The mountain endures

In recent weeks, there have been a number of stories in the news about symbols of the Confederacy and the proper placement of these reminders of a particular part of our past. The fact that a flag that was in official service for a few years over a century and a half ago still evokes such strong reactions and such differing opinions today is a reminder of the power of symbols – and of the importance of the way we tell our story.

In the Atlanta area, many have reacted strongly to the suggestion that Confederate iconography be removed from Stone Mountain Park.

For those unfamiliar with Stone Mountain, it is a dome-shaped granite monadnock, five miles in circumference, and rising 825 feet above the surrounding land. From a distance, it looks like a gigantic grey stone bubble rising above the tree tops. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, it has served human beings as a site for recreation, exploration, exploitation of its mineral resources, and rituals of various kinds, including sunrise worship services.

In 1915, its summit was the site of another kind of ritual – the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in its 20th century incarnation in the wake of the trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank. In 1923, the owners of the mountain granted an easement to the Klan with a perpetual right to hold their gatherings there. In the same year, fundraising began to support a massive carving on the North face of the mountain that would feature heroes of the Confederacy.

Today, Stone Mountain and the surrounding land are owned by the state of Georgia, which has extinguished the Ku Klux Klan’s easement. But the massive carving, depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson spreads across three acres of the mountain’s surface. The viewing area for the carving is lined with patios honoring the former slave-holding states. The walk-up trail features a display of different Confederate flags. The streets serving the park are named for Davis, Lee, and Jackson.

In his 1963 I Have A Dream speech, Martin Luther King Jr. called for freedom to ring from a number of American place names, including Stone Mountain, which was then well known for its association with the Klan and its celebration of the Confederate States of America.

Most people who grew up in the Atlanta area have always known Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial, but few have questioned why this is so. In a region pock-marked with Civil War battle sites, nothing of much significance happened during the war at Stone Mountain. Most Atlantans are dimly if at all aware of the Klan connection to the mountain.

The park has existed from the days of Jim Crow segregation in a majority-white and mostly rural county to become a part of the rapidly-growing Atlanta metropolitan area, in a majority-black county, with residents and visitors from around the world. In my personal experience, it in not unusual to take the one-mile hike to the summit of the mountain and hear three or four different languages being spoken along the busy trail. Each one of these hikers begins their journey by passing a building called Confederate Hall and a row of poles adorned by Confederate flags.

To me, this is a fascinating and puzzling juxtaposition of images. I have never been comfortable with the way many in my home region seem to obsess over and glorify its bloody flirtation with secession, and excuse the Confederacy’s inherent opposition to basic human rights. But the cure for this form of blindness seems not to be to cast light upon it, but rather to let the magnificent nature of the mountain assert its draw. People come from around the world, and the mistakes and pains of the past are ignored in favor of the pleasures and opportunities available today. It was with some satisfaction that I read a few years ago that the former home of the high-ranking Klan member who had granted the easement to the KKK had been purchased by the first black mayor of the town of Stone Mountain.

In recent weeks, there have been calls for the removal of Confederate symbols from the park. As in other places, and as with other memorials, passions have run high. It will be interesting to see how the debate proceeds. As a history teacher, I am always excited when people look to evidence from the past to explain the needs and values of the present.

But in this one particular instance, I think there is no doubt as to the eventual winner of the debate. Sitting atop the mountain, warm summer breeze in my face, I can only imagine the millions of years this massive stone has weathered the elements, the living things that cling to its sides, the noisy bugs that yammer and buzz around it. And I know that no matter the reasons, no matter the passions, the mountain will outlast all of us.

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Standardized history

Last week’s news included the U.S. Senate’s passage of a bill to revamp the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. The new bill would allow for greater decision-making authority for states, but would continue the mandate for standardized testing. Thursday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured a front page story on the disappointing performance of many of Georgia’s charter schools. Charter schools are public schools, and as such must administer the same standardized tests as every other public school in the state.

Education, like any human endeavor, is subject to too many variations, too many exceptions, too many instances of our infinite ability to achieve nonconformity, to be reduced to a formula. It is absurd to say, “the problem with public education is …” anything, because the experience of education is unique to each one of us.

