Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The New Nation: the Problems & Pitfalls of a Challenging Period in American History

and Using George Washington's Farewell Address to Help Frame the Unit
(scroll down to the bottom of this post if you're in a hurry and just want the teaching stuff!)

Students, by their own testimony, find so much of what happens devoid of any meaning or relevance in their lives. . . .

This quotation from the Urban Teacher Education Consortium’s recent position paper (read the whole thing here) just leapt out at me from the second to last paragraph as I began this blog post about how to teach the period 1789-1830s.

The problem we face as history teachers is how to connect things to students’ lives in hopes of making it relevant. But we can't always do this. Nor should we. Imagine, for a moment, trying to make your students appreciate what it was like for Jewish refugees in the late 1930s and early 40s trying to escape Nazi Germany. Or what it would be like to leave your home in Seattle during World War II because you were of Japanese ancestry? Or what it was like to live in the American South during years before the Civil Rights movement?

Consider these ill-advised ideas:

  1. Ask students to think about a time they moved or went on a trip somewhere as a way to get students to think about having to decide what they should take and what they should not take if they had to leave their homes.
  2. Think about a time when you felt discriminated against or left out.   

Students will not be able to appreciate what it was like for Jews in Germany or Blacks in the post-Reconstruction South or Japanese-Americans during World War II by remembering a time when they felt left out in middle school.

There are quite a few pedagogical flaws with such an approach. Any student intuitively understands the key flaw--deciding what to take with you to your new house is not anything like having to pick what to take with you when you are fleeing with your life or being evicted from your home in the middle of the night at gunpoint, or in the daytime because of an Executive Order. And kids know this. But let’s say for a moment that I’m wrong and they don’t know this. A teacher who asks for this sort of analogy from his or her students risks suggesting that it is an appropriate analogy. The teacher risks minimizing the realities of the historic situation. The teacher risks oversimplifying the history.  

But more importantly, we don't always need to "relate" to something in order to understand or appreciate something. We are trying to teach kids history so they learn about about something bigger than themselves. There are all-too-many kids out there who have experienced real tragedy or deprivation. But there are also many who haven't. If we think we can only teach something by connecting it to students' experiences, and all that they have experienced is a typical middle-class American life, then what do we do? And for those students who are decidedly not middle class and have experienced poverty, crime and lack of opportunity, then isn’t perhaps even more important to expose those students to the larger world?

All of the above is a lengthy introduction to the problem I have always had in starting the unit following that of the Constitution: The New Nation.  Extraordinary changes and precedents come up in the early years of our nation under the presidency of George Washington through Andrew Jackson. When I go back and re-read accounts of this history, I am overwhelmed by what has occurred.

These historic events, however, have never seemed to grab the interest of my students. Partly it is because our study of the Constitution is so lively and so full of debate on contemporary problems and issues that the trials and tribulations of men with white whigs is dry by comparison. Partly it is because it is a period that, despite its richness, does not grab my interest as much as other periods.

But it’s important to teach and so I struggle to make it “come alive” for students.


For starteres, try teaching about contemporary political parties!! Get on the internet or open up a newspaper and find an example of partisanship in action. This should not be hard to find. Use this as a way to engage kids with the positive and (unfortunately mostly) negative aspects of partisan politics today.

I’m also going to go out on a limb here and suggest that one carefully edit the unit to include only those topics critical towards an understanding of major themes and those which lead to a better understanding of the units that follow. (Most significantly, the events leading to the Civil War). This is going to leave out a lot. But again, part of what we have to avoid as U.S. history teachers is becoming so bogged down with the breadth that we lose the depth. Think about this: the textbooks we use today have chapters on this period that likely include everything that was included in textbooks sixty years ago. And yet those textbooks from 1954 would likely have ended with World War II!  If we add on units on the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam and beyond, doesn’t it make sense that we will have to cut topics from earlier units?

Below is an imperfect and, admittedly incomplete, outline for a unit. One could extend this unit through Andrew Jackson or put Jacksonian America into the next unit. As I said above, I personally find this a challenging unit and welcome comments/feedback as to how others frame this unit.

