October 25

Blog #160 – How Jeffersonian was Jefferson?

So, in the handouts on Thomas Jefferson and his attitudes on slavery, race, the economy, society, and other things written before he became president, many of you thought that he was inconsistent in some areas (race and slavery among others) but yet consistent in other things (belief in agriculture and the need for more land).

As a man of principle, Jefferson tried to live by his beliefs, but when he became president in 1801, he had a chance to put his beliefs into action.  Though he hated banks and strenuously opposed the creation of the Bank of the U.S. in 1791, he let Hamilton’s bank remain intact during his presidency.  In other ways, he remained true to his principles.

Thomas Jefferson Presidential $1 Coin | U.S. Mint

As you look over the notes we collected as a class, the Louisiana Purchase article, and the items discussed, I want you to answer the following questions:

  1. Before he became president (and using the quotes we looked at this week), in which area was he most consistent and why?  And in which area was he most inconsistent and why do you think this?  
  2. As president from 1801 – 1809 (and using the notes we compiled on his presidency), in which area(s) was he most consistent?  Explain why.  And in which areas was he most inconsistent and why?  

Blog response due by Saturday, October 28 by midnight.  Your total answer for both questions above should be a minimum of 400 words.  

October 8

Blog #140 – Time to get rid of the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is one of a kind.  No other country uses this system to elect their leaders – in fact, no other American politician or judge is elected using an electoral college – they all get elected via majority vote.  Only the President of the U.S. is chosen with this cumbersome system.  Throughout American history, the presidential candidate with the most votes has lost the electoral vote 4 times, twice lately (in 2000 and 2016).  So why do we have it?

Some textbooks and teachers (including this one!) have said that the Framers of the Constitution didn’t trust the American voter to pick the right candidate, so someone else should pick the president.  Hence, charges of elitism.  Others have claimed that the EC protects the small states from being overrun by the larger states in an election, where a candidate from a small state would never get elected.  While others claim that the EC has its roots in racism and the protection of the slave states who feared that the Northern states would dominate the South b/c there were more voters in the North than in the South (based upon landownership). But, before we get going any further, please watch this video for a better understanding of the Electoral College, what it is, and how it works.  It also includes some arguments for and against it.

To counter the argument that the Framers were elitist, one must remember that only landowners were the voters (except in Massachusetts where all males had the right to vote), supposedly the best people in the community and not the “rabble” that some have characterized American voters were in 1787.  The Framers most likely didn’t trust local politicians given the insanity that happened between 1781 – 1787 in states like Rhode Island (remember the paper money fiasco).  Furthermore, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, only Elbridge Gerry expressed any concern about “the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.”  No other Framer expressed a similar sentiment.

To counter the argument that the Framers created the EC to protect small states, all one has to do is to look at Madison’s Notes on the Convention and see that this idea never appears in the notes.  This doesn’t mean that delegates didn’t care about the difference between the large and small states, it just means that in the discussions for choosing the president, the issue of large and small states didn’t come up (though it definitely did when figuring out the configuration of Congress).

When discussing how to chose the president, one initial suggestion was by Edmund Randolph of Virginia who said that he/she should be chosen by the national legislature.  James Madison later suggested that the lower house of Congress should pick the president.  There was also significant debate as to how many people should be president – should it be one person, a pair, or several?   James Wilson made a proposal that the president be chosen by a popular vote, using the example of New York and Massachusetts popularly electing their governors.  Gouverneur Morris also made an argument for a popular vote: “he ought to be elected by the people at large, by the freeholders (landowners) of the Country… If the people should elect, they will never fail to prefer some man of distinguished character or services; some man, if he might so speak, of continental reputation.  If the legislature elect, it will be the work of intrigue, of cabal (conspiracy), and of faction…”  Southern delegates, for the most part, opposed popular vote because the Northern states had more voters than the Southern states despite having similar populations (because the enslaved didn’t vote).    The popular vote idea would eventually be voted down.

Eventually, in mid July, Oliver Ellsworth proposed that electors appointed by the state legislatures chose the president and that the number be determined by the state’s population.  Madison feared that the South would never be able to affect the outcome if it was based upon the free population because there were more free white and Black folks in the North than in the South.  Madison would then support the EC because of the 3/5 Compromise which would give the Southern states a bigger say in who became president.  This can be seen in the 1800 election.  Jefferson had more votes than Adams because of the 3/5 Compromise but without it, Adams would have won.  In fact, 10 of the first 12 presidents elected, from Washington to Taylor, would be slaveholders.  So it might seem that the EC was created to the benefit of slave states.