But expecting every one of our students – with their incredible variety of talents, strengths, and potential, to experience education – with its power to expand horizons, to pass through the same multiple-choice gauntlet is surely one of the problems in our schools. And it is not one we seem ready to fix.

Standardizing education makes it easier to measure results – and practically guarantees that results we see will disappoint us.

A little over a decade ago, my state’s education bureaucracy produced a new set of standards, listing the content to be covered in the courses we offered. These standards were brought into play as the No Child Left Behind Act mandated greater consequences for schools, dependent on their students’ performance on standardized tests. Tests would be based on the standards, and teachers were assured that only the specific information listed in the standards would be on the test. [i]

The Georgia Performance Standards for high school history courses were specific, but somewhat arbitrary and often ambiguous. For example, SSUSH18e reads:

Identify the political challenges to Roosevelt’s domestic and international leadership; include the role of Huey Long, the “court packing bill,” and the Neutrality Act.

So to prepare for test questions, students need to know something about Senator Huey Long that would constitute a challenge to Roosevelt’s leadership, something about Roosevelt’s plan to increase the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that would pose a threat to his leadership, and, well, something about “the Neutrality Act.” But other challenges to Roosevelt’s leadership that did not make this list may be safely ignored.

And anything we may learn about the interesting career of Huey Long, or the social and economic conditions in the Depression-era South, or the unique and fascinating politics of the state of Louisiana that is unrelated to his challenge to Roosevelt’s leadership is irrelevant to our purpose – to select the correct answer on a standardized test. To answer that question, a student would undoubtedly need to know simply that before he was assassinated, Huey Long posed a potential challenge to FDR when he sought a second term, and it might be helpful to remember Long’s catch phrase, “Share Our Wealth.”

Roosevelt proposal of increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court to allow him to appoint members who would vote to uphold New Deal legislation was defeated in Congress. It was widely seen as an attempt to exercise political control over the judicial branch, and cost Roosevelt some political capital. The reasons behind Roosevelt’s “court-packing” scheme, including a long history of constitutional debate over the extent of federal power – arguably the fundamental political debate in our country’s history – are only pertinent as related to the much narrower theme of challenges to Roosevelt’s leadership. Students are expected to know only the political horse-race aspect of this conflict – who won and who lost. The opportunity to cast light on important issues of constitutional law will likely be lost. It’s not going to be on the test.

When it comes to “the Neutrality Act,” we are presumably to ignore the fact that there were several Neutrality Acts passed during Roosevelt’s time in office, each of which took different positions on trade with nations that were at war. During the period of their enactment, both the wars abroad and political postures of Americans with respect to neutrality were evolving. Even setting aside the question of which piece of legislation is referenced, it is difficult to guess whether the drafters of the standards meant to offer “the Neutrality Act” as an example of a threat to Roosevelt’s domestic leadership or his stature as an international leader – or perhaps as a leader domestically in setting international policy.

As written, some of the standards call for some higher order thinking (“explain,” “analyze,” “evaluate”), but every student and teacher knows that the high-stakes test on this material will be multiple-choice, and that a high score will be the result if a student were simply able to recognize enough of the correct answers. Students like a challenge, and for all humans, learning is as natural as breathing. But asking them to do the same monotonous tasks over and over kills enthusiasm, and makes learning seem a chore instead of a pleasure. No wonder test results are disappointing.

Poorly written standards and standardized testing constrain the opportunities for learning. Instead of opening doors for exploring new avenues, public education has been reduced to channeling all students down the same narrow hallway, where memorizing bullet points is the highest order of thinking required, and asking why is an inefficient use of class time.




I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Southern identity – a lesson

“Time to get started, class. Everyone find a seat.” In a classroom in Georgia, the teacher calls the students to order.

“As I am sure you have heard, over the last few weeks there has been a great deal of debate around the country, and especially in the state of South Carolina, over the display of the Confederate battle flag. Some have claimed that the flag is a valuable symbol of Southern heritage. Others have criticized its public display as a reminder of slavery and racial oppression.

“Do you think it is possible to have a symbol of Southern pride that does not also evoke pain and promote divisiveness?

