We the Teachers

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.

Lincoln Looks Ahead to Reconstruction

Lincoln in November, 1863; photograph by Alexander Gardiner (Library of Congress)

Lincoln in November, 1863; photograph by Alexander Gardiner (Library of Congress)

One hundred fifty years ago this fall, advance planning for the reconstruction of the rebelling Southern states began. In the fall of 1863, after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Congressmen assumed the war would soon end. President Lincoln had regarded the secession of southern states from the union as logical contradiction of their original binding ratification of the Constitution and maintained that the Civil War was fought primarily to prevent the union’s dissolution. So it should perhaps not be surprising that Lincoln proposed a means of readmitting states when only a small minority of their constituents—10 %—voted to reestablish republican governments that acknowledged the authority of the Constitution. Those forming these governments must swear allegiance to the Union and also swear their acceptance of acts of Congress and Presidential proclamations regarding slavery—that is, the reentering states must accept emancipation. To his non-abolitionist critics, Lincoln had justified emancipation as a war measure; now he stated that to abandon the decision to free the slaves “would be not only to relinquish a lever of power, but would also be a cruel and an astounding breach of faith.” Continue reading

A Veterans Day Proclamation

militarybranchsealsToday is Veteran’s Day, a day in which the nation commemorates and honors the efforts and sacrifices made by American servicemen and service women, past and present.

In 1954, Congress changed the name of the November 11th Armistice Day holiday to Veterans Day, rededicating the day to the memory of the service personnel of all wars of the United States.  In a proclamation published in the Federal Register, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issues an official proclamation directing citizens and the federal government to observe the day and suggesting that, “…all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to to join hands in the common purpose.”

Read the President’s entire proclamation.

Conversations about the Constitution

On Saturday, November 2, the Ashbrook Center hosted Professors Chris Burkett (Ashland University), Peter Schramm (Ashland University) and Gordon Lloyd (Pepperdine University) for a webinar conversation on the topic “Reflection and Choice versus Accident and Force: the Making of the Constitution“. This was the third in Ashbrook’s series of nine monthly webinars during the 2013-14 school year on America’s 50 Core Documents. If you weren’t able to join us, please view the video!

To register for future webinars, or to take a series of them for graduate credit, click here.


Daniel Webster Urges Sectional Compromise


Daniel Webster (Library of Congress)

As a result of the War with Mexico, the United States acquired a large area of western land, and at once controversy arose over whether the states organized in these territories would enter the union as “freesoil” or slave-holding. Southern states were anxious to maintain the equivalence between free and slave states and territories that obtained after the admission of the Oregon Territory, in which slavery was prohibited. But California was applying for admission as a free state, and the New Mexico and Utah territories were yet to be organized. Southerners began to talk of a Northern intent to restrict slavery and eventually abolish it; some went so far as to threaten secession. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, as he had done in 1820, fashioned a compromise; he offered a number of resolutions designed to appease both sides while arranging for the admission of California as a state and setting terms for the organization of the other territories acquired from Mexico. While free states would now outnumber slave states, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed to stiffen existing requirements that slaves who had escaped to the north be returned to the south.

Joining Clay, another aged statesman who spoke out at this time to encourage compromise and denounce talk of secession was Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. His “Constitution and Union” speech covered wide ground. Continue reading

New Resource from the Bill of Rights Institute

Our friends at the Bill of Rights Institute have introduced a new documentary resource written by teachers for use in K-12 classrooms. Documents of Freedom: History, Government, & Economics through Primary Sources is designed to be used as a supplement (or even as a substitute) for traditional government, civics, and economics textbooks. Each lesson unit highlights key primary sources and is indexed to the standards of many states, the Common Core, and the College Board.  Best of all, it works equally well across all platforms: Windows, Mac, tablets, smartphones, and other devices.

Access to Documents of Freedom is free (registration is required).

150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address: A Few Well-Chosen Remarks

Lincoln Gettysburg.jpgWhen Abraham Lincoln was invited in the fall of 1863 to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was not to give the main speech. That oration was delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts statesman, vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and the most famous orator of his day. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 without notes for over two hours, giving an example of the kind of ornate, learned, and transcendentalist rhetoric that was expected at such ceremonies.

The president used only 272 words in his dedication of the cemetery grounds, with most American newspapers taking little notice of the now famous speech. But the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln to say, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s spare, poetic, and biblical speech buried the old rhetorical style of Everett and set the standard for a new kind of speech, which is still the model for such solemn commemorative occasions. If all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, as Ernest Hemingway suggested, all modern American speeches come out of the Address.