For some more modern arguments about the EC, here is Adam Ruins Everything on why we should ditch the EC:

They bring up an interesting point in this video, that if the winner – take – all system was gotten rid of, you wouldn’t have so many solidly blue (Democratic) or red (Republican) states.  In the article that I asked you to read for this blog, it states that 2/3 of the states don’t even matter in a presidential election because they’re not battleground states, and that in 2016, 94% of the candidates’ visits were limited to just 12 states (and 2/3 of the visits were in just SIX STATES!).  Somehow, a popular vote would fix this, get rid of battleground states, and make sure that the candidates get around the country to go see everybody in order to get their vote.

For the other side of the argument to keep the EC, here is a video by Prager U:

The video states that the EC promotes coalition building and protects against voter fraud.  The video also stated that the Framers didn’t intend to have a pure democracy (or popular vote) when it came to the president (or the Senate for that matter).  In the article for the blog, they stated that the Framers were worried about only a few large states picking the presidency while the rest would be ignored.

Just so you know, in order to eliminate the EC, it would require a Constitutional amendment.  That would require 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of all of the state legislatures.

So, please answer the following:

  1. Which video – Adam Ruins Everything and Prager U – had the more persuasive arguments?   Why?
  2. Do you believe that the electoral college should be eliminated?  Why or why not?
  3. Should the winner – take – all system of how states assign their electors be changed to be proportional?  Why or why not?  For instance, Texas has 38 electoral votes which Trump won in 2020 by a margin of 52% – 47%.  If the electoral votes were assigned proportionally based upon the vote, Trump would have won 20 and Biden would have won 18.

Your total answer for all 3 questions should be a minimum of 350 words.  Due Monday, October 11 by class.  

September 16

Blog #139 – Goodbye, Columbus?

Please read the article, “Goodbye, Columbus?” before continuing.  

Christopher Columbus is credited with having discovered the New World in 1492, but not necessarily America (even though a lookout on his ship, Rodrigo, claimed that he saw land first).  How people interpret this fact is the subject of intense historical and cultural debate across the world.  The day honoring the discovery, October 12, is a national holiday, but for some historians and cultures, this day is marked as one when Spanish imperialism and genocide of the Native Americans began.  Celebrating Columbus is almost as old as America itself when we saw the first celebration on the 300th anniversary of Columbus in 1792.  In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed it to be a national holiday, much to the approval of many Italian Americans.

Those who want to discredit Columbus Day usually start with the wave of violence, slavery and genocide of the Native Americans that began after his “discovery.”  On the island of Hispanola (Haiti / Dominican Republic), the sailors left there after his first voyage were tasked with finding gold and silver and soon tried to put to work the natives of the island.  In subsequent voyages, he searched Central and South America for gold, and the communicable diseases like smallpox and measles that the Europeans had would also wipe out – intentionally or not – the Native populations.  Conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro exploited divisions among the ruling tribes, Aztecs and Incas respectively, to conquer vast empires.  It’s estimated that something like 80% of the 45-100 million Native Americans (historians disagree – some claimed that there were only 8.5 million Natives in all of the Americas when Columbus arrived) who lived in the New World were wiped out by disease, war, and famine brought on by discovery.  Critics have claimed that the holiday should be renamed “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” to honor all the Native Americans past and present.

Here’s John Oliver’s take on Columbus Day:

But was this all Columbus’ fault?  His defenders say, of course not.  Diseases act in random ways and are influenced by many things including stress, food (or lack thereof), poverty and other cultural or economic factors.   Discovery could have brought some of these conditions on, but they weren’t necessarily the primary cause.  One historian stated in his piece that there were already different diseases running rampant throughout the Native population before Columbus’ arrival.  Columbus is also given credit for having been a visionary, having convinced the Spanish monarchs to provide him with three ships to sail the Atlantic in search of a newer, quicker route to Asia around the earth.  In fact, Columbus failed in his attempt to find that quicker trade route to Asia.  It would be Magellan who would eventually  circumnavigate the globe.  And, Columbus is being blamed for what came in his wake – the Spanish conquistadors, the destruction and enslavement of Native peoples, and even the African slave trade since that was linked with the opening up of the New World.  Could this attack on Columbus also be a remnant of the Black Legend that grew to fantastical proportions as exaggerated by English Protestants as a way of discrediting the Spanish Catholics?  Too much, much too much indeed, to put on one man’s shoulders.  Also, according to your article, some towns have resisted or affirmed their dedication to Columbus Day.  Those towns tend to have large Italian populations.

