December 18

Blog #93 – Historiography of the Constitution

Historiography is the history of the history, or how interpretations of an event have changed over the years.  Usually, historians reflect the main concerns of the time period in which they write (for instance, Progressive historians are concerned about economic factors driving events because they wrote during the reform-minded era, the Progressive Era -1900-1915).  Sometimes, enough historians write in a similar viewpoint that history scholars call them historical schools of thought (Nationalist, Progressive, Consensus, New Left, etc.).  And sometimes, these schools of thought are dominated by an historian who writes an incredibly influential book on that subject (Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution).  One of the things that I hope you understand from this look at historiography is that the history of events and their interpretations can and are constantly changing.  Here is a link to a wikipedia page on general U.S. historiography –

Before the Civil War (1861-65), many people were focused on who the Constitution put in charge of the nation: the states or the federal government?  Also, many controversies surfaced in whether they should interpret the Constitution literally as written (strict interpretation) or to interpret the Founders’ intent (loose interpretation).  It seems that the writers of this document weren’t ready to answer those questions either in Philadelphia in 1787 and wanted to leave some wiggle room for interpretation for future generations (this is my loose interpretation).  The Civil War ended this controversy with the federal government enforcing its supremacy over the  states in the defeat on the Confederacy.

Nationalist School (post Civil War – 1900)

George Bancroft began writing his epic history of the U.S. before the Civil War and continued until 1887.  His first volume, found here, covers from the early voyages to the New World until the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 (for us in APUSH, this history ignored the Native Americans in Ch. 1 and focused primarily on the Spanish and the founding of the colonies up until 1688 – over 600 pages in his first volume!).  Bancroft and other historians wrote American history reflecting the Gilded Age and American economic growth, railroad expansion, the closing of the interior frontier, and their beliefs in Anglo-Saxon superiority.  Nationalist writers believed that “the orderly progress of mankind toward greater personal liberty” was due to white Christian people and their inherent ability to build strong governments.  

Nationalists viewed the creation of the Constitution as an extension of the Revolution.  The Articles of Confederation were too weak to deal with internal threats and problems (Shays Rebellion, economic depression) or with external threats (Spain and England).  The American people were divinely picked by God (“City on a hill”?  American exceptionallism?) to create a perfect republic, and the men at Philly were creating a new government for the betterment of the nation.

Progressive School (1900 – 1930s) 

This time period saw many people concerned about the effects of massive wealth redistribution that widened the gap between rich and poor, in addition to the negative effects of urbanization and industrialization (slums, poor working conditions, low wages).   This era saw a huge uptick in reforms that attempted to solve these problems.  Carl Becker saw the Revolution as two concurrent changes: one to break away from British rule, and another as to who will rule at home (which culminates in the Constitution).  Charles A. Beard was the one of leading historians of the time with his popular 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the U.S. (found here).  

Beard found that the men who made the Constitution had strong economic motives to ensure a powerful federal government because “most of these men held public securities, a form of personal property that would increase dramatically in value” if a new government was strong and improved its credit rating.  These conservative men had economic interests in banking, public securities (or bonds and promissory notes to Revolutionary war soldiers), manufacturers, and merchants involved in shipping and trade.  All of these economic interests declined because of the weakness of the Articles of Confederation.  Those who opposed the Constitution were working men and small farmers who were deep in debt.  Our new document was designed to protect private property against state assemblies that were much more democratic and likely to protect small farmers and debtors.  Beard also saw the creation of the Constitution as undemocratic because there were no “common men” involved, and the proceedings were done in secret.  Also, there was no bill of rights protection for Americans, unlike many state constitutions.  Beard’s primary focus in his history is class conflict.

Consensus School (1940s – 1960s)

After World War II, some historians moved away from the class conflict interpretation of American history and shifted toward consensus.  Because we were engaged in the Cold War with Russians (a country whose ideology is steeped in class conflict – Marxism), consensus historians de-emphasized class conflict and taught that our conflicts are steeped in competition of businessmen and entreprenuers that has made America great.  These historians are somewhat throwbacks to the Nationalist school who wanted to strengthen America “as a world leader with a history as a strong and united country free from class-based oppression”.  “The cement holding us together is our widespread prosperity and universal acceptance of the principles succinctly summarized in the first parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Our political struggles have always been within the center rather than between the left and right extremists.”