“Your assignment beginning today is to identify or create a symbol of Southern identity.

“But first, let’s look at the Confederate flag and the different messages it conveys.

“Historically, it was a battle flag for an army that defended the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was a union of southern states that seceded from the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. All of them were states that gave legal protection to slavery, but not all the slave-holding states in the South seceded. When we are looking for Southern identity, we need to keep in mind that the South and the Confederate states are not exactly the same thing.

“The Confederacy was an attempt to break the United States into separate parts. If it had succeeded, people living in Georgia would have to carry a passport and cross a national boundary in order to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or to see the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. A Hollywood movie would be a foreign film.

“The Confederacy was a nation created to protect the institution of slavery. You have read about the long series of political compromises that spanned decades prior to the Civil War – compromises that were designed to placate Southern fears that they would lose the power on a national level to maintain slavery on the state level. You have read the various justifications for slavery as a benign institution for the betterment of people of African descent – especially the words of John C. Calhoun. [i]

“I will share with you now the words of Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, who said in 1861 that the Confederacy was founded ‘upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.’ [ii]

“You know that the Confederate battle flag was used by racist hate groups in the years since the Civil War ended. It has been flown by the KKK and various neo-Nazi groups. It was also displayed by people with more mainstream sensibilities and tactics who opposed desegregation and civil rights. Many Southern states began to display the flag in the 1950s in response to the civil rights movement and the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered the desegregation of schools.

“But in addition to its association with these rather troubling events, the flag has also been used for more commendable purposes.

“It has been used to decorate gravesites of fallen soldiers. It has been used to represent the sacrifice of poor farmers who took up arms to defend their country. The Civil War was fought, you will recall, almost entirely on Southern territory.

“It has been used to represent the South as a distinctive region, without reference to secession, or slavery, or segregation, or racism – or perhaps we should say, ignoring those references.

“But for many of us, using this particular symbol for the South is a reminder of the very worst decisions Southerners ever made, and the most ill conceived causes for which Southerners have ever sacrificed. And for those of you in this class who have a sense of the measure of time, you may have noticed that while the history of the American South spans over 400 years, the Confederacy lasted only about four.

“Well, as I am sure you can tell, I have an opinion about what the Confederate battle flag represents. You may feel free to agree with me or not. But for the purposes of this assignment, it doesn’t matter how you feel about that flag. We are leaving it behind in the search for a broader consensus.

“Your job is to start with a blank sheet of paper and brainstorm as many things as you can that in your mind exemplify the best of the American South. It may be the climate, landscape, the food, the music, the blend of cultures, the architecture, any number of traditions, important events, specific places … whatever comes to mind when you think in positive terms about the South.

“At the end of this process, we want to come up with a visual symbol – perhaps suitable for a flag, but not necessarily. Ideally it should carry positive associations that will resonate with many people. But for now, start with what resonates with you. It can be entirely personal, or a family thing, some special association you have in your mind that might not be shared with anyone else – but you never know. It might be. It can also be something that you know is shared by many others. We are looking for things that trigger pride, loyalty, sentimentality, excitement, love. These are common emotions, but they can be set off by a wide variety of things.

“I want you to work on this in class today individually. For homework ask a minimum of three people for their ideas and record their responses. Recording responses is both to create a record and to keep you accountable – but the real goal here is to gather information from other sources. Tomorrow in class, we are going to work in groups and see if we can reach a consensus about some of the things you have identified. We may even come up with some new ideas once we start talking with each other.

“It’s an open-ended process and everyone gets to participate.

“Let’s get started.”


[i] For example:



I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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History on currency, Part IV – Harriet Tubman and the way we tell the story

Who should be the first woman to appear on American currency in over 100 years? The U.S. Treasury Department recently announced that it will reveal later this year the identity of a woman whose image will grace a redesigned $10 bill. An advocacy group called Women on 20s is on record supporting the placement of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

This series of blog posts has so far examined the records of Alexander Hamilton, whose image currently appears on the $10 bill, and Andrew Jackson, whose image appears on the $20 bill, and asks the question – what message are we conveying with the legacies we choose to memorialize?