People have been considering removing Columbus Day and replacing it w/ a day honoring Native Americans.  Over 50 cities like Los Angeles and San Jose have removed Columbus statues, and Los Angeles has gone as far as to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day starting in 2018.  The first city to do this was Berkeley, California in 1992.  As of 2019, several states (including Alaska, Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, and others) have replaced Columbus Day w/ something else, primarily a holiday honoring Native Americans.

Another way of looking at this is that when we celebrate Columbus Day, we celebrate America.  Should we acknowledge both the good and the bad that come with America / Columbus?  Or is it more patriotic to revel in America in a “Team America” way with unquestioning loyalty? Or, as the video below discusses, Columbus is a myth that we have embraced.  Is this something that we should jettison?

So, do we keep Columbus Day as is (meaning that it’s an official government / bank holiday)?  Or do we acknowledge Columbus Day with a solemn reminder of what happened to the Native Americans afterwards?  Or do we pitch Columbus Day in favor of celebrating “Indigenous People’s Day”?  Why?  Or is there another option?  If so, explain.  Please use specific examples from the “Goodbye, Columbus?” article.  

200 words minimum for your response.  

Columbus Day Observances by State

Some additional resources: 

History Channel – Why Columbus Day is Controversial

Smithsonian Magazine – Rethinking How We Celebrate American History


November 25

Harriet – Extra Credit

Out of the three movies I’ve seen this semester, I enjoyed this one the most.  It had a clear narrative, gave me new info that I didn’t know about Harriet Tubman, and was done well with beautiful cinematography and good acting (and did not have distracting CGI fighter planes and explosions).  This Harriet, the way she is portrayed in the film, is a feminist hero.  She doesn’t let men stop her from achieving her goals.  And she is brave, bordering on fearless, and incredibly strong, both mentally and physically.  Harriet Tubman Bounty

I had a few questions which I was able to find out the answers to:

  1. Did she actually have visions from God?  Yes, she believed they were visions sent to her from God, and she suffered all her life with seizures, migraines, and narcolepsy from the brain injury she sustained when she was younger.
  2. Was her mother and the rest of her family freed in a will?  Yes.
  3. Was there a real Gideon Brodess?  Apparently not.  This part was made up, but I loved how Harriet left him with his bleeding hand and told him that he was going to die on a battlefield in a couple of years.  So, since he didn’t exist we can’t check on the accuracy of that prediction.  But Edward and Eliza Brodess, Gideon’s parents, were both real people and Harriet and her family’s owners.  It was the death of Edward that spurred on Harriet to leave because she was about to be sold.
  4. Did she actually lead a company of Black soldiers in the Civil War?  Yep, and it looks like during that engagement, they may have freed up to 750 slaves.
  5. How many slaves did Harriet free?  The movie’s total is more likely accurate at 70 though in her biography published in 1869, she said she had freed 300.  Since she only made 13 trips on the URR before the Civil War, 70 is much more likely number.
  6. I knew that William Still was a real person, but what about Marie Buchanon?  No, Marie was not a real person, but there were many free blacks in Philadelphia who owned their own businesses like Marie.


Questions I’d like you to answer: 

  1. Talk about the power of family and their connections – Harriet and her family – and compare that to the portrayal of the Brodess family in the film.
  2. Do you agree that Harriet’s portrayal in the film is that of a feminist hero?  Why or why not?  Provide some specifics to back up your assertion.  Also, do you think that this portrayal has been influenced by the writer and director of the film, Kasi Lemmons, a black woman?  Why or why not?
  3. News surfaced a few weeks ago that Julia Roberts (a white woman) was initially considered for the role of Harriet Tubman when the idea of a film was pitched over 20 years ago.  Discuss how much Hollywood has changed in the portrayal of people of color and also how important it is for people of color and LGBTQ folks to see themselves accurately portrayed in the media.
  4. What did you think of the portrayal of Bigger Long and Walter, both free blacks who worked with Gideon to recover Harriet and her family?  This was a real practice to use both black and white slave hunters, and according to an article, $200 was really hard to pass up.  What does the existence of free black slave trackers say about money and the institution of slavery?  Why?

