Our first link covers a famous episode, in which Benjamin Franklin harshly criticized German immigration. Our second link covers the period's most famous immigrant, Alexander Hamilton. Though the Broadway musical celebrates this aspect of his life, he wasn't above carping about other immigrants. Hamilton neatly illustrates a surprising tendency of the immigrant experience, one's willingness to close the door after entering.




The topic of immigration has traditionally been bound up with that of exceptionalism, which takes the paradoxical position that America is different from other nations precisely because of its internationalism. But for this period, exceptionalists focus on the Declaration of Independence. Again, the focus is on American universalism, as discussed by the article below



When This theme is the second in a famous trifecta, the unalienable rights enumerated by the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". The first article discusses how that phrase was written and, more importantly, how it was read. The second article discusses the constitution's relationship to freedom, using James Madison as a case study.




The topic of freedom substantially overlaps with that of race, where slavery is still the main topic. Our first article talks about black soldiers, in both the British and American armies. The second addresses our Declaration's original paragraph on slavery, which Congress later struck from the final draft. Finally, the Declaration inspired northern states to abolish slavery, which is discussed in the third link.





Of all our topics, this is the one that comes up least during the founding. For all their talk of natural rights, the Founders strove to restrict suffrage to propertied men. But recently, there has been a trend to discover the beginnings of American democracy in elections surrounding the constitution's ratification. As the below article shows, property restrictions were temporarily waived.


07 September 2016

The Colonial Period

This feels a little premature, seeing as how my students' first blogs aren't even due yet. But I thought I'd get a head start on the colonial period, for any go-getters in my classes.

It'll be exciting (or horrifying, depending upon your perspective) to blog about this unit, as many of our themes mature rapidly during the colonial period. Among these are race, with the establishment of slavery in colonial Virginia. And exceptionalism still owes much to John Winthrop's ideal of the city on a hill. Others, such as freedom and democracy, still have a long way to go. But for all of them, there are fascinating premonitions of modern practice.

Now that we're covering history, I feel more qualified to introduce each theme with some remarks. I've tried to avoid assigning each theme to just one region, either Virginia or New England. But some of them just work better that way, so here they are starting with Virginia:


The history of race in America starts with Native Americans, not slaves. Our first article revisits the first Thanksgiving, with a large dose of context. But as the English displaced Native Americans, the racial narrative gradually transferred to African slaves. They were an alternative to the declining population of indentured servants. The second link describes this institution, and its replacement by slavery. Finally, a third website chronicles the growth of slavery during the late 1600s.




The American Dream

Our economic history began with tobacco. And the topic is still timely, as the first article observes; four hundred years later, we are still trying to discourage its consumption. To get a sense of the risks early tobacco planters ran (starvation), I have linked a second article. Virginia may not fit our idea of the "American Dream", as work was not especially valued there. It was New England that bequeathed us its work ethic, a legacy discussed in our third article.





Of our two representative regions, Virginia got a lot more immigrants. Indeed, because of low reproduction (most of the early colonists were male) and mortality due to starvation and disease, Virginia only survived because of immigration. The first article gives some basic statistics, and explores migrants' motivations. The same general impression, of large numbers and mortality, also applies to the slave experience recounted in the second link (obviously you could also apply this to our theme of race). A much more successful experience played out in New England, which had a healthier climate and attracted more families. The third website discusses this misleadingly-named "great migration", which involved fewer people over a shorter period of time but proved more durable.





Our first link treats Virginia's House of Burgesses, the first representative assembly in the Americas. You could also talk about New England, which combined both representative and direct democracy (in the form of town meetings). The second article tries to identify what, of the Massachusetts political system, anticipated modern democracy. Finally, a third explores the Mayflower Compact, which John Quincy Adams considered "the only instance in human history of that positive, original, social compact" underlying governments.





Freedom had a predominantly religious meaning in the colonial period. And while it has expanded into secular life since then, this original definition is still alive and well in America. The Pilgrims famously left England to escape religious persecution, but went first to tolerant Holland. So why go to America? Our first link explains their decision. They were followed by the Puritans, who sought religious freedom for themselves but not others. The second article describes how this second instance of persecution led to the birth of true religious freedom in Rhode Island.




Here the classic text remains John Winthrop's sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity". In it, Winthrop envisioned the founding of a "city upon a hill". The phrase has usually been understood to emphasize his colony's exemplary (and, by extension, exceptional) role. By far the most accessible introduction to the history is Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates. The first link is a (much shorter) interview with her publisher. The second article broadens our perspective to situate Winthrop in his Calvinist context. Here, we see that American exceptionalism owes a lot to the idea of a predestined elect.



30 August 2016


Welcome to my blog! I teach United States History at Potomac Falls High School, in Sterling, VA. This year, as part of our county's One to the World initiative, students will be blogging about one of six themes in American history: freedom, race, democracy, immigration, exceptionalism, or the American dream. They'll pick one of them, which they'll relate to each unit's content. To kick off things off, I'm asking students to announce which theme they've chosen -- and why. They should say something about how their theme relates to current events, while linking to and evaluating one online source. Students are strongly encouraged to find their own, but may use one of the following websites:



















The American Dream 




Students should summarize their link, identify its point of view (if any), and agree or disagree with it. Also, they have to comment on at least one classmate's blog entry. This could take the form of a question or comment, just keep it appropriate. I'm looking forward to blogging together!