We the Teachers

Teaching the American Founding and the Constitutional Convention

Over the course of 100 days in 1787, American history would be made in a boisterous and sweltering Independence Hall. While the 55 delegates who showed up thought they were “just” going to revise the Articles of the Confederation, they ended up delving into so much more, eventually arguing for, and writing a final draft of, the U.S. Constitution.

These are the basics, of course, but they can seem so far removed from your students’ daily lives. In order to help them understand the intellectual and political depths of that historic summer, you need to help them see, hear, and feel the lively drama of the Founding of the United States. By exploring the core documents of that time, you can bring the Convention to life.

The TAH American Founding and Constitutional Convention Core Document Volume and Toolkit is designed to bring you and your classroom into Independence Hall alongside the spirited voices of those delegates. Imagine your students experiencing the Convention through these engaging resources:

  • Educational background, Continental experience, economic interests, and personal details of each delegate
  • The Convention organized as a four-act drama to help students understand how the story of the Founding unfolded
  • Correspondence among delegates and family members, linked to specific days throughout the “script”
  • Charts and tables, including an interactive Attendance Record that helps students visualize daily events and delegate attendance throughout the Convention
  • Menus, entertainment, and other fascinating “non-political” details that bring personality to the historical
  • Interactive maps and artwork
  • Multimedia resources, including videos corresponding with each of the acts.

You can use some or all of these Toolkit resources, tailoring them to your curriculum, schedule, and students’ needs. When you plan a lesson around a Core Document or corresponding resource, you will start to see your students making connections, light bulbs going off as the Convention, in a way, teaches itself.

Accessing the Core Documents and Toolkit is easy. Just click on the link below and find everything you need to bring Philadelphia, 1787, into your classroom today!

American Founding & Constitutional Convention Core Document Volume and Toolkit


Core Documents: The Great Depression and New Deal


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The Great Depression and New Deal can be more easily understood by thinking of it as a story in six parts.

Today’s interview is with Dr. John Moser, Professor of History at Ashland University and editor of the Core Documents volume on the Great Depression and New Deal. A complex and multi-faceted event that played out over a more than a decade, it can be understood by thinking of it as having taken place in six parts, chronologically:

  1. Hoover and the Great Depression
  2. Hoover vs. Roosevelt: The Election of 1932
  3. Roosevelt First New Deal, 1932-1934
  4. Criticism of the New Deal
  5. Roosevelt’s Second New Deal, 1934-1936
  6. The New Deal in Decline, 1936-1938

John talks about how he went about selecting documents to fit this model, how the documents fit together, and how using these documents can greatly improve the quality and interest level in a unit on the Great Depression and New Deal.

The second volume of the American History and Government Core Document Collections – the Great Depression and the New Deal – is available on iTunes, Kindle, and PDFHard copies are also available for $10 each, which can be accessed through our Facebook store. Email dmitchell@tah.org for more information.

Sign up for early access to each volume!

The Benefits of Team Teaching American History and Literature

It’s impossible to separate a culture’s literature from its history, yet every day, in classrooms across the country, the two subjects function in isolation. It’s easy to understand why: with an ever-increasing list of requirements and standards, teachers often find themselves scrambling to deliver basic instruction of their subject, let alone combine with another class. However, with the right planning, American history and literature teachers can team up to cohesively teach units. In the end, combining curriculum can give your students more educational bang for their buck. Making connections between two disciplines drives home the “how” and “why” questions of both.

Story Lovers

For today’s teens, popularly referred to as Generation Z, it’s all about story. They post their stories on social media. They shop brands that invest in marketing their own digital narratives. Their common literature is viral videos. And although today’s teens consume most of these stories on screen–whether through YouTube, Snapchat, or Twitter–they’re still spending the better part of their days immersed in story.

For students who love story, history can come alive through literature. According to a 2017 article in Forbes, “Gen Z students tend to thrive when they are given the opportunity to have a fully immersive educational experience and they even enjoy the challenges of being a part of it. For instance, 51% of surveyed students said they learn best by doing while only 12% said they learn through listening.” Learning history through story–for example, the Salem Witch Trials as portrayed in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, is a much more immersive experience than taking notes. By reading and visualizing characters and situations (or even better, acting out scenes), students participate in making meaning. The facts, and more importantly, how those facts influenced the evolution of American society, become embedded in a story many students will remember for life.