# of Class periods spent on topic*
Themes/Essential Questions Addressed
George Washington’s Farewell Address
What problems does Washington outline in this address? 

for the whole unit: To what extent do those warnings reflect actual problems of his presidency and predict future problems afterwards? This sets up all the topics that follow.
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson: the Rise of the Party System and Conflict over Hamilton’s Financial Program

Why/how did political parties develop in the U.S. despite the fact that they were believed to be a bad thing? What are the positive and negative functions of party today? What is “partisanship”?
The Theme of Nationalism & Foreign Diplomacy: France, Britain and the U.S.
e.g. XYZ affair, French Revolution, Alien & Sedition Acts
How did the European conflicts between France and Britain affect the young U.S.? How did the U.S. avoid becoming engulfed by these problems?
Jefferson’s Presidency: The Theme of Nationalism and the Louisiana Purchase
Why did Jefferson adjust his views on the Constitution in order to justify the purchase of Louisiana? What problems with sectionalism would develop as a result of the Louisiana Purchase?
Political Nationalism: The War of 1812 and Post-War Foreign Policy
(e.g. focus not on the details of the war but the overall problem and the long term consequences; lots of good info out there since the bicentennial. Check out backstoryradio.org's podcast about the War of 1812. This is a great website/podcast series--check out their other stuff too!) This topic could include Monroe Doctrine, too, and I have done it that way, but you could also postpone it and use as an introduction to the Mexican War.)
What is historically significant about the “forgotten” war of 1812? How and why do we characterize the war of 1812 as a “second war for independence?”
Nationalism and the Marshall Court
(John Marshall and landmark court cases, including Marbury v. Madison, McCullough v. Maryland, Gibbons v. Ogden, Dartmouth v. Woodward)
What impact did Marshall Court have on the role of the Supreme Court, the power of the federal government, commerce and national supremacy? (4 themes of Marshall Court)
Economic Nationalism: The Early Industrial Development of the U.S.
(e.g. Clay’s American System, canals, territorial & population growth)
How did the U.S. expand in the first quarter of the 19th century and what how did the economy grow along with it? In what ways will these lead to problems of sectionalism?
Sectionalism: the Rise and Fall of Slavery after the Revolution
(e.g. decline of slavery in the North, rise of abolitionism, the end of the slave trade, rise of slavery in the South due to cotton gin, Missouri Compromise, Nat Turner Rebellion and Virginia Convention)
What was the impact of the American Revolution (specifically the ideology of freedom as stated in the Declaration of Independence) on the institution of slavery?
How and why did slavery decline in the North? How and why did slavery grow in the South? What was the future significance of the Missouri Compromise and the Virginia Convention on the future of slavery? How was the “problem of slavery” defined and reframed in this period?
*It is so difficult to put a number on this. The lower number is what I would recommend in high school; the higher number is what I would recommend for middle or high schools that teach U.S. history over a 2 year period.
And below are a few specific suggestions for using George Washington's Farewell Address as an introduction to the unit. Written as an address to the American people and published in a Philadelphia newspaper in September of 1796, it was shaped by key events & problems of Washington’s presidency, and in many ways  predicted some of the problems the new nation would face in the years after. So it works really well to sort of "set up" the unit, and you can keep referring to those themes--especially political parties and sectionalism--as you get closer to the Civil War. And you can refer to his warnings about what Jefferson later called "entangling alliances" when you get to later foreign policy issues.

So here’s a link to the whole address, all 6087 words of it. I’d never use all of this with students, but it wouldn’t hurt teachers to read the whole thing. It's from a great website, ourdocuments.gov that has lots of information about the Address and other documents in American history.

Here’s a link to a version to use with students. I have edited the Address to the highlights and included questions that will guide students through the document, either on their own, in small groups or as a class. I have used this successfully with 11th graders.

Here’s a link to a briefer version I created, more suited to middle school, high schoolers with lower reading levels, or circumstances where you have less time.

And, just because I think it's so cool, an excerpt from Washington's Last Will and Testament (full link here):
To each of my Nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington, & Samuel Washington, I give one of the Swords or Cutteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to chuse in the order they are named. These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country & its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.

Next post: planning to give you materials on talking about the slavery issue above.


  1. It is a matter of semantics but the questions that you call essential questions are focus questions not essentail questions because they aren't interpretive, open to varied analysis and opinion that can be supported through evidence. Rather your questions have answers driven by content not thinking

  2. Thanks so much for your comment. I would agree with you--these are content-driven questions. (Though they are questions that historians have different interpretations about). I, too, see this as a matter of semantics. Yes, many educators employ the term "essential questions" to refer to a question like, "To what extent does/should politics influence government?" But I admit, frankly, that deciding whether something is an essential question, or an "enduring understanding" or a "focus question" tires me. The word "essential" also just means "really important." And all of the questions above are important to an understanding of this period in history.
    The motto for my blog--high standards that meet any standard--betrays my similar frustration with standards. When I plan lessons and units, I most concerned that my lessons help students answer the biggest essential question of all: why do we have to know this stuff? Why does it matter? How did it impact the history of this country?