Category Archives: Teaching

O.K. So It Was Slavery…But Where Does That Get You?

This week I started the Civil War with my AP classes.  I actually do not like teaching the Civil War to my AP classes because there is really no time to cover it thoroughly.  This brings me to a rant about the AP curriculum which I will put off for a later time. 

Today we looked at two primary sources that outline the respective goals of the United States and the Confederacy.  In reference to the former we read Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greely written in 1862 which emphasizes the goal of preserving the Union with slavery serving as a possible means to achieving that end.  I know there are other sources, but the letter is short and makes the point clearly.  Some of the students have difficulty moving beyond the overly simplistic picture of Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator" who set out from the beginning to end slavery. 

More interesting, however, is their reaction or should I say lack of reaction in coming to terms with what the Confederacy was fighting for.  We read through Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech" and I point out the changes made to the Confederate constitution that focus on slavery.  What is interesting to me is that my students have little difficulty connecting the Confederacy with slavery.  In fact, I had to point out the reasons why people continue to try to separate the Confederacy from slavery.  One student rightly pointed out that all of the events that the class covered since the Mexican-American War somehow revolved around the issue of slavery.  Once in awhile a student will note that most white Southerners did not own slaves or that their ancestor did not fight for slavery.  The proper reaction is to point out that individuals go off to war – if they are not drafted – for any number of reasons that may not correspond to why a country goes to war.  For example, I like to point out that plenty of Americans probably volunteered to go to Vietnam for reasons unrelated to the "Domino Theory."  This, of course does not imply that the United States did not go to war in Vietnam for just this reason. 

I sometimes have students who have picked up the traditional "Lost Cause" argument from a parent and I’ve learned to tread lightly here.  Push too hard and you run the risk of alienating the student.  On one occasion one of my students complained to his father that I was pushing a "Yankee" view of the war and the parent even called me to complain.  It was a very uncomfortable situation to say the least. Those incidents are an exception to the rule.  More often than not my students are entirely disinterested when it comes to this debate.  They study the material and the events that led to secession and war and see clearly the role that slavery played in all of it. 

That I don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing for the centrality of slavery at the beginning of the war makes it much easier to explain the war as a political and social revolution.  I want my students to appreciate the fact that even as late as 1860-61 it was not inevitable that slavery would be abolished.  The war did that and that it did raised important questions concerning the political and social order that emerged following its abolition and the end of the war.  It also helps me point out that Americans on both sides of the Potomac River were unprepared to deal with the questions that emerged as a result of slavery’s demise.  Revolutions rarely end without introducing new questions and challenges.   The Civil War was no exception to this rule.  This time around I am going to really challenge my students to see beyond that artificial distinction drawn between the chapter on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I hope to bring them to a point where they can acknowledge that the steps African Americans took to secure their freedom along with the violence of Reconstruction and the political debates among northern Republicans and southern Redeemers was an outgrowth of the consequences of emancipation. 

My Women’s History Course

Over the past few weeks I’ve been putting together my second-semester elective which is called "19th and 20th Century Women’s History."  This is my first time teaching the course and I have to admit to being just a little nervous.  I am new to the material and with 14 girls and no boys registered I can’t help but think that I am in for a few uncomfortable moments.  In my best moments I tend to think that my feelings of uneasiness are a positive sign of a willingness to take chances.  Here is my course description:

This course focuses on the history of women in the United States during the late 19th and 20th centuries. The major historical events involving women during this period are analyzed: the Suffrage movement, Progressivism, World War II, the 1960′s, and the Feminist Movement. Specific themes include women at work, abortion, women and politics, and women in the military. The course also includes a unit on the debates surrounding the social and political construction of gender. The class seeks to uncover the factors that affected women’s lives as well as the major changes in women’s history and the cause of those changes.

The class is organized as a research seminar and roundtable discussion. Students spend a significant amount of class time exploring a topic of their choice with the goal of producing an essay that utilizes a wide range of primary sources. Research skills that are emphasized include formulating a research question and thesis, collecting and organizing material, and producing critical/analytical writing. In addition, students are expected to come to class prepared to engage in discussion with their peers. Each student is responsible for leading the class discussion at least once during the semester. Ultimately, the goal of this course is to develop an appreciation for the process of doing history in a cooperative, inquisitive, and intellectual environment.