History Buffs

What about those students who prefer history to English class, the ones who do like memorizing dates and names but can’t seem to concentrate on a novel? For those who love the nuts and bolts of American history, the right literature can be a doorway to appreciating good storytelling. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for example, is both a memoir and a treatise on the abolition of slavery, drawing readers into this dark portion of American history through detailed personal experience. This engaging autobiography can lead more reluctant readers to sample other historical narratives, such as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or Tim O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical The Things They Carried, which explores the personal horrors of fighting in the Vietnam War.

Bringing the Two Together

Team teaching American history and literature can be a powerful experience for both teachers and their students. Even when two classes aren’t able to team up throughout the year, just one or two special cross-curricular units can electrify key themes with unique literary voices. If you’re a history teacher working alone, you can still deliver content through the vehicles of narratives, poetry, plays, and essays as a way to enrich your students’ learning.

Teaching American History is offering two Summer History & Literature Seminars designed to help teachers of American history and American literature to examine historical documents and literary texts through the lenses of both disciplines. Each seminar will be taught by a historian or political scientist teamed with a literary scholar. Get inspired by history and story this summer, and learn how to inspire your students as well.

Register for Seminars in July

SYNOPSIS: When American history teachers and American literature teachers team up in the classroom, history and story are both enriched to create a dynamic learning experience great for every student.

Core American Documents: World War 2


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Today’s podcast includes and interview with Dr. Jennifer Keene, of Chapman University and president of the Society for Military History. Dr. Keene is the volume editor for our new World War 2 Core American Documents volume, and has some interesting things to say about how she went about selecting documents, trying to keep the number and length manageable, while trying to do such an enormous event as WW2, from multiple perspectives, the justice it deserves.

This volume of  our Core American Documents Collections – World War 2 – is now available!

Get your copy on iTunesKindle, and PDFHard copies are also available for $10 each – email dmitchell@tah.org if you would like a copy. You can also buy it on Amazon!

Sign up for early access to each upcoming volume!

As in the other volumes, each Core Documents volume will contain the following:

  • Key documents on the period, theme, or institution, selected by an expert and reviewed by an editorial board
  • An introduction highlighting key documents and themes
  • A thematic table of contents, showing the connections between various documents
  • Study questions for each document, as well as questions that refer to other documents in the collection
  • Notes on each document to identify people, events, movements, or ideas to improve understanding of the document’s historical context.

When complete, the series will be comprehensive and authoritative, and will present America’s story in the words of those who wrote it – all united in their commitment to equality and liberty, yet so often divided by their different understandings of these most fundamental American ideas.

In sum, our intent is that the documents and their supporting material provide unique access to the richness of the American story. We hope that you will find this resource to be intriguing and helpful for your classroom.

Please contact Daniel Mitchell if you have any questions or would like more information about using the Core Documents Curriculum in your classroom.

Thank you for all that you do!

Fifth Volume of Core Documents Collection – The Cold War Now Available!

The latest volume of  our Core American Documents Collections – the Cold War – is now available!

Get your copy on iTunesKindle, and PDFHard copies are also available for $10 each – email dmitchell@tah.org if you would like a copy, or you can buy it on Amazon.

Sign up for early access to each upcoming volume!

What does the man on the moon and high school teachers having to take loyalty oaths have in common? Listen to today’s podcast and find out…


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Today’s podcast includes a conversation with David Krugler, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville about his work as volume editor for our newest Core American Documents volume, the Cold War. In it, David talks about the Cold War, the documents he selected and how, and some interesting experiences he had in the creation of the volume.

As in the other volumes, each Core Documents volume will contain the following:

  • Key documents on the period, theme, or institution, selected by an expert and reviewed by an editorial board
  • An introduction highlighting key documents and themes
  • A thematic table of contents, showing the connections between various documents
  • Study questions for each document, as well as questions that refer to other documents in the collection
  • Notes on each document to identify people, events, movements, or ideas to improve understanding of the document’s historical context.

When complete, the series will be comprehensive and authoritative, and will present America’s story in the words of those who wrote it – all united in their commitment to equality and liberty, yet so often divided by their different understandings of these most fundamental American ideas.