Pick three questions to answer and finish by December 1st.  350 words minimum for your total answer.  

March 15

Blog #118 – Two different takes on the causes of the Civil War

There has been a lot of time and money and energy spent talking about the causes of the Civil War ever since the guns stopped firing in April 1865.  And judging by the historiography, American historians have viewed the causes in a different light depending upon the time period in which they lived in.  One of the main reasons why there has been such interest in this topic is because the war set Americans vs. Americans and was, in one way, a fight over the future of the country.  Were we going to remain an agriculture-based economy (think Jefferson) or were we going to keep up with the times and become more industrial?  Another issue at stake was the status of African Americans in this country – would they stay or be sent back to Africa?  Would slavery and second-class citizenship be their continued status or would they share in the bounty of American freedom?

Historians writing about the conflict soon after the war tended to be Northerners who blamed an aggressive slave conspiracy that wanted to spread the institution all across America.  Southern historians saw the conflict as a moral one in which the North instituted an unconstitutional strategy of making the South economically subservient to the North.   A third group tended to blame the politicians of the antebellum era who could not reach compromises like had been done in the past.  President James Buchanan and Senator Stephen Douglas are their usual targets.

By the 1890s, a Nationalist school of history arose, sparked by America’s emergence as a world power economically and politically.  One particular historian, James Ford Rhodes, wrote that slavery was the primary cause, where the South fought the war to extend slavery and that the war was an “irrepressible conlfict”.  However, he didn’t see Southern slave owners as hideous monsters and in some ways blamed the cotton gin for making slavery become more entrenched in the South.  Slavery, in essence, became a burden that 1860 slaveowners had inherited and some thing that they couldn’t completely control.  Nationalist historians tended to focus also more on the outcomes of the war – American industry exploded after the war, a more powerful federal government emerged, and we became an imperialist nation starting in 1893.

The next group of historians, writing in the 1920s and 30s, was called the Progressive School and was influenced by the ill social effects of run-amuck industrialism and uneven distribution of wealth in the country.  Charles and Mary Beard were two of the most influential of this school, and they saw the war as a “social cataclysm” in which “the capitalists, laborers, and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy in the South.”   This school tended to focus more on the economic causes of the war instead of slavery, which fit well with some very racist historians writing at the time who portrayed the South as a land of chivalrous planters with their pathetically helpless and loyal slaves – by contrast the North were nasty, profit-driven capitalists trying to destroy the honor and tradition of the South.

Revisionist historians, writing in the 1930s and 40s, saw the war as an insufferable evil, regardless of causes.  The political leaders were to blame for not taking advantage of alternatives that could have saved the nation.  They thought that the war could have been avoided, and that the politicians had deliberately set apart the North and South during 1840 – 1860 as people who were both trying to preserve their culture and way of life.  James G. Randall called these politicians the “blundering generation”.


Starting in the 1960s, newer historians started reevaluating all of these previous approaches and started to synthesize them together and not focusing on just one cause.  Prominent historians like Michael Holt, Eric Foner (the author of a competing APUSH textbook), James McPherson, Manisha Sinha all mashed these causes together and reformulated the causes of the war together.  Some focused on an ideological conflict – whether slavery or economics – that primarily caused the war.  During this time, we also see more women and African American historians with their own takes on the war as the academic world becomes more diversified.

So, when you think about what primarily caused the Civil War, there is a lot to choose from.  Slavery?  Economics?  States’ rights?  Clash of cultures?  Terrible politicians?  Westward expansion?

I think this Venn diagram kinda shows how that maybe all of them interlock together.  However, that’s not our job today.  What I am asking you to do today is to compare two videos.  One takes the strong stance that slavery was the main cause, while the other dissects that argument.





The following short film discusses unequivocally that slavery was the main / primary cause of the war.  It is presented by the lead history teacher at the West Point Academy, Colonel Ty Seidule, and is produced by Prager U.


This video, produced by social studies teacher, Tom Richey, who is from South Carolina.  His film is a direct rebuttal of the Prager U film.

After watching both videos, answer the following questions:

  1. Who do you think has the better argument about the Civil War?  Why?  Provide examples from the films.
  2. Do you think either man has something motivating them to take their position?  If so, what?  How do you think this motivation shaped their opinions?