I’ve ordered two texts, including Through Women’s Eyes: An American History With Documents edited by Ellen C. DuBois and Lynn Dumenil and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  The former book is a text with primary sources and I hope to integrate Friedan and other secondary sources into the class during the semester.  We are going to start in the period following the Civil War since I want to spend as much time on more recent trends as possible.  The big question that I need to figure out is whether I want to stick to a strictly chronological approach or organize by themes.  I like the idea of organizing the class around themes.  For example, I just finished reading a chapter on "Work" in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women and thought that we could begin with it and then look at some of the history.  This might work well when we get to topics such as birth control and other issues related to sexual relations. 

I am also looking for quality movies that focus on gender and women’s history in the 20th century.  Overall this has been alot of fun organizing and I can’t wait to get started.

Assessing Ken Burns

In response to yesterday’s post on Ken Burns and the Crater a reader chimed in with a very negative assessment of The Civil War.  I’ve made regular references to Burns’s documentary throughout the life of this blog, including references to its usefulness in the classroom (and here) and as a point of contrast between popular perceptions and the more critical stance of academic historians.

I have to say that I find Burns to be quite valuable on a number of levels.  Yes, I agree that there are plenty of problems with his interpretation, but there is much to admire and value.  [For a thorough critique of the documentary see Brent Toplin's edited collection of essays titled, Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond.] I agree with much of what is contained in those critiques, but keep in mind that historians will always find something to analyze as falling short of the mark. In addition to factual problems, Burns spends most of his time in the Eastern Theatre, Shelby Foote tells too many goofy stories and makes some other outrageous comments, and the last section on Appomattox and reunion is way off the mark.  Still, by including historian Barbara Fields viewers are exposed to the"bottom-up" perspective of emancipation rather than the overly simplistic "great emancipator" story.  Burns does capture the horror of the battlefield and ways in which the battlefield, politics, and the home front intersect.  I could go on.

What I admire about Burns is that he never ignored the criticisms of historians; in fact, he deals with them head-on in the Toplin collection and he does so by carefully laying out the goals of a filmmaker in contrast with a more traditional historical study.  Burns was engaged and even passionate about the material that he was attempting to get across to a broad audience back in 1989.  Let’s face it, Burns’s documentary is probably the most influential interpretation in the last 25 years.  I know we would like to give the nod to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but I suspect that the majority of people who own the book have actually never read it or they haven’t read most of it.  I don’t mind admitting that I never read through the whole thing straight through until a graduate seminar a few years back.  It’s a dynamite book, but compared to Burns it’s boring as hell. 

Explaining The Fugitive Slave Act

The other day I mentioned that I enjoy presenting my students with examples that highlight the complexity of race in American history.  They are shocked to learn that Marth Washington’s personal servant is also her half-sister or that Sally Hemmings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife.

One of my favorite historical periods to teach is the twelve year between the end of the Mexican-American War and Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860.  Students get to think about the all-important issue of slavery and race along with a barrage of important events and colorful personalities.  One of those significant events is the Compromise of 1850 and the inclusion of a new and stronger Fugitive Slave Act.  I try to bring out the significance of this piece of the compromise beyond simply saying that it provided a means for Southern slaveholders to retrieve their property from Northern states.  Plate9_1 More importantly, however, the Fugitive Slave Act can be used in the classroom to explore the complexity of race in 19th Century America.  In doing so I use a relatively obscure book titled The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look At The Slavery Issue by Lawrence Tenzer.  The book was published back in 1997 by Scholars’ Publishing House which is located in Manahawkin, New Jersey.  I met the author through my father at about this time; we corresponded for a bit, but unfortunately we lost touch.  Tenzer essentially argues that the Civil War can be explained through a careful analysis of Northern fears that they themselves would become enslaved at some point.  There are some problems with the book, including points of interpretation that are questionable.  And the writing style sometimes loses its analytical edge.  Here is a review by Earl J. Hess which appeared in the Lincoln Herald, which should give you a sense of the book’s overall scope. 