In sum, our intent is that the documents and their supporting material provide unique access to the richness of the American story. We hope that you will find this resource to be intriguing and helpful for your classroom.

Please contact Daniel Mitchell if you have any questions or would like more information about using the Core Documents Curriculum in your classroom.

Thank you for all that you do!

Core American Documents Volumes Introduction


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TAH.org is publishing over 40 individual volumes in our Core American Documents series, with four volumes already available as of today. In addition to the individual volumes, we are going provide a companion podcast interview of the editor of each volume, in which we’ll talk about the sorts of documents that were included, things to look out for among them, and commentary on the topic at hand. To kick off this series of interviews, which will be published through our podcast feed (iTunes and via RSS) at least monthly, we have today an interview with Dr. David Tucker, General Editor of the series, who talks about how the series is being put together, what can be found in each volume, and how teachers and students can access the volumes in different formats, both print and digital.

Saturday Webinar: Bloody Sunday in Selma, AL


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Saturday, 3 March 2018’s TAH.org teacher webinar was about Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. The violent response to a peaceful Civil Rights march on 7 March 1965, televised and immortalized in pictures, helped to spotlight the injustice of segregation and racially discriminatory systems of law and social norms found throughout the South at the time.

Although other crises in this series were political or security-focused in nature, what happened in Selma has a far more distinctly moral crisis, as it was made so clear that many Americans were not enjoying the same rights as others, and that the promises of the Declaration of Independence were, clearly, not yet fulfilled.

The event itself was discussed in detail and contextualized alongside other major moments and ideas from the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s.

Suggestions for additional reading:

Access the full archive page here.

iTunes Podcast

Podcast RSS


Revive Your Love of Learning

Remember the excitement you felt the first time you read the Gettysburg Address, watched a presidential debate, or visited a national memorial? You found yourself face to face with the wonder and courage of the Great American Experiment and knew you wanted to give your life to understanding and participating in it yourself.

In the midst of meetings, parent phones, grading, and prep work maybe you’ve lost the passion you first felt for American history.

No matter how long you’ve been working in the education system, you can revive your love of learning. We have some tips to help.

Set a Personal Learning Goal

Setting a personal goal that you can achieve in a reasonable amount of time can do wonders for your intellectual energy. Perhaps it’s reading a certain number of historical biographies in the next year or memorizing the most moving portion of a speech you’ve found inspiring in the past. Set aside a bit of time each day to commit to your goal – even just five or ten minutes. You’ll start feeling empowered and energized even with a small daily habit of learning for your own personal satisfaction.

Mix It Up

We encourage our students toward interdisciplinary learning, providing opportunities for them to combine their knowledge of American history with literature, the arts, science, and their own creative expression. When is the last time you’ve given this gift to yourself?

Visit an art museum to just wander and enjoy American art from your favorite time period. Read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms next time you teach about The Great War. Or take to your own notebook or canvas to express your feelings about a historical event or famous figure. Exploring a familiar subject from different angles can open your eyes to different ideas and get those synapses popping.

Learn with Others

Getting together to read and discuss ideas with a group of fresh faces and minds can not only revive your love for learning, but bring it to new heights. Each year, Teaching American History offers dozens of seminars and colloquia at various locations across the country at no charge for participants. Whether on-site or online, you and fellow teachers will dive right into original historical documents, from the Constitution to FDR’s Commonwealth Address, under the teaching of university scholars who are experts in their respective fields. Getting to the roots of our country’s exciting and complicated history will not only remind you of why you love this subject, but help you inspire your students as well. We hope you will join us at a program soon!

To learn more about TAH’s free teacher education programs visit http://teachingamericanhistory.org or sign up to receive regular updates about all of our teacher resources!


Special Video Presentation: Gordon Lloyd at Pepperdine on the Bill of Rights


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Dr. Gordon Lloyd visited Dr. Jeff Sikkenga’s class at Pepperdine University in early February 2018 to talk about the origins of the Bill of Rights, with particular focus on the First Amendment, and the two religion clauses. Dr. Lloyd also used his online exhibit on the Bill of Rights to help students dig deeply into the documentary and historical origins of the rights protected in the Bill of Rights.

Engage the Disengaged Student: Renew Your American History Curriculum with These Free Resources

“We hold these truths to be self evident.”