Hamilton and Jackson in some ways represent American success stories. Both born into poverty, each rose to positions of prominence, power, and influence. Hamilton believed in a strong national government ruled by a wealthy elite. Jackson was a champion of the common man who believed in states’ rights, subject to the authority of a national government that was nonetheless limited in its powers by the Constitution. Each man essentially created and led new political parties. And each man made his mark on monetary policy in the young nation.

Each man had political enemies and personal failings, and each left a record that is subject to debate and differing interpretations today. Hamilton could be seen as a hero to political conservatives today because of his policies designed to give government support for a stable economic environment in which American businesses could thrive. But some conservatives would take issue with his advocacy for the expansion of federal power.

Jackson is even more problematic for us today. His championing of democratic rule and the rights of the common man are overshadowed by the fact that he was a slaveholder. Even though he was entrusted with positions of power, he was not above ignoring the law when it suited his purposes. As a general of the army, he waged an illegal war in Spanish Florida. As president, he defied the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Native American tribal sovereignty, reportedly saying, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” But even when he acted outside of the laws, he did so openly and often notoriously. Jackson was controversial in his own time, and then as now, it is easy to condemn parts of Jackson’s record while celebrating other parts.

By contrast, it is difficult to condemn any of the acts that established Harriet Tubman’s reputation. She risked her life and freedom to help others escape from the immoral institution of slavery.

But unlike Jackson and many other celebrated Americans, she acted in secret. And unlike Jackson and other slaveholders whose violations of human rights were perfectly legal in 19th century America, her actions were contrary to the laws of the time. According to the standards of antebellum America, she was a criminal, and the basis for her designation as an American hero is the fact that she refused to acquiesce to the rule of law when her own sense of values compelled her in another direction. Unlike Jackson, who welcomed a fight with his opponents, Tubman carried a pistol with her so that if she were caught she could end her own life and avoid the consequences of her decisions.

And yet it is difficult to find fault with someone who risked so much to combat an evil as great as American slavery. Certainly, the fact that the laws she was violating have since been repealed as contrary to human rights and basic human dignity makes her actions seem even more commendable. There is really no doubt today that Harriet Tubman deserves to be recognized as a hero, along with others whose acts were criminal when undertaken, but are celebrated today – such as every person who signed the Declaration of Independence.

The more interesting question is – what does it say about our values as a country that we believe in the rule of law based on the will of the majority, and yet we also believe that lawbreakers acting as individuals may sometimes be excused for their actions? Is it the fact that she didn’t get caught? Is it the fact that by the time her actions became public knowledge, slavery had been made illegal, and those who had opposed it were being recast as prophets?

Can we really say that we believe in the rule of law if we also believe that if a lawbreaker waits long enough, he or she can not only be excused for criminal actions, but may also be recognized as a hero?

And if the passage of time and the altering of public opinion would allow us to celebrate Tubman for her actions while excusing her for violating the laws of her day, why shouldn’t we also retroactively view the act of slaveholding as criminal? In other words, if we are letting Tubman off the hook, why not hold slaveholders personally accountable?

In its most common form, the story of Harriet Tubman comes with a moral lesson about courage in the face of a powerful yet immoral institution. It is David versus Goliath, the weak defeating the strong. It can be told simply and effectively without even questioning the reasons for the existence of slavery, or of American racism. But told in a different light, the story raises serious questions about American values and American institutions.

The way that we tell the story is a choice that we make.

History is not what happened in the past. It is the events of the past retold – in different lights and for different purposes. History is our interpretation of the past, our selection of heroes, our decisions about which values to celebrate and which to deemphasize.

History is not just facts, but also the organization of information into a new form, with fidelity to the events as recorded in existing records, and constructed by us and for us living in the present. History is not a series of monuments; it is a tool for understanding ourselves.

The way we teach history matters. Learning how to remember facts is just a step towards learning how to construct meaning. Learning how to question is more important than learning deference to institutions or laws – which are always subject to change in a democratic society. Learning to take responsibility for the narrative of our lives and of the life of our nation is more important than memorizing a series of bullet points or a set of factoids about a list of Americans who have been designated as heroes. Learning how to judge for ourselves what to admire and who to respect may be the most important lesson we can take from the past.