400 words minimum for both answers.  Due Thursday, March 21 by class.  

February 26

Post #95 – Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War

You’re in an Advanced Placement U.S. History class that analyzes different approaches to history.  As we have learned, history’s interpretation can change – use the formation of the Constitution’s interpretation as an example (Blog #93).  History can also be used as a weapon to support or discredit opponents like the way Richard Nixon / Watergate, Frederick Douglass, and Japanese internment camps are being used to discredit President Trump.  In the same way that history can be weaponized, the history of the Civil War has been discussed and fought over ever since General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.  Using the article, “The Way We Weren’t,” author David Von Drehle dissects the way Americans have viewed the bloodiest conflict in our history.

People in 2011 were polled in the 11 states of the Confederacy, and they answered that the primary cause of the Civil War was states rights, or in this case, the primacy of the states over the federal government, despite what the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause said.  However, as we have seen with the recent history we’ve studied, states rights was not just a Southern thing.  Northern states and cities resisted the new Fugitive Slave Law (and the federal government) and tried to foil sending slaves to their original owners.  Eminent Civil War historians like James McPherson and David Blight state that almost everything in the events leading up to the Civil War dovetail w/ slavery.

Confederate soldiers and citizens, the losers in the conflict, had to mentally hold onto their “due pride” after fighting so hard, so they invented the states rights cause.  Many historians, novelists, and filmmakers were willing to go along with this denial and write narratives that supported the states rights cause.  Confederate generals wrote their memoirs in the post-war world which distanced their sacrifice from slavery and attached it firmly to something more noble (in their minds) like states rights.  Insidious inside the states rights cause was the Lost Cause, the belief that slavery was a benign institution and that Black people had it better under slavery than freedom.  Freedom, as defined by the profit-hungry, industrial North, included working for tiny wages and ruthless competition. In Jefferson Davis’s book about the war, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, he portrays the South as hopelessly outgunned and outmanned (which it was) and compares the North to the serpent infiltrating the Garden of Eden (the South) where slave owners lived with their slaves in paradise.

However, this is not to blame the Civil War on just the South.  Yes, they were treasonous.  Yes, they killed hundreds of thousands of Northern soldiers, but EVERYONE was complicit in slavery.  As mentioned in the article, many Northern states, including Wall Street, benefitted dramatically from it.  Check out the New York Historical Society’s online exhibit, Slavery in New York.  There should be little doubt that the war was a long time coming, exacted a horrific toll on the nation, and still leaves us with a legacy that we are dealing with as a nation.


CSA states evolution.gif
By User:GolbezOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Questions to answer:

  1. Why was the Lost Cause or denial of slavery as the central cause so attractive to Americans in the aftermath of the war (even up until the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement)?
  2. On page 40 (1) of the article, it mentions several different causes of the Civil War:
    • Northern aggressors invading an independent Southern nation;
    • High tariffs like the Tariff of Abominations;
    • Blundering statesmen like Stephen Douglas, Roger Taney, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan;
    • Clash of industrial vs. agrarian cultures;
    • Caused by fanatics like John Brown and Southern “fire eaters”;
    • Representive of a Marxist class struggle – Southern aristocracy vs. Northern factory workers.

Which of these is most persuasive as a cause and which is the least persuasive cause?  Why?

3. The article focuses a lot on Bleeding Kansas as the pivotal point in which the Civil War seemed inevitable.  Would you agree with this assertion?  Why or why not?

Image result for gone with the wind

4. What are some major arguments that poke holes in the Lost Cause?  Think of movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind  and their portrayal of the South.

5. When and why did America finally start to break away from the Lost Cause mythology (a.k.a. The Dunning School of Post War America)?

Pick 4 of the questions (including #1) and answer them in 400 words minimum total.  Due Friday, March 3 by class. 

December 3

Blog #68 – Dehumanization of slavery

Dehumanization and slavery have gone hand in hand ever since slavery had been invented.  Using Frederick Douglass’ autobiography was done to show you how horrible slavery can be and also to settle any questions that racist white people had back then who didn’t believe that he could have been a slave (because he was so smart and eloquent).