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

“I have a dream.”

You became a history teacher because iconic words like this, reflecting the matchless American Experiment, captured your imagination. The tensions of security versus freedom, liberty versus union, and a confederated republic versus a rising national empire made for endless critical thinking and debate.

Now you’re juggling well over a hundred students, tracking ever-changing standards, and feeling the pressure to teach to the dreaded test as your students doodle in their notebooks. Is there a way to reignite your first love for history–and make your students fall in love as well?

Teach the Words of Our Founding Fathers to the Keepers of Our Country’s Future

Teaching American History believes in the power of our country’s original historical documents to spark curiosity, conversation, and action. We also believe in supporting hardworking teachers by making their lives a bit easier. With our collection of free, thoughtfully curated resources, you can have both.

Our American History Toolkits are topically-focused multimedia collections organized for easy access to a variety of materials, including primary documents, guiding questions, webinars, podcasts, lessons, and other resources to help lay a solid foundation with original documents for major units of study. With our toolkits, actual pieces of history–not boring packets of charts and multiple choice questions–become the backbone of your curriculum, directing students back to the heart of our nation’s challenges and ideals. Invite students to explore speeches, debates, letters, cases, messages, and other documents in the context of their corresponding audiences and events, and watch the light bulbs turn on.

Meet Your State’s Academic Standards with Fresh – and Free – Resources

Our primary documents are aligned with thousands of easily searchable state academic standards, so you can ensure that your teaching meets your state’s requirements.

Our Toolkits explore the following major issues and eras of United States history:

  • The American Founding
  • Expansion & Sectionalism
  • Civil War & Reconstruction
  • The Progressive Era
  • The Great Depression & World War 2
  • Civil Rights

Ready to reinvigorate your American history curriculum? Access one of our Toolkits today, and rediscover America.

Minnesota Teacher of the Year Constantly Builds Her Content Knowledge

In March, the Minnesota Council of Social Studies named Heather Loeschke 2017 Teacher of the Year. Loeschke, a 2014 graduate of the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program at Ashland University, has taught for 21 years—since 2001 at Cannon Falls Junior/Senior High School, a rural school 35 miles south of the Twin Cities. For many years a government teacher, she now also covers Advanced Placement US history. We asked her how TAH programs supported her development as a teacher.

Heather Loeschke with the colleague who nominated her for her award, Alan Amdahl of Albany Senior High School. Amdahl’s students have competed with Loeschke’s in “We the People” events that test students’ ability to practically apply their knowledge of the Constitution. “I have seen her kids in action. She does an awfully good job of preparing future citizens,” Amdahl said. “She brings the content of history and government to life.”

What is your philosophy of education?

 I believe education is like life—one never fully achieves knowledge, or finishes learning. Teachers get kids when their knowledge glass is fairly empty, so we provide them with information; but we must also provide them tools to become lifelong learners.

 Why did you enroll in the MAHG program?

 I was a history major in college. Then for many years I taught civics, developing a profound love of that subject—but I felt I needed more content knowledge, especially in history. I would be picking up the APUSH course at my high school when a colleague retired. You can’t fool a kid. If you don’t know the content, they know that you don’t know it, and you lose their attention and focus. Pedagogy is important, but that’s mostly smoke, bells and whistles.

When I was awarded the James Madison Fellowship that would fund my second MA (my first was in education), I called the University of Minnesota and universities in Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Iowa. I found that I could get an MA in history, but in political science, departments offered only PhD programs.

I had been part of a 2006 Teaching American History program, the Presidential Academy, where I met professors who teach in MAHG today. So I knew that MAHG was a serious program. It also fit my schedule and covered the content I needed: both history and government.

How did the MAHG program support your goals as an educator?

The MAHG experience is invaluable. Every single class I took in the program has benefitted me in some way. The course offerings allowed me to choose classes that would make me a stronger teacher in the areas I teach. I use documents we used in MAHG in APUSH, in government classes, and to help kids prepare for the We the People competition. I’ve even had friends I’ve met through MAHG get online and talk through speakerphone to my kids about different subjects.

People ask me, is MAHG a degree in history or a degree in government? I say, it’s a degree in both, but it’s all infused with Constitutional studies. It’s a nice blend.