They saw the Revolution and Constitution as one continuous movement (as opposed to Beard’s democratic revolution against the British and a conservative counter-revolution for private property with the Constitution), and that the state constitutions were created by the same people who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Consensus historians saw the Constitution as primarily a political document, not economic like Beard.  The delegates at the convention were primarily concerned with making a better government than the Articles, one that was based upon “representation, fixed elections, a written constitution that is a supreme law and contains an amendment clause, separation of powers and checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, a single executive, and a separate court system.”  These historians challenged Beard’s assertion that the poor didn’t have a say in the Constitution, stating that 2/3 of men at this time owned enough property to vote in state elections, many of whom were small farmers.  These historians include two of my favorites, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter (author of the extra article on the Founding Fathers: The Age of Realism).

Intellectual or Republicanism Historians (1950s – 1980s)

This group of historians is dominated by Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn.  These two assert that Americans adopted many British ideas like anti-authoritarianism, written constitutions, compact theory, and human rights.  Both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists shared a major distrust of central government, and that the 1770s and 80s saw a big push for egalitarianism (push for equality) that the Constitution tried to restrain.  The Constitution, essentially, was a rescue attempt to save the Revolution from failure by restraining its democratic excesses.   

Revolutionary Republicanism was centered on limiting corruption and greed. Virtue was of the utmost importance for citizens and representatives. Revolutionaries took a lesson from ancient Rome, they knew it was necessary to avoid the luxury that had destroyed the Empire.[33] A virtuous citizen was one that ignored monetary compensation and made a commitment to resist and eradicate corruption. The Republic was sacred; therefore it is necessary to served the state in a truly representative way, ignoring self-interest and individual will. Republicanism required the service of those who were willing to give up their own interests for a common good. According to Bernard Bailyn, “The preservation of liberty rested on the ability of the people to maintain effective checks on wielders of power and hence in the last analysis rested on the vigilance and moral stamina of the people.” Virtuous citizens needed to be strong defenders of liberty and challenge the corruption and greed in government. The duty of the virtuous citizen become a foundation for the American Revolution.”

New Left / Neo-Progressive School (1960s – 1980s)

These historians were shaped by the social and political changes going on in the U.S. like the Civil Rights and women’s rights movement and the student protest movements against the Vietnam War.  They are a throwback to the Progressive Era, but some writers thought that Beard had oversimplified things with his strictly economic approach.  Beard did not include many of the people who were not part of the political process in the Revolutionary Era: blacks (both free and slave), women, and Native Americans.  Social historians began to weave their stories within the tapestry of American history and present a fuller picture. “The “new” theoretically differentiates them from the unimaginative, Socialist Party orientation of the old left of the 1930s and 1940s.  The “left” signifies an orientation toward methods and concepts that focus on the masses and their experiences, “history from the bottom up,” as it is called.  Unlike the old left, the New Left avoids the preconceived molds of Marxist theories, which distorted the facts to fit a foreign doctrine.  The historians of the New Left demand the inclusion of those features of our history that explain how we came to be a violent, racist, repressive society.”  Some of these historians are Gary Nash (you read his essay, “Radical Revolution from the Bottom Up”) and Howard Zinn.

This video is here just for your interest.  

Nash, in particular, looks at both Northerners and Southerners deeply involved in making the Constitution a stamp of approval for slavery since it guaranteed slavery with a fugitive slave clause and the South’s boost in Congressional representation with the 3/5 Compromise.  Other historians argued against the Consensus historians’ assertion that our political legacy is basically liberal and democratic.  The time period of the 1780s -leading up to the Constitutional Convention – was time of disruption, overtaxation, and heavy economic hardships.  The poor were forced to pay their taxes in gold and silver (extremely hard to get) and not allowed to use paper money.   This school’s approach refocuses on class conflict in which different segments argued over who’s responsible for fixing the economy, “which segment should sacrifice for the good of the whole.”