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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History on currency, Part III – Jackson

The U.S. Department of Treasury has announced that it will move aside the image of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, in favor of a woman – whose identity has not yet been revealed. A group named Women on 20s had previously come out in support of replacing the image of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with that of Harriet Tubman. This series of posts examines the legacies of Hamilton, Jackson, and Tubman, and poses the question – what message are we conveying with the legacies we choose to memorialize?

Most Americans today know little about Andrew Jackson, a truly galvanizing figure in his day. Jackson’s ideological and uncompromising leadership led to a reordering of the American political structure and the creation of such institutions as the party platform and national nominating conventions. His supporters inherited the political party founded by Thomas Jefferson, renamed it the Democratic party, and effectively forced those who did not support Andrew Jackson to splinter off to form the Whig party.

His legacy is a study in dogmatic policies, apparent contradictions, and unintended consequences.

Our seventh president, Jackson was the first since Washington to rise to national prominence based on his military leadership rather than his political expertise. As a commander in the field he had defeated the British at New Orleans, led punishing campaigns against Native American tribes in Alabama, and launched an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida.

Jackson was enthusiastically supported by western expansionists, and yet his monetary policies effectively made it more difficult for settlers to purchase federal land out west. He refused to act on the annexation of Texas after that state won independence from Mexico.

He ordered the forced removal of Native Americans from the Southeastern states, defied a Supreme Court order to respect tribal sovereignty, had personally warred against the Creeks and the Seminoles, and yet he also adopted an Indian orphan into his home and raised him as a son.

He considered public service a virtue and was notorious for rewarding political supporters with government jobs – a practice for which he was sharply criticized. But the practice of patronage (known pejoratively as the spoils system) neither began with Jackson nor ended with his retirement from public life. Some of his harshest critics practiced it as well.

He was a Southerner, a slaveholder, and a supporter of states’ rights. But when South Carolina announced it would refuse collection of the federal tariff on the justification that state sovereignty entitled them to ignore laws of Congress at their discretion, Jackson threatened to send in the army to enforce the law. It was only a political compromise engineered by one of Jackson’s rivals that kept the Nullification Crisis from escalating into bloodshed.

Andrew Jackson is a particularly ironic choice for a place of honor on American currency. His suspicion and hostility towards concentrations of wealth led him to destroy the Bank of the United States. The financial crisis that ensued led him to order that the federal government not accept paper money in payment for federal land.

Jackson championed the cause of limited federal government, and his policy decisions were often based on a strict constructionist position that just a half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, already seemed poorly adapted to the needs of the fast-paced 19th century.

Strict construction is a form of constitutional interpretation in which Congress is restricted to exercising only the powers specifically granted to it in the Constitution.

Broad or loose construction would allow Congress to carry out the enumerated powers without being limited to the narrow limits of the language in the Constitution. Under this theory, the first secretary of treasury, Alexander Hamilton had persuaded Congress in 1791 to charter the Bank of the United States in order to create a financial institution that would help to stabilize a fast-growing economy that at that time operated under very few rules.

By the time Jackson took office as president in 1829, the Bank’s constitutionality had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and its charter had already been renewed once by Congress. But in 1832 Henry Clay, the leader of Jackson’s political opposition, pushed for an early re-charter bill in order to force a political battle. Clay knew of Jackson’s hostility towards the Bank, but was convinced that most of the country believed as strongly as he did in its importance to the nation. Clay wanted to force Jackson to choose between an unpopular decision and one that would violate his own principles.

Jackson was a strict constructionist, but when he vetoed the bank bill, he did not explain his decision in terms of constitutionality. He stated that the Bank was bad for the country – that it was a “hydra of corruption.” Of the relatively few presidential vetoes that had been issued at that point in the nation’s history, Jackson’s was the first to be based predominantly on policy considerations rather than constitutional interpretation.

In the short term, the veto stirred a storm of political controversy, and led more or less directly to a national economic crisis a few years later. But the ideology of strict construction and a limited role for the federal government in setting national policy was already on the ropes.