This spring at our state social studies council meeting, recipients of teacher awards were asked to sit on a panel. We spoke to a standing-room only crowd about our philosophies as educators and about teaching approaches that we’ve found effective. Then we took questions. Teachers asked us, “What practices make you an excellent teacher?” All the other awardees talked about their lesson plans. I said that I’d earned two Masters and whenever possible attended seminars and conferences. I’ve visited historic places, met several Supreme Court justices, visited the White House, talked with Senators and been on the House floor, been in the Pentagon—really interesting places most people never get to visit. Going to conferences, I’ve met some extraordinary people.  I told teachers, “Sign up for a Teaching American History weekend seminar. You’ll read and discuss primary documents with extraordinary professors. You’ll network with other great teachers and see historic places. It will have a profound impact on your teaching.”

Do you need to know American history in order to understand US government?

Yes—and the reverse is also true. In order for our history to make sense, you have to understand our government. A teacher told me, “When I get kids in AP US Government, they have never in their entire lives taken a government class.” In her district, those who don’t take the AP option leave high school without any civics instruction. I asked, “How does your school district justify that?” She said, “They feel they get enough government content in their history classes.” Well, perhaps—if the teacher is well versed in both. We do kids a disservice if we don’t require government. Many problems in politics today arise because voters have never read the Constitution and never taken a look at American history.  Citizens argue the Electoral College should be abolished, not knowing why the Founders created it; or they don’t see that our system of checks and balances is being eroded, as Congress fails to use its Constitutional powers to keep the executive branch in check.

What did you find most challenging in the MAHG program?

We not only had to read documents carefully; we also wrote careful analyses of them. I became a much better writer and a much better reader by going through the MAHG program.

Shortly after I began the MAHG program, they offered the final comprehensive exam as an alternative to a thesis or capstone. I thought, “There’s no way I’m doing that! How can I retain all the information implied in the word ‘comprehensive’”? Yet when it came down to it, I realized the exam would allow me to develop my ideas in smaller chunks, even though I would do as much writing for the exam as I would for a thesis. Also, opting for the exam meant that I would take three more classes. When I say that, people look incredulous. I explain, “I got to go back to campus, be immersed in that world, be with professors I enjoy and friends I love being with.”

How did writing for the MAHG degree benefit your teaching?

When I took over the APUSH course, it was being dramatically overhauled by the College Board to incorporate a lot more writing. My MAHG experience helped me teach the LEQ (long essay questions) as well as DBQs (document-based questions). Everything that we wrote for MAHG was a document-based question: our essays reflected on the readings we’d been discussing all week.

In order to become a good writer, you really have to practice. You also have to read lots of good writing—and all the documents we read are well written.

What is the most important thing your students need to learn in order to become participating citizens in our democratic republic?

They need to learn how government works and how it affects them. I tell students, “Government will affect your life whether you learn about it or not. But whether it is a positive or negative impact is entirely up to you. If you don’t know the right questions or whom to ask, the wheels of government will roll right over you.” In class, I refer to the words of statesmen I read in the MAHG program. I quote Madison, who said in Federalist 51 that the Constitutional provisions for checks and balances can only go so far; ultimately, “Our dependence is upon the people.” Citizens must thoughtfully exercise their right to vote.

Summer 2017 History and Literature Seminar 

This July, TAH.org introduces a new program for teachers of American history and American literature. Our three-day History & Literature seminars will examine key themes in American history through study of both historical documents and literary texts. Each cross-curricular seminar is open to both social studies and English/language arts teachers at any level, and each will be co-taught by a literary scholar and a historian or political scientist.

The program addresses two needs spoken of by teachers in our programs: the social studies teacher’s need of fiction and poetry to bring historical issues alive; and the language arts teacher’s need to understand the historical context of fiction and verse. Since we are hearing that secondary schools increasingly use cross-curricular methods, even pairing social studies and language arts teachers in related courses, we hope to encourage conversation between the two disciplines. Part of that dialogue necessarily includes teaching strategies. Hence, two high school teachers experienced in integrating history and government content with literature will help to facilitate our first course in the interdisciplinary program.