One of the first ways that dehumanization occurred must begin with the constant rape and physical abuse of female slaves.  Frederick’s father was white, most like his mother’s slave master, and surely not a willing participant.  The creation of many mixed children was more common than Southerners would like to admit.  Women were used for men’s pleasure, little else.  Afterwards, Frederick was separated from his mother and raised by an elderly woman, much like animals are weaned from their mothers when they are young.  His mother had to sneak away in the middle of the night to come and visit her son.

Frederick also describes vividly how the slaves were fed: “It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied” (Douglass 12)  Douglass intentionally used the word “pigs” and “trough” to give you an amazingly vivid image of children fighting over their food like animals.  Slaves didn’t need utensils.  And when the slave owners don’t see their slaves as human, it becomes easier to treat them in a violent manner  (like kicking a dog or much worse).

After Frederick tried to escape and was caught, he was thrown in jail.  “Douglass portrays the slave traders and agents for slave traders as men auctioning for cattle instead of human beings. The slave traders and agents for slave traders at no point stop to think what they are doing is wrong, instead it is business as usual and they are eager to acquire misbehaved slaves at steep discounts, much the same as farmers will bid pennies on the dollar for underweight farm animals.”  In this instance, slaves were a commodity, something to be bought or sold, instead of human beings who have thoughts, emotions, and feelings.

Lastly, the dehumanization crosses the color line to affect the white owners like Mrs. Auld.  Though she started out as a kindly owner with the best of intentions “she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery” (Douglass 14).   Mrs. Auld accepted Frederick as a human being first, teaching him his most important skill (in retrospect b/c they helped him escape) of reading a few words.   She eventually turns cruel and mean as she is put in charge of slaves and is dehumanized herself.

My question for you:

Does slavery bring on the dehumanization of a person or do you need to dehumanize a person in order to enslave them?  Yes, this does sound a lot like the slavery / racism question we discussed back in first tri, and in some ways, dehumanizing =racism, but dig deeper and comment on how the dehumanization boomerangs back on the slave owners and envelops them as well.  By dehumanizing others, we do it to ourselves.  Why?

200 words.  Due Monday, Dec. 8 by class. 






December 6

Blog #58 – Discuss causes of the Civil War

One of the main things that I hope that I have taught you over the past couple of weeks (going back to the Mexican War controversy) is that asking the question “What caused the Civil War?” is not a good question.  The question seems to indicate that there’s only ONE cause that can be found among all of the political compromises, peoples’ actions, economic forces, and differing social / cultural norms of the North and the South.  This oversimplification insults the intelligence of anyone who has studied the CW like we have, because there is no single, simple answer.


In the past, historians have tried to blame the war on agitators – the abolitionists or the Slave Power conspiracies.  Both sides had radical “fire-eaters” who were unwilling to accept compromise and wanted it the Frank Sinatra way, “I did it my way!”  Also, past historians have tended to blame it on economic forces or states’ rights.  The threat of losing slavery meant the loss of billions of dollars of investment in people and land for the southern economy, and so the Deep South states pushed it to the brink to be left alone from federal interference (though Lincoln wasn’t going to interfere, he claimed that he just wanted to stop the spread of slavery out west).  This dove tails nicely with the idea that Stephen Douglas and others had championed – it was up to the states to decide what to do with slavery b/c the federal government (Congress) was prohibited from interfering with slavery.  Therefore, it was a state’s right to do with slavery what it wished since the federal government had its hands tied by the Dred Scott decision in 1857.


Other historians, more recently, have placed the blame for the CW squarely on the shoulders of slavery. Many Northerners felt that slavery was on its decline or would be limited in its area of growth by the Missouri Compromise (1820), but with the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, Compromise of 1850, and Kansas Nebraska Act, that small area had quickly expanded over the course of 35 years.  Then the Dred Scott decision seemed to say that slavery could exist anywhere within the country.  Those Northerners were now angry (for many different reasons, racism being one of them) that their politicians seemed to betray them.  This anger might explain the popularity of the Republican Party in the 1850s, an avowed anti-slavery party that appealed to many Northerners by 1860.  At the center of all this anger and controversy is the volatile subject of slavery and its spread.