How Lincoln turned a perfunctory eulogy at a cemetery dedication into a concise and profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union is the focus of the EDSITEment lesson The Gettysburg Address: Defining the American Union. The lesson, part of a  curriculum unit on the political thought of Lincoln, will deepen student understanding of the momentous themes of freedom, equality, and emancipation so central to any strong understanding of the Civil War experience. Continue reading

Exploring the Presidency of FDR

Last weekend, the Ashbrook Center hosted 18 teachers in Hyde Park, NY for a discussion about the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and visits to the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Park Site and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum


Drawing on primary source texts – mostly taken from Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s The Two Faces of Liberalism: How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debate Shapes the 21st Century - participants explored FDR’s response to the Great Depression as a candidate, and as President. Our participants discussed how FDR, in his address accepting the presidential nomination in 1932, promised to “break foolish traditions” and how, in his Inaugural Address he asked Congress for “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Our discussion also included a number of writings by Herbert Hoover. Many of our participants were surprised to learn that Hoover “stuck around” throughout FDR’s presidency, both to criticize New Deal policies, and to articulate an alternative political vision. We discussed his defense of his early response to the Depression in his 1932 acceptance of the Republican nomination, where he argued his administration “met the situation with proposals to private business and the Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counter attack ever evolved in the history of the Republic.” We also discussed his argument, in “The Crisis to Free Men,” that “Either we shall have a society based upon ordered liberty and the initiative of the individual, or we shall have a planned society that means dictation, no matter what you call it or who does it.”

The Ashbrook Center thanks its co-sponsor, Liberty Fund, for funding this program, and Prof. Gordon Lloyd (Pepperdine University) for serving as Discussion Leader. Thanks also to all of the teachers who joined us in a lively and important conversation!

Essay Contest for High School Students

Attention, High School teachers! The Bill of Rights Institute is holding a scholarship essay contest for current high school students. Winning essays can receive prizes of up to $4,000. The teacher of the winning student also may receive a prize of up to $500.

Student essays will be responses to three questions related to ideas contained in the United States Constitution. Complete details about entry, including the three writing prompts, may be found at the contest website.

The entry deadline is December 6, 2013.

Frederick Douglass Speaks to Civil Rights Mass Meeting

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a milestone in building support for thFrederick_douglass-pne landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act; but it also marks the 120th anniversary of an earlier demonstration for racial equality under the law. On October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court issued a single ruling on five cases involving civil rights protections that had been brought to it from a range of state courts. With one sweeping decision, the Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This action alarmed African American citizens, and within a week black leaders had organized a “Civil Rights Mass-Meeting” at Lincoln Hall in Washington, DC. Frederick Douglass addressed the meeting on October 22, deploring and critiquing the decision.

The 1875 act had barred discrimination in public accommodations for black people, imposing fines and moderate prison terms on those who denied services. The law had not been consistently respected, and the five cases represented refusals of service in hotels, at theaters, and on a passenger train, in localities from the North to the South to the West. The court dispensed with the plaintiffs’ suits by ruling that the 13th and 14th amendments did not mandate equal accommodations for freed slaves; they did not require private citizens to treat African Americans on terms of “social equality.” They only prohibited the enactment of state laws that would deny minorities such rights as those to vote or hold property. In effect, the 1883 ruling gave a stamp of approval to segregationist practices that had become the norm in many parts of the country, but especially in the post-Reconstruction South. Continue reading

Lincoln’s Notes on Slavery

Abraham Lincoln in 1858

Abraham Lincoln in 1858

One hundred and fifty years ago, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But only five years prior, he was locked in an Illinois Senate race with Stephen Douglas, maintaining a position midway between those who would abolish slavery at once and those who would allow the “peculiar institution” to become a permanent feature of the expanding nation. While Douglas would allow the electorate in each newly forming western state to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery, Lincoln argued forcefully against allowing slavery into the new states.

Given the unique logical clarity Lincoln brought to his critique of slavery, students of history in our day often find Lincoln’s reluctance to embrace the abolitionist position confusing. Apparently certain of Lincoln’s contemporaries were also confused. In a short letter Lincoln wrote on October 18, 1858, he strove to clarify his position, by responding to an Illinois politician who had evidently asked Lincoln to explain whether his anti-slavery views implied support for “social and political equality between the black and white races.”

Lincoln penned a draft of the letter in a small notebook he carried about with him during the senate campaign, in which he affixed newspaper clippings reporting on his debates with Douglas, along with notes to himself to be reworked into speeches. It is interesting to compare the letter to J. N. Brown to other entries Lincoln made in his notebook during the fall of 1858, as well as to notes he wrote in 1854 and 1859. In these, Lincoln’s explanation of the principle of human equality admits none of the contradictions seen in the 1858 letter.