Our first course in the series is:

Equality and Liberty in American History & Literature

Tuesday evening, July 11, 2017 to Friday, July 14, 2017

 Lucas Morel, Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia will co-teach the seminar with Kathleen Pfeiffer, Professor of English at Oakland University in Michigan.  Morel, a long-time Visiting Professor in the Master of Arts in American History and Government program at Ashland University, specializes in American government, political theory, Abraham Lincoln, and black American politics. His publications include Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government as well as Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man. Pfeiffer teaches and researches African-American literature (especially that of the Harlem Renaissance), as well as the biography as a genre. Her publications include Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank and Race Passing and American Individualism

This seminar will be held on the campus of Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. For information on fees, on-campus room and board, and to register for the course, please visit our website.

To show how a thoughtful political theorist can shed light on a literary text, we offer an interview with Lucas Morel, speaking about the novel that last month won the Pulitzer: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Morel has already taught the novel at Washington and Lee.

Lucas Morel on Teaching Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, which won the 2016 National Book Award for fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, presents teachers of American history and literature an opportunity to immerse students in the harsh reality of slavery, but it also presents pedagogical challenges. The Pulitzer committee called the novel “a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.” Not an ordinary historical novel—some have called it an example of “magical realism”—it aims at symbolic rather than literal historical truth. Whitehead invents an actual subterranean railroad, with a variety of trains, train stops, and conductors, to dramatize the varied and threatening social terrain an escaping slave had to cross before attaining freedom. This is only one of many liberties Whitehead takes with history as he tells the story of Cora, a young woman fleeing a Georgia plantation with a savagely cruel owner.

Professor Lucas Morel taught the novel to students at Washington and Lee last fall. We asked him about guiding students through the fantasy aspects of the novel toward the historical reality it depicts.

  1. We expect historical novelists to vividly evoke a time period. Whitehead seems to lift incidents and trends from across three centuries and transplant them all into one decade. Why does Whitehead depart from fact in this way?

Historical novelists face a problem. The closer the history depicted is to the facts, the greater the challenge to keep the reader suspended in his disbelief and to let the plot, characters and dialogue do their work. Instead of just following the story, the reader wonders if this or that episode really happened.  (Just as with Spielberg’s Lincoln movie, in which Daniel Day Lewis acted his way to a record 3rd Academy award for Best Actor, every historian is asked, “Did Lincoln really say that?”)  The reader begins to treat the novel as a documentary rather than a tale that uses a mixture of fact and fiction to tell a larger truth. Colson Whitehead actually has a character say, “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” No clearer statement of the grand aim of his novel could be made!  This remark occurs near the end of the book, as if to answer an objection in the mind of the reader who knows the story has played fast and loose with American history. It’s just one of several heavy-handed statements put in the mouths of characters to make sure the reader gets a lesson Whitehead wants them to learn. These statements depart from the usual rule of fiction-writing: “Show, don’t tell.” Still, Whitehead’s novel—even though I disagree with some of its teachings—raises questions about such important issues in American history and political development that I believe it’s worth reading.

Regarding his compression into a decade historical events and incidents that actually took place across a few centuries, I’m guessing Whitehead wanted to deal with race and America in one fell literary swoop.  Race still matters, still infects how Americans relate to one other socially and especially politically, even after the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th-15th Amendments, not to mention the achievements of the modern Civil Rights Movement and the election (and re-election) of a black president. Whitehead must think that it needs to remain a subject of discussion that extends beyond the domain of politicians.  He does present events of which most Americans are probably not aware.  One wonders whether his readers will be shocked more by his depictions of these events or by the subsequent discovery that they actually occurred!

Does this work as a story?  For the most part, yes.  That’s due to Whitehead’s craft, e.g., the way he gets the reader to invest in his protagonist, Cora, who attempts to escape from a plantation through an actual underground railroad—the greatest conceit of the book, but one I also believe works.  It invites discussion and reflection upon the nature of the American regime and how an individual or society can move from expressing mere will, self-interest, and force to pursuing justice, self-government, and civilization.  The great political question of right versus might is a central theme of the novel.  Although I disagree with Whitehead’s rendering of the meaning and significance of America and her development as a nation, he does prompt readers to ponder these things.

