ICW Director Bill Deverell and USC Professor William Handley share a smile during a break in the Teaching American History (TAH 3) Saturday seminar.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment
On Saturday, April 30th, the first cohort of California, U.S.A. (TAH3) continued its exploration of American history with USC Associate Professor of English, William Handley. Handley led the first half of the TAH3 seminar with a two-hour conversation entitled, “Fashioning the Self and Charting a National Geography in the Early Republic.”
First, as a way of better understanding the ideological drive of the American Revolution, Handley explained the foundations of the so-called Enlightenment period. For example, Handley cited the “original sin” belief system of the Puritans, where self-determination was ascribed at birth. Pre-Enlightenment ideology was that the system you were born into was generally the system you would die in. There was little vertical mobility. In the Enlightenment period, however, it was believed that a person could rise past the societal position into which he or she was born. Handley also described sentiments of the era as a “rage for order” and the belief that “knowledge should be useful for the betterment of mankind.” That is, American democracy was born out of a belief in self-determination - that persons could rise above any pre-conscribed notions of a glass ceiling. In short, American freedom was determined by the American self.
To better illustrate this point, Handley focused on the popular autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin, a noted scientist and one of the best-known Founding Fathers, struggled with the Puritan belief system, the belief in an Almighty Deity, and the free will he himself practiced. For example, he believed that the Bible should be read, but not solely as divine scripture. He believed it should simply be read in the same way you would read any other book. Franklin further considered knowledge a tool to be used to better mankind.
An abstract from Benjamin Franklin helps explain his philosophical position regarding the Enlightenment. “Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; but I entertain’d an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably those actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered. And this persuasion, with the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me, thro’ this dangerous time of youth, and the hazardous situations I was sometimes in among strangers, remote from the eye and advice of my father, without any willful gross immorality or injustice, that might have been expected from my want of religion.”
After interpreting the works of Benjamin Franklin, Handley examined Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark expedition Jefferson ordered in 1803, the same year as the so-called Louisiana Purchase. But along the same ideals of order, enlightenment, and the betterment of mankind, one of the main goals of the expedition was to find water access to the West. In that sense, the two-and-a-half year expedition was a failure, according to Handley. But in many other ways, the trip was a wild success as the team encountered new peoples and uncharted lands that were foreign to European settlers of North America.
Few died on the rigorous trip, mostly because the assistance they found along the way, including the support of Sacagawea who is now immortalized on the U.S. dollar coin.
On-line Resources for this month’s themes
The Huntington Library – Central Avenue and Beyond: The Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles http://www.huntington.org/huntingtonlibrary_02.aspx?id=5090
The Thomas Jefferson Monticello website, http://www.monticello.org/
Thomas Jefferson, PBS-Documentary by Ken Burns, http://www.pbs.org/jefferson/
SNCC-Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,
Lewis and Clark-National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lewisandclark/
Lewis and Clark website, http://lewis-clark.org/
Photographs and design by Gilbert Estrada
For more information on ICW or the California as America/California, U.S.A. Teaching American History grant programs, contact:
Bill Deverell, ICW Director at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Matsunaga, ICW Administrative Director at email@example.com
Michele Zack, Local Historian firstname.lastname@example.org
Gilbert Estrada, USC Graduate Research Assistant/Writer at email@example.com
Funding provided by U.S. Department of Education - Teaching American History
ICW Director Bill Deverell helps TAH3 teachers explore the causes of the American Revolution during a recent training session.
The American Revolution
Also on Saturday, March 19, ICW Director Bill Deverell led California, America grant (TAH3) teachers in an examination of the roots of the American Revolution. Deverell began his discussion with what he called the “cult of Washington,” where contemporaneous paintings and writings place Washington as “sitting on the right hand of God.” Indeed, General George Washington has become an integral part of the vernacular of the Spirit of 1776. Often referred to as the “Father of the country” by Americans, Washington not only exhibits paternalistic characteristics, but could also be referred to as the ‘Mother of the country,’ suggested Deverell. The laundry list of K-12 schools, parks, buildings, squares, streets, colleges, and freeways named after Washington is a sound testimony of his revered place in American cultural history.
But how does George Washington fit into the mission era of California history? “There’s not a lot of connection” being presented in the classroom, claimed Deverell, but California should be a part of the discussion of “Colonial America.” This has often proven to be a difficult task as students sometimes consider historical events prior to their birthday as “ancient history,” in line with the Peloponnesian wars, Ancient Rome, or medieval times.
Nonetheless, what students should be aware of about this time period is the make-up of colonial families. The average colonial Americans had shorter life expectancies than today, were significantly shorter in stature, and didn’t get a lot of sunlight. Women would give birth to approximately seven or eight children; only 50% would survive. Yet families who immigrate to North America today do so for essentially the same reasons as immigrants did in the 17th century: jobs, entrepreneurial ambitions, reconnecting with kin, religious freedom, and a sense of adventure. More men than women made the difficult journey and an overwhelming majority settled along the East coast, which would eventually be home to the thirteen colonies. European colonists would not make significant pushes inland until the era of the American Revolution.
Why did the colonists take up arms against England? Why would people, who were already living a harsh and arduous life in the colonies, risk their lives for loosely defined notions of freedom and liberty? These are questions that have roiled many historians and a consensus has not been reached. However, Deverell presented a portrait of the colonial landscape that helps answer these questions. For example, the “French and Indian War” is a huge misnomer. Not only were the French and Indians not fighting each other (the battle was really British versus French—Indians actually fought on both sides), but the name leaves out the colonists who also toiled with their British homeland. Like the British redcoats, colonists also sacrificed much during the war years - losing their property, income, and the lives of many loved ones in a place where loved ones were scarce.