I’ve presented you with four different schools of historiography concerning the Constitution.  Your job is to explain, with plenty of examples from class and your readings: 1. Which school of history do you agree with most and why?;  2. Which school of history do you disagree with most and why? 

Due Wednesday, December 21, 2016 by class.  300 words minimum. 


Interpretations of American History, ed. by Francis Couvares, et. al.

November 5

Writing Contest – Bill of Rights Foundation

This is from an email I received over the weekend. 

Hi Geoff,

I am excited to tell you about our BRAND NEW Scholarship Contest for high school students. The We The Students Scholarship Contest runs through November 16, 2012, so encourage your students to enter today.

Students will grapple with the questions: What role do the ideas of the Constitution have today?  What rights should the government protect?

This is similar to the VFW contest that you were asked to do in Blog #41.  The details of the essay are below.  It’s longer and a lot more detailed (20 points max extra credit). 

To participate in the contest, high school students will answer three questions around the ideas of the Constitution and the role of government. One $4,000 prize will be awarded for first place, one $2,000 prize for second place, and one $1,000 prize for third place. Two $500 prizes will be awarded for honorable mentions. 

At the Institute, we know your impact on students’ lives is invaluable – but in an effort to support your hard work, we have set up the contest with teacher prizes. When your students win, you win! The teachers of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners will each receive a $100 cash prize.

For more information, visit the We The Students Scholarship Contest page.

– Veronica

Veronica Burchard
Vice President for Education
Bill of Rights Institute
200 North Glebe Road, Suite 200
Arlington, VA 22203

Questions to answer for the essay:

1.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution.  That must be maintained for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.”  Please analyze and discuss how ONE of the Founding principles (choose from the list below) found in the Constitution helps preserve liberty, and why that principle is still important today.  (up to 500 words)

  • All men are created equal
  • Limited Government
  • Private Property
  • Representative Government

2.  Most high school students are too young to vote.  However, that doesn’t mean that – as citizens – they can’t actively help to shape our world today.  Based on your beliefs about being an involved citizen, how would you convince an apathetic classmate that they should take an active role in shaping their community and the nation.  Feel free to use personal examples.  (up to 500 words)

3.  Read the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(a) Please provide a critical analysis comparing the United States’ Founding documents and the UN’s Universal Declaration in regard to ONE of the following three categories:  (up to 500 words)

  • The origin of rights
  • The role of government
  • The treatment of property

(b) After comparing the documents, which do you think best protects individual liberty?  Defend your view.  (up to 300 words)

August 31

New due dates, War of 1812 Contest and other stuff

1. Hey folks, I forgot that the original due date that I had given you for all of the finished Mayflower work (Parts 3 and 4 questions, vocab on the Google Doc, and blog below)  is Tuesday, Sept. 6th, not today, Wed. August 31st.  If you’re all done w/ the work, bonus for you.   If you want to get started on the school year’s homework, it’s already posted at my Fusion page ( 

Link to Google Doc for Mayflower vocab: 

“1491” article link –

Reading instructions for “1491” –

2. There is an essay contest on the effects of the War of 1812 on Michigan sponsored by the Michigan Council for History Education.  $100 for 1st place and $50 for 2nd place.  Here’s the criteria:

Best part is that it’s not due until early April and it’s only 1,000 max.  I will help anyone who wants to do this.  I’d like to see several entries from Groves entered in this contest. 

3. I’m thinking of starting a APUSH book club that might meet once a month or every 45 days, depending upon the school schedule.  This will be open to both students AND parents and will meet in the evening (say around 7 p.m.) and will last for about an hour where we’ll talk about the book.   And after Early APUSH is over, you will still be invited to come b/c we’ll move on into the stuff that we’ve covered as a class last year but read cool books about it.  It will be a good way for you to keep the history info fresh in your head and probably learn new stuff along the way.  There will be no extra credit for any of this.  It’s just to make ourselves smarter and to hang out and have a good time. 

 4. One of our first projects is for you to make a very short (less than five minute) mockumentary / advertisement for one of the original 13 colonies – the premise being that you are trying to encourge Europeans to come to your colony to emigrate and prosper.  This will include both classes 1st and 4th hours, so figure out who you want to work with, but don’t set your hopes on any particular colony.  You cannot shotty Pennsylvania or Massachusetts.  More details about the criteria to follow. 