  1. How might teachers deal with the historical background of the novel?

In interviews, Whitehead indicates he researched extensively American slavery and the slave trade. He wouldn’t need to draw much from outside the long American experience with slavery and accounts of what the worst enslavers and overseers did to maintain control over large numbers of slaves.  One particularly garish event of torture in the beginning of the novel struck me as almost beyond credulity. But perhaps the author meant to convey that, because the law and social practice sided with the enslaving class, there was little that a master could not do when it came to enforcing his will. It’s true that slave owners occasionally set ghastly examples to ensure the strict obedience of the rest of their slaves. Whitehead depicts a contest between the brutalization of human beings and the spirit of freedom, showing how the humanity of the enslaved expressed itself in the most trying situations, even in the pecking order slaves imposed upon themselves—a semblance of culture—and in Cora’s resistance to injustice even in the slaves’ internal affairs.

Whitehead gives the devil his due, that’s for sure, but he also shows the tremendous ingenuity, improvisation, and agency of human beings subject to the near-absolute control of legal masters.  Here he has learned from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which illustrates how those treated as second-class citizens and considered inferior by nature display their humanity in ways that are misunderstood or simply overlooked by those in power. For example, Ellison’s invisible man is able to power 1,369 light bulbs in his apartment without the Monopolated Light and Power Company tracing that current drain to his hole in the ground! In a very similar way, Whitehead shows us an incredible underground railroad, an engineering feat accomplished apparently by the black slaves themselves. In this Whitehead asks the question, “Has this country been built by hands and minds that we don’t have a clue about—or deliberately left out of our histories?” And this work is heroic. As free human beings, they risked their lives to build something they themselves may never have gotten the chance to use.

The novel should motivate those unfamiliar with the history of race in America to learn more about its role in our social and political development. In classrooms using the book, students might research and report on incidents in the novel that appear historical. It would take a student only about 8 seconds on the Internet to discover that the Underground Railroad was not a literal railroad, and then he could research what it actually was. Other students might research incidents that did occur in our past yet not in such a short space of time.  A reminder at the outset that Whitehead’s novel is a work of fiction would be in order, and that by working upon our imaginations, the author seeks to engage us in important questions regarding the human condition—and how our founding and development as a nation may have reflected, improved, or retarded that condition.

The novel prompts us to ask: what would it take for Cora not simply to flee from oppression but also to find safety, security, and prosperity for herself and those she loves? Is true community possible? What are its requirements, and what are obstacles to it? And can these thrive generation over generation?  Lincoln addressed these questions pretty much throughout his public career, from his Lyceum Address of 1838 to his most famous speech at Gettysburg.

  1. By the end of Whitehead’s novel, Cora seems the lone survivor of the many who sought freedom and the few who tried to help them gain it. Does Whitehead think you have to be a person of extraordinary character and will to free yourself from an unjust political and social system?

Only a small percentage of slaves attempted to escape, and fewer were successful in the attempt. (Resistance most likely took other forms.) Whitehead illustrates the tremendous difficulty of escape, especially for those furthest from a free state border. In part, he’s countering those who, imagining that they themselves would never have allowed themselves to become enslaved or to remain in slavery, claim that African American slaves were somehow content with their misery (this seems a veiled form of white supremacy, analogous to those who wonder why Jews did not do more to avoid or escape their plight under Nazi Germany, a question Hannah Arendt discussed in her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil).

Still, I think Whitehead fails to offer a completely honest account of America.  While illustrating the ways slavery contradicts America’s highest principles, he gives short shrift to the power of those principles and the individuals of various races who struggled—ultimately successfully—to bring those principles to bear on America’s development as a nation, both politically and socially.

I keep using the word “development” because America is and remains a work in progress—and this not because its principles are flawed or its people any more deficient or vicious than those of any other nation.  As President Bill Clinton remarked in his First Inaugural Address, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” Yet for Whitehead, the distinctive aspects of America are its flaws. The character Lander, an orator, writer, and escaped slave residing on Valentine Farm in Indiana (a former slave state), seems to speak for Whitehead in observing that “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. . . . This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty.”  He then adds, “Yet here we are,” suggesting that good happens despite America, not because of it.