Modern historian Edward Ayers, a Southerner, has divided up these historians into two camps: the fundamentalists who claim that the Civil War was a struggle over the future of the United States between slavery and freedom, and the revisionists who say that the Civil War was caused by the disintegration of the Democrats, the failure of compromise, and the election of Abraham Lincoln (the first Northern president elected who wasn’t pro-slavery since John Quincy Adams in 1824).  For the fundamentalists, slavery is the main cause, while for the revisionists, slavery is buried beneath layers of white ideology and politics.  Ayers feels that slavery was a crisis of immense magnitude but didn’t lead to war.  He said that the “war came through misunderstanding, confusion, miscalculation.  Both sides underestimated the location of the fundamental loyalty in the other.  Both received incorrect images of the other in the partisan press.  Political beliefs distorted each side’s view of the other’s economy and class relations.  Both sides believed the other side was bluffing, and both sides believed that the other’s internal differences and conflicts would lead it to buckle” (134).   He wraps it up by saying that Southern whites didn’t fight for slavery, they fought for a new nation based upon slavery.  Northerners didn’t fight to end slavery, but they did fight to preserve the integrity of the Union.

Question:  Where do you find yourself when it comes to the cause(s) of the Civil War?  Do you find yourself in the fundamentalist camp or with the revisionists?  Why?  Do you think that slavery, economics, or states rights was the primary cause of the war?  Why?


Your answer is due Monday, December 9 by class time.  Minimum of 300 words, please.

November 30

Lincoln Extra Credit

As I watched Lincoln, I couldn’t help but be struck by the honest attempt to portray the 16th president and the tumultuous last months of the Civil War.  Lincoln seemed funny at times, deeply troubled and burdened by leading the country through some of its worst times ever, and also a grieving father and husband.

But what struck me most was what I thought was the parallel between the freedom and rights of freed slaves back in 1865 and today’s struggle for most LGBT equality.  Tony Kushner, the screenwriter, was the author of 1993’s Angels in America, a ground-breaking play that addressed gay and lesbian issues in a very different time (even just twenty years ago) that shocked America.  Back in 1993, people were still afraid of AIDS victims and spurned those who were HIV positive.  Today, gay and lesbian couples struggle for marriage equality, have been turned down for adoption, and are still the victims of harassment and bullying.  The Laramie Project, a play about the life of Matthew Shephard, a gay man who was tortured and killed for his sexual orientation by two straight men, was just at Seaholm a few weeks ago and has had such an impact on the lives of Americans that Matthew’s mother believes that the play has saved more people than all of the hate crime laws in the country. 

 Another thing that I was struck by was the blatant vote-courting done by the men hired by Seward who twisted Democrats’ arms and practically bribed these Congressmen with government jobs (like postmaster of _______, Ohio) in order to get the needed 2/3 number of votes to pass the 13th Amendment.   Part of me was not surprised by these strong-arm tactics, because I know that this was (and is) how things were done, but part of me was startled because I wanted to preserve this ideal that I’d had about Lincoln as being above this kind of political wrangling.   But the one thing I have learned over the years was that Lincoln was not above using politics as a means to his ends, whatever they may have been at the time.  He had promised to gradually emancipate slaves in the border states (even suggesting monetary compensation for slaves) so that they would stay in the Union.  This never happened. 

 A third thing that struck me was the word play and rhetorical sparring in Congress.  Many of those exchanges were funny and enlightening with regards to the way politics played out in the 1860s.  Today’s Congress doesn’t conduct itself like this today (but watching the face-to-face barb flinging in the movie, it’s no surprise that Charles Sumner was beaten by South Carolinian representative after Sumner “insulted” the South’s honor).  I loved Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican from Pennsylvania, who was willing to compromise his desire for full rights for freedmen to get the greater goal of slavery abolished.  Also, I don’t know if the final scene with him is true (no spoilers here!) though Wikipedia and other sources have confirmed it. 

 A fourth thing that really opened my eyes was the troubled relationship between Lincoln and his son, Robert, with Robert’s anger boiling over at not being allowed to fight in the Civil War (and instead enrolled at Harvard).  I wonder if Lincoln didn’t allow his son to fight because of his own fears of Robert’s death (knowing that he’s already lost two sons, Eddie in 1850 and Willie in 1862) or Mary’s own fragile psyche which could fracture with another death (and probably did with Abe’s death in 1865).  Though the oldest, Robert seemed neglected by his father when he comes to visit for the “shindee” after his father’s re-election.  There were scenes that showed Robert being ignored by Lincoln, but by contrast Tad gets all of his father’s love.   One of the more touching scenes was when Lincoln cuddled up with Tad on the floor who had fallen asleep playing war with toy soldiers.  I was also surprised to see Lincoln slap Robert when Robert wouldn’t let his duty to fight drop.  These scenes made Lincoln seem like a real person with flaws and fears. 