5. Another essay contest – sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute –

How does the Constitution establish and maintain a culture of liberty?

Similar specs for the essay in #2 (1000 words max) but you must submit it between Sept. 17 – Dec. 15, 2011.  Details for rules and regulations, click here:  Prize money is much more substantial since it’s a national contest: $1,000, $500, and $250. 

Again, you will have my help with getting this done. 

6.  Google the term “flipping the classroom” and then tell me what you find in the comments section.  Do you think it’s do-able for our class?  Why or why not? 

Thanks.  Your feedback is always appreciated. 

Da Boss

November 2

Blog #5 – Founding Fathers distrust

Well, the more and more that I read about the Founding Fathers (a term coined by President Harding, a huge fan of alliteration), the more that I disturbed by how much that they distrust the “people” or the masses of unwashed, uneducated voters. 


 A people’s-led revolt like Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 that came on the heels of Hamilton’s call for a second look at the Articles of Confederation to be scheduled in Philly in May 1787 seemed to “confirm Thomas Jefferson’s fear of democratic despotism… An elective despotism was not the government we fought for” (Pageant 177).  Apparently, civic virtue or public responsibility to follow the rules, the textbook authors wrote, was no longer strong enough to stop people from being greedy or “self-interest[ed].”  Hmmmm… people shouldn’t follow their self-interest?  They shouldn’t pursue happiness, to paraphrase TJ? 

Haven’t we been taught from a young age that the Fathers wanted to guarantee the freedoms for which they had fought the British?  Haven’t we been taught that this was a fight for the rule of law, for civil rights, for all to be free and equal (except if you were a slave)?   As historian Bernard Bailyn stated our revolution’s main goal was “the destruction of privilege and the creation of a political system that demanded of its leaders the responsible and humane use of power” (Zinn 101). 



But here’s  James Madison, the “father of the Constitution” arguing in Federalist #10 that a strong central government will be able to keep the peace because the passions of the people will be too diffused or spread out: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member [state] of it” (Zinn 97). 


Whose interests are the Fathers protecting?  The people?  What did the Fathers fear would happen if the people were totally in charge? 

To quote Alexander Hamilton, ”

The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact.  The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.  Give therefore to the first class [of people] a distinct permanent share in the government…“” (Zinn 96). 


To curb the excesses, the unbridled passions of the publicly elected House of Representatives, the Senate was created as that check.  In Federalist #63, a Senate was “sometimes necessary as a defence the people against their own temporary errors and delusions…[b/c] there are moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or illicit advantage, or misled by some artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn” (Zinn 98). 

alex hamilton

** The bold type is mine.  I think this could apply to both of the political parties in today’s election, or worse yet, the money behind both political parties. 


I think the Fathers’ concerns comes from several sources, but mainly from the idea that these men who made the Constitution were elitists and designed a system that protected private property from being taken away arbitrarily by a voting public.   We have heard them say time and time again that property = liberty.  With a solid system in place, founded on the traditions of English law, America has been able to prosper because property has been guaranteed for over 200 years by courts and the government.  If our private property hadn’t been guaranteed by these safeguards, then investments would probably be worthless, and our future would have been dicey.  People with money would have taken their money elsewhere or pushed for a different form of government. 


This pattern has repeated itself time and time again in many of the Latin American countries that have emulated us with their Constitutions since they overthrew the Spanish in the 19th Century, but because there isn’t a consistent turnover of power or protection of civil rights, the wealthy in those countries have gotten behind any strong man who promises order.  In America, we believe in the rules even when those rules frustrate us or look as if they are being abused b/c in the long run, we believe that it will all work out. 

For this blog, please answer the following questions:

1. Do you think the Founding Fathers were right to distrust the passions of the American people when they wrote the Constitution?  Why or why not?

2. What passions / fears are swaying the American people right now as they currently head towards the polls today?  Provide specific examples. 

250 words minimum.  Thanks.

Due Wednesday, November 3.