For me, the most redeeming feature of America is the clearest expression of its noblest ideals and aspirations: the Declaration of Independence.  This document appears twice in the novel, first as the memorized speech of a slave (Michael) who gets trotted out to amuse the guests of the vicious slave-owner Terrance Randall. Later, a more favorable rendering of the Declaration’s principles occurs on the Valentine Farm, where Cora finds sanctuary.  But even here, its principal truths, declared to be “self-evident,” are not taken as such, but rather likened to “a map”: “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”  In the end, Whitehead seems to say that freedom is what you make of it. President Obama liked to say, “that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing” and “while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

But what test does Whitehead envision to prove the truth of the Declaration’s claims?  How would one refute the argument made by Ridgeway, the novel’s slave-catcher par excellence and Cora’s nemesis, that freedom is simply the will of the stronger?  “The American imperative,” Ridgeway calls it, declaring, “If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent.”

  1. Would you say Ridgeway represents one pole of American thinking about liberty: that it resides in a particular people’s “manifest destiny”or that free government is simply a matter of “popular sovereignty”?

That view has been maintained by Stephen Douglass and by Southern Confederates, but it is not the view expressed at our founding. I see equality and liberty as in a way the same thing. According to the Declaration, to speak of liberty is to speak of that which we possess equally. I have no more and no less liberty than you do—that’s the meaning of American equality. The potential conflict is between equality and consent. We possess equality and liberty by endowment from our Creator, or by nature. What we are not given is the security to enjoy and exercise them. That’s where human beings have to do their work. It’s as if God says, “Here’s liberty; good luck with that!” Jefferson reflects the Lockean view: people first understand what they have by God’s endowment or by nature, then they realize they are vulnerable without a way to protect this. That’s why it is also self-evident “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from consent of the governed.”

Jefferson’s slaves had the same amount of liberties naturally as he did, yet they were being deprived by law and practice of the free exercise of it. The question is, did the Founders set us on a course where the structures of society, as well as the ideals, could work together so that over time, as Lincoln said, we could press into reality that which was true but wasn’t being respected? American political development is a long effort to get people to channel their consent to the equal protection of what we all possess.


Apply for July National Seminar for High School Educators

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) invites you to apply for the 2017 National Seminar for High School Educators on July 16-18 and July 19-21 in Washington, DC.

The 24-hour professional development program is free to middle school and high school educators interested in teaching about the history of communism and its collectivist legacy.

Registration is open to all educators currently teaching at the middle school and high school levels. Lunch is provided all three days; there is a reception on the first evening, and a dinner on the second evening. There is no cost to attend the seminars. Teachers, however, are responsible for their transportation to and accommodations in Washington, DC, and may apply for scholarship support of up to $1,000 to offset travel expenses.

The applications for the program and scholarships are available at the link below. Early registration is encouraged, as remaining spaces are limited.


If you have additional questions, please contact murray.bessette@victimsofcommunism.org or 202.629.9500.


Coming Summer 2017: American History Toolkits

Beginning in early August, TAH.org will add a series of American History Toolkits, which are topically-focused collections, each made up of resources from around the site, and organized to provide for easy access to a variety of materials for teachers. Our initial collection is made up of the following topics, which address some of the major eras and issues in American history and government.

  • The American Founding – trace the development of the American Idea of government from the years leading up to the Revolution through George Washington’s terms as president
  • Expansion & Sectionalism– the country grew swiftly during the first half of the 19th Century, and with that growth came opportunities, challenges, and eventually problems that drove the country to turn on itself.
  • Civil War & Reconstruction – 1861-1877, some of the most pivotal in America’s history, as faction tried to tear the country apart, and attempts to build a new sociopolitical order after military victory yielded mixed results.
  • The Progressive Era– more dramatic change, economic and social, motivated Americans to seek equally dramatic political changes, in search of solutions to problems not only new to Americans, but novel in world history.
  • The Great Depression and World War 2– another pair of potentially existential challenges to America and its system of government, addressed and resolved by American means.
  • Civil Rights– MLK and others sought to cash the check written by the Founders, and their work changed the political, economic, legal, and social status of millions of American minorities, all the while bringing America closer to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

Each Toolkit will include:

  • Guiding Questions for the topic as a whole, with criteria for good answers
  • A curated list of 10 essential documents from our Library
  • WebinarsPodcasts, and YouTube videos
  • Other documents-based resources from around TAH.org
  • Lesson Plans that complement the documents and other resources

50 Documents That Tell America’s Story

Required reading for students, teachers, and citizens.

Access Now

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