We the Teachers

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day

Sunday, December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, being the anniversary of the day in 1791 on which the document became an official part of our Constitution. When Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the document, these first ten amendments to the Constitution took effect. For a detailed exploration of the philosophical origins of the Bill of Rights and the political process by which they came to be adopted, visit the exhibit Gordon Lloyd prepared for our site, as a companion to exhibits on the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist-Antifederalist Debates, and the Ratification of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights completed the design for our government given us by the Founders, since it provided additional restraints on the federal government thought to be needed by those who were hesitant to ratify the Constitution.

631px-James_MadisonJames Madison, who played a pivotal role in insuring the ratification of the Constitution, also took the lead in calling for the Constitution’s first set of amendments. Madison outlined the need for a Bill of Rights in a speech before the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. We reprint below Professor Christopher Burkett’s comment on Madison’s “Speech on Amendments to the Constitution.” It is part of a new collection of primary documents in American history edited by Burkett and published by the Ashbrook Center, 50 Core Documents: Required Reading for Students, Teachers and Citizens.

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The End of Reconstruction in South Carolina

Grant_President_LoCThe difficulties undermining the project of Reconstruction are suggested in this letter of President Ulysses S. Grant to South Carolina Governor D. H. Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a Republican who had been elected Governor in 1874 on a reform platform; he had won support from Democratic “fusionists” for his election by promising to fight excessive spending and patronage under the existing Republican and Reconstruction government of the state. But he also intended to defend the civil rights of freedmen.  During his tenure the Democratic party laid plans to regain power in the 1876 elections, in part through the targeted use of violence against black officeholders. In July 1876, the local militia in the town of Hamlet, which was made up of freedmen, were attacked by “Rifle” and “Sabre” clubs made up of white men, and five freedmen were murdered. Governor Chamberlain appealed to President Grant for federal troops to secure the peace. Grant would send the requested help, but President Hayes, succeeding him in office the next year, would withdraw the troops after a disputed gubernatorial election in which both Chamberlain and Democrat Wade Hampton claimed victory (Hampton’s majority was inflated by fraud, especially in two counties where the numbers voting for him exceeded the number of registered voters.) When federal troops withdrew, Chamberlain resigned the governorship, aware he could not hold it without federal protection. He left the state and Reconstruction in South Carolina effectively ended.

A Winter Weekend at James Madison’s Montpelier

This past weekend, the Ashbrook Center was pleased to host 16 outstanding social studies teachers for a weekend colloquium at James Madison’s Montpelier.

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Participants read from primary source documents including Madison’s pre-Constitutional Convention working paper,  ”Vices of the Political System of the U.S.,” several of his contributions to the Federalist series, his “Report on the Virginia Resolutions,” his introduction of amendments to the Constitution in the First Congress, and some of his personal correspondence. (Explore more of Madison’s writings in our online document library here.) With guidance from the accomplished historian of the Early Republican era, Dr. Todd Estes (Oakland University), we discussed key themes in Madison’s thought and career, including his critique of the government under the Articles of Confederation, his blueprint for an extended representative republic designed to break the hold of faction, his shifting political alliances (if not necessarily his shifting principles), and his argument in favor of the power of states to “interpose” their constitutional interpretations while not endorsing nullification of acts of the federal government.



During one of our evening receptions, we were fortunate enough to have been joined by the Madisons themselves, who were hosting visitors for a holiday tour of the mansion. Mr. Madison kindly agreed to pose for photographs with some of our participants. Thanks to all of the teachers who joined us, and thanks to our co-sponsor for this program, Liberty Fund.

Bill of Rights Institute Founders Fellowship

The Bill of Rights Institute will present a pair of programs for teachers in July 2014. The Founders Fellowship program features two programs:

  • Civil Liberty, Commerce, and the Constitution, to be held July 14 to 18 in Washington, DC
  • Liberty and Security, to be held July 21 to 24 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Open to all secondary social studies teachers, the programs are offered at no cost to participants (program costs, lodging, and most meals are included, as is a $400 travel stipend). Learn more about the program or apply today. The application deadline is March 31, 2014.

The Monroe Doctrine, 190 Years Later

JamesMonroe_LoCOn December 2, 1823, during his annual message to Congress, President James Monroe articulated a foreign policy stance for our nation that would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He proclaimed a policy of non-interference in the affairs of foreign nations, except in cases when European powers interfered in the Western hemisphere. To communicate the US intention to continue a stance of neutrality in the wars of Europe, he stated:

Our policy in regard to Europe . . . is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.