First, it is important to acknowledge the means by which Southerners were able to carry this out:

The new law was designed to address the shortcomings of the previous 1793 legislation.  To begin with, a mere affidavit from the claimant or his agent even if given in absentia was now sufficient to establish title to an alleged runaway slave.  The weakest ex parte evidence was considered enough to convict.  Once captured, those claimed to be the fugitive being sought were not allowed to speak at all in their behalf and were denied legal representation.  Neither a jury trial nor a formal hearing of any kind was permitted.  Specially appointed federal commissioners were directed to attend to cases "in a summary manner."  Moreover, these officials had authority to issue certificates which would instantly place the black or mulatto into slavery without any due process whatsoever.  Commissioners received ten dollars (in 1850s dollars) for issuing the certificate authorizing immediate enslavement and only five dollars for the paperwork to set the captive free. [The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War by Lawrence Tenzer) 

I remind my students that it is the federal government which operates within the states with full compliance from local authorities to retrieve suspected fugitives.  This is important because what we essentially have here is a case of Southerners pushing for the strong arm of the federal government as opposed to a states rights argument.  Somehow we’ve come to believe that white Southerners were born attached to this argument.  In fact, in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act some Northern states passed Personal Liberty Laws which essentially stated that they did not have to comply with this federal law – a case of Northerners utilizing the states rights argument. 

What I found to be the most interesting aspect of the book was Tenzer’s analysis of the threat the Fugitive Slave Act posed to free blacks, mulatto’s and whites:

Imagine yourself in this scenario: A free black or a free mulatto, who has been living in your community in the North for years in peace, and who is known by the community at large to be law-abiding and decent, is mistaken for a slave being sought.  One-sided word-of-mouth evidence is presented to a commissioner and the order goes out for the immediate capture of the long-time fugitive.  A circumstance arises whereby a marshall or deputy seeks to enlist your assistance to aid in the capture, and you refuse.  By not cooperating when legally required to do so, you would be subject to a $1,000 fine.  If you complied, you were turned into a slave catcher on the free soil of your own state!  No wonder this law was so unpopular.  Slavery could no longer be looked at from afar. The North was now involved. (p. 84)

It is possible to take Tenzer’s scenario one step further to suggest that even white Northerners with dark complexions stood to be "kidnapped" if they happen to fit a slave-catcher’s description.  What I find interesting is the way Tenzer’s example challenges our preconceptions of race and color.  It forces us to imagine a population that can no longer be strictly defined along the color line owing to generations of interracial sexual contact.  Congressman Amos P. Granger raises this possibility in an 1856 speech:

In defiance of at least three positive provisions of the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Law grabs somebody, black or white, for it makes no distinction of color–demands of him a life’s labor–suspends "the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus"–denies him "trial by jury"–and "deprives him of liberty without due process of law" and works him, or whips him, or sells him, as it likes. (p. 95)

I don’t agree with Tenzer that the Compromise of 1850 and, more specifically, the Fugitive Slave Act constituted the "beginning of the end" in the lead up to war, but I do agree that the issues involved are significant and make for some interesting discussions in the classroom.

Little Black Sambo

In addition to spending a good deal of time with my classes exploring the ways that slavery shaped American history in the 19th Century I also introduce them to various ideas of race that proved popular at different times.  We look at images of “Jim Crow” and “Sambo” and discuss the historical background of minstrel shows.  Of course, many of these images and ideas are introduced at very early ages.  On Friday one of my students surprised me with a volume from the Little Golden Books series published by Simon and Schuster.  Apparently it belonged to one of his parents.  This particular volume is titled Little Black Sambo (1948) and was authored by Helen Bannerman who was also responsible for Little Black Quibba and Little Black Bobtail.  The entire series was overseen by Mary Reed, Ph.D who taught at the Teachers College of Columbia University.  These books are highly collectible.

The opening lines of the book are as follows:

“Once upon a time there was a little black boy, and his name was Little Black Sambo.  And his Mother was called Black Mumbo.  And his Father was called Black Jumbo.”