History

“Why did Washington build Fort Necessity? Because he needed it!”* – Thoughts on US History, Part I

The College Board’s curriculum revision highlights how different perspectives on US history can be. Some striking narratives appear within the country’s origins.

This past week the College Board revised its framework for the AP US History (commonly known by 16-year-old victims as APUSH), which Vox summarizes fairly well in a critical post. Basically, backlash by conservatives shifted the framework from a complex, heavy on race and gender narrative, to something more focused on American exceptionalism and downplaying racism and xenophobia; the revised curriculum now also mentions previously-omitted American heroes such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the issue is controversial, how US history is taught matters because it is brought up many times in domestic policy debates, and it often is Americans’ reference point for dealing with the world, for better or worse. Here are some things I found interesting and important in my own APUSH curriculum when I took the course in 2008-09. Our textbook was The American Pageant.

  • The colonists may have been a little overdramatic. Americans, so the textbook argued, became ‘spoiled’ by a period of benign neglect during which the British government directed very little policy over the colonies, which may have contributed to American tendency towards state policymaking over federal. The British thought it was only fair that taxes be levied upon colonists for a war that had been fought to protect them. Of course, the textbook didn’t give much credit to the notion that maybe the British ought to bear a good portion of the cost just to maintain part of the Empire, and that of course colonists participated in the war as soldiers as well (and not to mention “no taxation without representation”). The textbook also seemed to imply that Washington started the whole conflict during the skirmish in the Ohio Valley, but in his defense, who permitted a 22-year-old to be in charge of a militia to meet the French in contested territory?
  • The British might have been better for the Native Americans. Pageant argued that the colonists were aggressive about spreading westward, and that it was the British, holding to their treaty with tribes in the west, who held the colonists back, one reason discontent was brewing. The textbook implied that Native American nations would have lasted longer had the British stuck around. I don’t know if I buy that argument. Sure, for a couple decades the British might have held off on westward settlement, but this is Imperial Britain we’re talking about here. It would’ve happened eventually, and not very long after American settlers ended up moving west.
  • Most Americans didn’t support independence, at first. Apparently the country was split; a third were Patriots, a third were Loyalists, and the last third were undecided or apathetic. (it seems the stats may have been selectively chosen or distorted, though.) Just like in today’s national elections, they mattered a good deal. The Patriots were much better propagandists, though, and convinced the people in the middle that they were right.
  • The British didn’t really care, either. And perhaps they still don’t. But APUSH highlighted the British Parliament’s ambivalence in the later part of the war, and that it was King George III who refused to let go.
  • America won with the world’s help. The contribution of the French is always mentioned but sometimes understated. APUSH emphasized the global nature of the war; it wasn’t just that France sent supplies and a nice guy named Lafayette to the States, it was that Britain was suddenly under pressure to defend its colonies in the Caribbean and India, and it had to make sacrifices. It is often said that the British traded America for India, or for global empire. In addition, European powers quickly united against Britain, with France, Spain, and the Netherlands in open hostility, and with the League of Armed Neutrality confrontational with the Royal Navy, led by Russia, of all countries.
  • Life was not so great for some after the Revolution. Loyalists were lynched and driven out, Native Americans were in trouble, and of course, African-Americans were still enslaved. It’s hard to say, though, that the British as a nation were any worse off; it’s argued losing America allowed them to reach greater heights.
  • The transition from independence to a functioning government was not clean. The textbook was keen to point out that the people who approved and signed the Declaration of Independence were not all present for the drafting and signing of the Constitution (notably, Thomas Jefferson), drawing an interesting contrast between the radicals who staged the Revolution and the conservatives who sought to impose a stronger central government after ten years of the Articles of Confederation. Seriously, who designs a government meant to organize national defense but reliant on donations? Neither cast is entirely likable, from the dramatic firebrands who threw tea into the Harbor to the rich reactionaries who wanted to control the masses, but it’s hard to say they both weren’t necessary. The 13 years from 1776-89 were hardly calm, from a broke government to hyperinflation to farmer rebellions, and the Constitution worked because a group of intelligent people sat down, thought and argued about the issues from a philosophical and technical perspective. This second constitution has lasted til the present day, and few countries can boast such a tradition. But it shouldn’t be forgotten, especially when the U.S. watches or participates in the building of nations, that it wasn’t an easy route.
  • I would still call it a “revolution.” It’s not the French, Russian, or Chinese. But it reshaped American society and showed colonies could achieve independence and led to political changes around the world.

And since the textbook didn’t mention it, I’m assuming the cherry tree thing didn’t happen. What about you? What do you wish they’d told you or emphasized in U.S history?

*Joke courtesy of my APUSH teacher.

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