However, he now warned that the US would not remain neutral when European governments attempted to overthrow newly independent states in the Americas:

It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected . . . . We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers [ie., European monarchies] to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. Continue reading

Pulitzer Prize-winning Historian David Hackett Fischer on the American Revolution

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer joined the Ashbrook Center’s 2006 Presidential Academy program to deliver a lecture on The Revolutionary Era. He explored questions including: How did the American colonists define liberty and freedom as they sought to secure their independence from mother England? During the Revolutionary War, what difficulties did the Americans face in fighting for liberty while maintaining the supremacy of civilian over military authority?

To listen to his lecture, click here.

The Debate as America Became an Imperial Power

StarsStripes_overManillaA sermon preached 115 years ago on Thanksgiving Day voiced a protest against a new era in American foreign policy that was launched by the Spanish American War of 1898. Pastor Henry Van Dyke of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City took the occasion of this annual day of prayer to question the US acquisition of the Philippines, which before the naval war had been a colony of Spain. While not criticizing the US decision to intervene in the Cuban revolt against Spanish rule, Van Dyke saw the US assumption of territory in the China Sea as an “abandonment of the American ideal of national growth for the European ideal of colonial conquest.” Van Dyke warned that in becoming an imperial power, the US would lose its commitment to republican principles.  Read “The American Birthright and the Philippine Pottage.”

The Thanksgiving Proclamation Lincoln Issued 150 Years Ago

cthu_654_AbrahamLincoln350xAbraham Lincoln called for national days of Thanksgiving more than once during the Civil War. On April 10, 1862, after the union victory at Shiloh and the fall of the Confederate fortress at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River, Lincoln called for sabbath-day thanksgiving observances; and following the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he called for a national day of “Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer” to be observed on August 6, 1863. On both occasions he emphasized the hope that these partial victories gave:  “that the Union of these States will be maintained, their constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored” while also calling for prayers of intercession for those who had suffered during the war and for prayers of repentance—a tacit acknowledgement that the conflict was in some sense due to a sin committed by the nation as a whole.

But when Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in November of that year, he did so in a way that recalled Washington’s similar proclamation in 1789. He issued the proclamation on October 3rd, as Washington had, and like Washington he chose the fourth Thursday of November for the celebration. And, like Washington, whose pointed to the “tranquillity, union, and plenty” the nation had enjoyed since the conclusion of the Revolution, Lincoln emphasized the blessings the nation had enjoyed in the midst of civil war: peace with foreign powers, maintenance of civil order away from the battlefield, and the continuance of farming and industry. As long and wearying as the war had proven to be, it had not undermined the fundamental character and purposes of Americans, and the nation seemed “permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.” As Washington had called for thanksgiving that an unprecedented attempt to establish republican government had actually succeeded, now Lincoln asked Americans to thank the divine power that seemed willing to allow the republic to continue, even while punishing it with a costly civil war.

What was Celebrated at the First National Thanksgiving

We think of our national celebration of Thanksgiving as rooted in the harvest feast of seventeenth century Pilgrim settlers. But as an official government holiday, the celebration was inaugurated by George Washington, following a resolution of Congress, in 1789. Though he issued the proclamation on October 3, he set the date of the celebration for the fourth Thursday in November, a tradition we follow today.christy

Washington notes in the beginning of the Proclamation that “both Houses of Congress have by their Joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’” In fact, Congress was then an almost brand-new institution, having convened for the first time the previous March. The new Constitution had not become the working blueprint of our government until late in July 1788, by which time the necessary eleven of the original thirteen states had ratified that document. Hence in issuing the Proclamation, Washington was no doubt expressing a sense of relief and jubilation that the young nation’s extraordinary process of inventing a republican form of government had actually succeeded. The new government united regions with differing economic interests, led by statesmen with sharply different views of what a republic would require for its survival.

Professor Gordon Lloyd, who created our online exhibits on the creation of the Constitution and its Ratification, underlines the uniqueness of this achievement, which required Antifederalists to quell their very real concerns, well before a Bill of Rights was hammered out and agreed to:

“Historians tell us that the importance of the 1800 election is that it’s the first peaceful exchange of power from one party to another. Yes, that is extremely important. Here is another thing that’s important. What other country prior to the United States is informed that its government doesn’t work, sits for four months in convention, comes back for an entire year and debates and debates, and not a drop of blood was spilled?”

Something else to think about as we count our blessings next week.

Could Lincoln Be Elected Today?

FlackCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, has put together a series of mock political campaign ads for the 1864 presidential election pitting the incumbent President Abraham Lincoln against General George B. McClellan. Developed with the assistance of veteran campaign advertising strategists from the 2004 campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush, the ads and a series of accompanying classroom lesson plans are designed to help teacher show the role of mass media advertising in modern campaigns and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to separate fact from distortion.

Visit FlackCheck.org to see the complete set of ads and lesson plans.

Gilder Lehrman Summer Teacher Seminars

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has released its schedule of weeklong seminars for the summer of 2014. The seminars are open to K-12 teachers from Gilder Lehrman affiliate schoosl, school librarians, museum educators, and National Park Service interpreters.

For teachers at schools not currently affiliated with the Institute, you will have the opportunity to apply for affiliation with your application for the seminars.  Affiliation provides a number of benefits for your school’s teachers and students, including professional development opportunities, curricular resources, and opportunities to recognize outstanding history students.

Learn more or apply at www.gilderlehrman.org.

The Courage of Lincoln’s Convictions

Today, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, it is difficult to conceive that the most often memorized political speech from our history was not immediately hailed as a masterful summary of American ideals. Yet, as Chris Pascarella blogged on November 15, a retraction published by the central Pennsylvania newspaper, The Patriot and Union, abashedly admits that their editors in 1863 called the oration “silly remarks.”

One of the fallen soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg (Photographed by Timothy O'Sullivan, Library of Congress)

One of the fallen soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg (Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan. Library of Congress)

A related feature story quotes Lincoln scholar Martin P. Johnson, who speculates that the silly remarks mentioned were those Lincoln made the night before, upon arrival in Gettysburg, in response to a serenade played below his hotel room. The editors may have deliberately conflated the two speeches, wanting to undermine Lincoln’s rhetorical achievement; they make clear in their commentary that what they most object to is Lincoln’s effort to express the high purpose of what they called a war fought “to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.” The Patriot and Union editors also held a grudge against Lincoln, having been arrested and charged with sedition the year before because of a handbill printed on their presses that the administration feared could spark a race riot. But they were not the only paper to criticize the speech; you can read here the editorial in a Democratic Chicago paper that denounces Lincoln for not honoring the Confederate dead equally with the Union soldiers slain in the battle. These contemporary reactions, so odd to the eyes of readers 150 years later, remind us that in his determination to push through emancipation, Lincoln fought against widespread criticism and fear of the new social order that freeing the slaves would bring about.

A question for etymologists out there: the Chicago Times editorial uses the word “Dawdleism” to describe Lincoln’s funeral oratory. Does anyone know what the word meant at the time? Since Lincoln certainly didn’t lag in stating his point, we wondered if this was a reference to the months that elapsed between the battle and the cemetery dedication? Or is “Dawdle” a character in 19th century literature who emphasized partisan goals when speaking on solemn occasions—as the editorial accuses Lincoln of doing? We can’t find the name in character lists for Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, or Sir Walter Scott. If you have a clue, let us know!

A Timely Visit to Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield


There is no better way to commemorate tomorrow’s 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address than by reading and reflecting on the words and ideas of Abraham Lincoln.

Last weekend, the Ashbrook Center brought 18 social studies teachers to Springfield, Illinois to do just that. Together, we talked about the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Participants read and discussed some of Lincoln’s most famous writings, including his “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, IL,” his “Eulogy of Henry Clay,” his “House Divided Speech,” his First and Second Inaugural Addresses, and, of course, the Gettysburg Address. Our discussion leader for the weekend was Prof. Lucas Morel (Washington and Lee University). In addition to our discussions, we visited the Lincoln family’s Springfield home, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

For those interested in exploring the legacy of Abraham Lincoln on their own, the Ashbrook Center has many resources. View our extensive library of documents by and about Lincoln here. To hear Prof. Morel lecture about the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, click here. Finally, to register for our upcoming series of teacher webinars on the 50 Core Documents – which include Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural – click here.

The Gettysburg Address in hindsight

Lincoln at GettysburgIn 1863, the editors of the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot & Union newspaper published what became a notorious opinion of President Lincoln’s remarks of that November 19th, as he dedicated the National Cemetery at Gettysburg.  The editors Lincoln’s remarks “silly” and suggested “that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

Since that time, generations of American students have memorized Lincoln’s succinct and powerful words and the glimpse they provide of the nature and meaning of freedom and equality in America. As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, the paper’s modern editors have published a retraction of that editorial on November 14, 2013, calling their predecessors’ commentary “…a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring….”

You may read the full editorial at the Patriot & Union website.

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