Read Lincoln’s notes on slavery:

Fragments on Slavery, April 1, 1854

Fragment: Notes for Speeches, October 1, 1858

Fragment: On Slavery, December 1, 1858

Fragment on Slavery, 1859

The Founding of the First National Anti-Slavery Organization

William Lloyd Garrison, an early spokesman for and eventual leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society

William Lloyd Garrison, an early spokesman for and eventual leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society

The American Anti-Slavery society was founded in Philadelphia 180 years ago, in December of 1833. The group agreed to a simple “constitution,” prefaced by a brief but eloquent “manifesto” that quoted both the Biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself and the central idea of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Arthur Tappan became the society’s first president, while William Lloyd Garrison, who had already founded his abolitionist weekly The Liberator, was asked to write a “Declaration of Sentiments” expressing the organization’s aims.

Although the American Anti-Slavery Society was the first national organization of its kind, similar state organizations had already formed. Most of the earliest of these were organized by the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The very first one, The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, had formed in 1774 and helped to pass Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, the first anti-slavery legislation in the United States. Continue reading

Andrew Jackson Vetoes Re-Chartering the Bank of the United States

495px-Andrew_JacksonFor those working through a survey of American history and reaching the Jacksonian era, we reprint here a document introduction by Professor Dan Monroe (Millikin University), one of the Honored Visiting Faculty in the Master of Arts in American History and Government program at Ashland University. Monroe captures the personality of our seventh president and the impact he made on the expanding American republic. Jackson’s comments on the Bank raise issues still disputed in our politics.

An Early Dispute over Federal Involvement in American Finance: Andrew Jackson Vetoes Re-Chartering the Bank of the United States

Andrew Jackson despised debt, banks, and the paper notes that banks issued with all the passion and fury for which he was justifiably renowned and feared.  He had nearly been financially ruined early in his career in land speculation ventures that were a tangled web of dubious deeds, bad paper notes, and shady partners.  Continue reading

Regional Views of the War of 1812

The northern theater of the War of 1812 (Wikimedia Commons)

The northern theater of the War of 1812 (Wikimedia Commons)

The War of 1812 can be understood as a conflict in which the United States reasserted its independence from Great Britain, her former colonial master, who after the War of Independence continued to assert prerogatives it had ceded to the new nation by the treaty of 1783. President Madison emphasized American maritime rights in his war message; the British had been stopping American merchant ships to impress sailors into the Royal Navy and had seized goods from American merchant ships bound for non-British ports, refusing to respect American neutrality in its war with Napoleonic France.  But Madison acknowledged another motive for declaring war: concern that Britain, operating from her colony in Canada, was stirring up Native American resistance to frontier settlements. Historians have argued that this motive out-weighed others, particularly with southern and western members of Congress, who feared British efforts to control navigation of the Mississippi and prevent the young nation’s westward expansion. In this mix of motives one can foresee the sectional conflict that would come to dominate the politics of the first half of the nineteenth century, especially since Southerners called more loudly for war with Britain than did those in the northeastern states who conducted most of America’s maritime trade.

This collection of newspaper editorials, most from the months leading up to the Congressional declaration of War on June 18, 1812, displays the sectional difference. The New York Evening Post and the Boston-based Colombian Sentinel attack the pretense that the war will be fought to protect American maritime trade, and point to the financial losses resulting from disruption of a profitable trade with Britain. Continue reading

Lincoln’s Meditation on the Divine Will

On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a brief but deeply revealing note to himself. At a dispiriting moment in the Civil War, Lincoln struggled to make sense of the ultimately unknowable will of God.

Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the week prior, Lincoln had issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that on January 1, 1863, all slaves held in states still in rebellion against the Union would be declared free. Although the proclamation technically freed no slave, since only slaves in areas beyond Union control were included, it proclaimed the freedom of any slave who managed to reach the Union lines, and it issued a promise that freedom would come with the ultimate Union victory. In so doing it changed Union war aims, making the fight not simply an attempt to prevent secession, but also a fight against the slave-holding power, a distinction that would undermine the Confederate attempt to win foreign support for its cause.

Yet in September 1862, Union victory did not seem inevitable.  Lincoln had communicated his worries to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin on September 28. Responding to Hamlin’s congratulations on the issuance of the proclamation—a move Hamlin had long urged—Lincoln noted a disturbing attrition rate in Union troops.

So on September 30, Lincoln began to accept a difficult possibility. Both sides in the war effort were praying to God for victory, but God could not favorably answer the prayers of both. Perhaps what God intended was an outcome neither side wished—that is, not a speedy victory, but a long, bloody, punishing struggle for both sides. Lincoln’s thoughts here flesh out an idea he would render eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address.

Read Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will.” You may wish to compare the provisions of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to those of the final proclamation.

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