As such, colonists felt entitled to share in the spoils of war, which is a normal reaction for members of the victorious side after a prolonged war. The victory also gave some colonists a sense of freedom, participatory liberty, and offered them a sense of independence that they could stand up for a cause, of their own choosing, that they felt deeply for.
For the British, war was expensive and they had to raise taxes in order to pay for the war. During that time the British in Britain were the highest taxed people Earth (1750-60), but not the British within the colonies. For every shilling taxed in the colonies, 26 shillings were taxed to their counterparts back in England. Despite being taxed far less than those residing in Britain, the situation got worse for the colonists with the Proclamation of 1763 introducing the enforcement of Indian Land Rights. Colonists—who felt they had worked for the land— could not ascertain those lands guaranteed to Native Americans.
Deverell ended his presentation with well-established causes of the American Revolution, including the Stamp Act, the Townsend Act, and the rallying cry of “no taxation without representation”. These can be found in lesson plans provided by the Huntington Library. Links to further context and lesson plans are available at the end of this essay. Deverell also addressed something that is less known about the era, especially on the eve of the American Revolution: biological warfare. During military skirmishes between Europeans and Native Americans, Europeans often toiled to get the upper hand. Although people at that time weren’t fully aware of germ theories, they knew that smallpox was a contagious and very dangerous disease, killing scores of colonists and British redcoats. Hoping for the same effect, British commanders distributed blankets infected with smallpox with the specific hope of thinning out the enemy ranks. It worked.
Here are a few good resources if you’d like to learn more about the American Revolution: Henry Wieneck, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom; Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History; T.A. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence; Gary Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America; and Elizabeth’s Fenn, Pox Americana.
Professor Arthur Verge addresses TAH2 teachers (left), another photo from the hike to Owen Brown’s gravesite (right).
On-line Resources for this month’s themes:
L.A. As Subject http://www.laassubject.org/
The Huntington Library – Causes of the American Revolution Lesson Plans-Soldiers http://www.huntington.org/uploadedFiles/Files/PDFs/LHTHSoldiersCivilians.pdf
The Huntington Library – Causes of the American Revolution Lesson Plans-Boston http://www.huntington.org/uploadedFiles/Files/PDFs/LHTHTroubleBoston.pdf
The Huntington Library – Causes of the American Revolution Lesson Plans-Stamp Act http://www.huntington.org/uploadedFiles/Files/PDFs/LHTHStampAct.pdf
KCET, Los Angeles History – So Cal Focus
Friends of the Los Angeles River http://folar.org/
Bill Deverell’s, Whitewashed Adobe: 1924 Los Angeles plague (video) and L.A. River
Professor Deverell makes a good point during his presentation to TAH3 teachers (left), TAH3 team member and local historian Michele Zack points out landmarks to the TAH2 group from the Altadena foothills (right).
(Far left) Lilia Carreon, El Rancho Unified School District History Coach, interacts with students during a February TAH3 training.
On Saturday, February 26, 2011, the first cohort of California, U.S.A. (TAH3) teachers examined early colonialism in North America with a special presentation by Gary Nash, UCLA Emeritus Professor of History. A specialist with 30 years of research and teaching experience in early American History, Professor Nash engaged students in his talk about the Quakers of Pennsylvania. As an easy way to remember the cultural and social values of the Quakers, Nash based his presentation around the acronym SPICE: SPICE represents Simplicity, Peace (peace testimony), Inner Light ( i.e. everyone has some sense of spirituality), Community (close knit and open to everyone), and Equality (which took many forms).
The Quaker settlement, led by William Penn, could also be labeled as an early Progressive society, or at least as compared to their historical counterparts. Originally dubbed the “Society of Friends,” they were derogatorily labeled “Quakers.” Quakers endorsed diversity within their ranks. The phrase, “come one, come all” became a hallmark of their movement, what Nash called a “mixed multitude.” Their lifestyle is visually represented in the artwork of Edward Hicks (1780-1849), which Nash used during his presentation and encouraged the teachers to explore outside the TAH setting.
The themes of Professor Nash’s presentations are similar to what he wrote about in his book, Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania 1681-1726. Nash described the Quakers as a “wellspring of reformist energy” that represented “the embodiment of the national conscience” on the eve of the American Revolution. With high values of equality, toleration, and, yes, the proverbial “brotherly love” Quakers have become so famous for, Pennsylvania became the geographic locale where the religious Society of Friends blossomed.
One of the most lasting and pedagogical themes Nash left TAH teachers with was the historical concept of “inevitability.” That is, within the historical annals, nothing is inevitable according to Nash. As such, teachers should not allow their students to accept the assertion that historical events were unavoidable. Some of these examples include the inevitability of Europeans conquering Native Americans, the Civil War, or the domination of the West by Americans.
Beware of the “I-word.” What is the most offensive word in the historian’s vocabulary? The word I have in mind numbs critical thinking, saps the desire to become an active citizen, and erases all remorse about dark and tragic chapters of history—in our history and that of any other nation. The word is “inevitable.” And we can add synonyms: inexorable, unstoppable, unavoidable, inescapable. We may properly speak of the sun rising and setting inevitably and that death is inevitable. But to say that history happens inevitably is dangerous.
Gary Nash, UCLA Emeritus Professor of History
On-line Resources for this month’s themes
The Ranch Blog at the Huntington
Becky Nicolaides Profile page
The Huntington Library iTunes U
Voyage of the Slave Ship Sally (1764-65)
Digital History—The Progressives
California Historical Society