 The last thing that I took away from the movie was the battle over giving the slaves equal rights once the 13th Amendment would be passed. What would be the point of freeing slaves if they weren’t citizens of the nation that had freed them?  What’s the point?  No voting?  No civil rights?  This was a preview of what Reconstruction would become: a battle over guaranteeing the rights for freed blacks vs. preserving white supremacy. 


Please provide your insights about the movie.  You can respond to any of my five insights or share your own after you’ve seen the movie.  If you find an interesting movie review, please include the link / url in your blog response.  Minimum of 200 words.  Due by Monday, Dec. 10th at the beginning of your class. 




http://movies.nytimes.com/2012/11/09/movies/lincoln-by-steven-spielberg-stars-daniel-day-lewis.html?_r=0 – an interesting look at how the actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, developed his speaking voice for his part as Lincoln, and the back and forth between writer Tony Kushner and Lewis as to what phrases and words would be used in the movie. 


http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/16/tony-kushner-at-hero-summit-obama-likes-new-lincoln-movie.html – brief article about the screenwriter’s meeting with Obama after he watched Lincoln for the first time.

 http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/10/14/can-angels-in-america-soar-again.html – A 2010 article about Kushner’s Angels in America plays.

October 30

Blog #42 – Slavery disqualifier?

“All men are created equal…” Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

“There is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery]… we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”  Thomas Jefferson’s letter to John Holmes

An argument that discredits some of the Founding Fathers, including men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison among others is that because these men owned slaves yet fought for freedom, they are hypocrites.  The line of reasoning goes – “how could someone who so courageously advanced the cause of human freedom still be a slaveowner?  They can’t possibly be both for and against freedom.”   The next point in this line of thinking is that because of this hypocrisy, some of Founding Fathers, especially the Virginians, are racist because they neither had the courage to free their slaves or that they profited from their slaves’ labor. 

One of the most biting quotes about this dilemma is from this time period (not ours) by Englishman Samuel Johnson:

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Ambrose 2).

But were our FFs neglectful of this slavery dilemma?   It appears not.  When Jefferson describes the perpetuation of slavery in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he talks about how the slavemaster attitude is passed on down to his children:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise in the most boisterous passions…The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives loose to his worst passions, and thus nursed, educated and daily exercised in tyranny…”

Here, the child of the slaveowner learns how to treat slaves like chattel, and the cycle is perpetuated.  But modern critics say, how could Jefferson recognize this contradiction in American society and not do anything about it?   Even in the same book where he criticizes slavery and its depravity, Jefferson embraces the racism of the time by asserting that slaves hadn’t produced any real literature, they smelled bad, and engage in sex constantly (Ambrose 4).  Yet, confoundingly, Jefferson also wrote a passage into the original draft of the Declaration of Independence that condemned slavery, and he also signed the bill that outlawed the international slave trade in 1808. 

“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].” —George Washington

Then there’s Washington.  He was the only one of the nine slaveowning president who had freed all of his slaves (neither Adams owned slaves).   He held the nation together through the force of his personality and will during some of the darkest times.  But that didn’t stop a school in New Orleans from being renamed in the 1990s from George Washington Elementary to the Charles R. Drew Elementary(Dr. Drew is the developer of hemoglobin) (Ambrose 11). 


Ben Franklin and Benjamin Rush, FFs from Pennsylvania, helped found the nation’s first anti-slavery society in Philadelphia.  Rush is quoted as saying: “Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity… It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father.”

On the other side, there’s the assertion by Michelle Bachman, former Republican presidential candidate, who said that  the FFs “know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”   Specifically, Bachman mentions John Quincy Adams as one of these tireless founders, our 6th president. 


 1. What is happening here to the Founding Fathers?  Why are some people quick to attack and blame them for allowing slavery to exist at the foundation of a freedom-loving nation?  And why do some people defend the FFs with every ounce of their being? 

2. Do you think the FFs are being judged by today’s standards or by the standards of the day in which they lived?  Have the FFs become some kind of political football that candidates use for their own purposes?  Why?

Answer both questions by Thursday, class time, November 1.  300 words total. 


Ambrose, Stephen E. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print

http://theweek.com/article/index/216841/did-the-founding-fathers-really-work-tirelessly-to-end-slavery  The Week.