By the early 19th century, it was clear that in order to prosper, the country needed financing and infrastructure. The nation of farmers that Jefferson had envisioned was being replaced by a nation of merchants and entrepreneurs. The rise of the railroads led to the emergence of corporate wealth and power that would rival that of the government itself. Simply maintaining peaceful and orderly growth would take a larger federal role than the Constitution’s framers could have imagined. Within a few years, the Civil War and the post- Civil War amendments to the Constitution would radically alter the position of the federal government in creating national policy.

Jackson’s impact on our political development is undeniable, but it is difficult to find a way to use his legacy as historical support in present-day policy debates.

In his own time, he was a wildly popular outsider in the political game that he entered, and a polarizing role model in the game he left behind. Jackson was the first president to receive an official condemnation from Congress. And yet for decades, his name was evoked by Democrats as the symbol for their values and aspirations – much the way the name of Ronald Reagan is evoked by Republicans today. Jackson’s success led to the promotion of other politically inexperienced military men for high office. His popularity and image as an uncomplicated man who took direct action ushered in an era of enthusiasm for popular government and high voter participation. Even today, his championing of the common man, and his personal reputation as a self-made success story, resonate with many Americans.

But his status as a slaveholder is hard to reconcile with modern values – perhaps even more difficult to forgive than the actions of the four of his presidential predecessors who were born into the slaveholding class. Jackson became rich through his own energy and ingenuity … and then bought himself some human beings to help maintain his new social status.

Andrew Jackson can today be seen as a man of his time, a colorful American character without a doubt, but someone with little wisdom to offer on current public issues. What does it say about us that his face is familiar to almost every American because of its appearance on the $20 bill, but his accomplishments – let alone an understanding of why he was such an inspirational and controversial figure – are largely unknown to most of us?

Perhaps letting go of Jackson as an iconic symbol on the $20 bill is appropriate and even overdue in the 21st century. Is Harriet Tubman a more fitting symbol of American values? Does her story contain wisdom or inspiration we can use today?

More to come ….


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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History on currency, Part II – Hamilton

Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it will place the image of a woman – to be named later this year – on the $10 bill. An advocacy group called Women on 20s has been recommending the replacement of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. Treasury’s plan would leave Jackson alone and instead move Alexander Hamilton aside in favor of the first woman to appear on U.S. currency since Martha Washington in the 1890s. Hamilton first appeared on the $10 bill in 1928, replacing Jackson who moved to the $20, bumping Grover Cleveland from that place of honor. Cleveland had a soft landing. His image can be found on the $1000 bill.

Why do we place figures from the past in places of prominence, and what does it say when their relevance to us today is so marginalized that they can be considered dispensable?

Many today know Hamilton and Jackson only through the images that pass through their fingers at the checkout line. These men came to power a generation apart, but they were both involved in an ideological battle that dominated the first half-century of our young republic’s political development.

Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. He came to this country before the revolution, a poor immigrant of illegitimate birth, and became a wealthy man and power broker in a political system that was only beginning to discover how to operate under the Constitution it had just ratified.

Hamilton had been a strong advocate of American independence, and had served in Washington’s army as his aide. But unlike many in the revolutionary movement who equated independence with rejection of the kind of heavy-handed government policies Great Britain had enacted, Hamilton did not object to a strong central government. When the United States government faltered in the years after the war, Hamilton attributed it to the lack of national authority under our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

Hamilton was one of the most insistent to call for a Constitutional Convention. As a member of the convention, he would be the greatest advocate for stronger national power in the federal system the delegates were creating. He was author of the majority of The Federalist essays, urging ratification of the new Constitution. And he assumed his role in the Washington administration determined to use the national government to build a stronger nation.

His actions as policy-maker in the first presidential administration set off the original debate over the meaning of the Constitution – a debate that wasn’t really resolved until after the Civil War – a debate whose echoes are still heard today.

In the years following the American Revolution, many Americans feared the kind of abuse of power they had experienced at the hands of Great Britain. They felt that the safeguard against overreaching by the national government was to deny it unlimited power. The Constitution set up a system in which power would be shared with the states, and in which federal authority would be exercised only in certain specific areas. Article I of the Constitution listed the areas in which the Congress was empowered to legislate. Many felt that the Constitution still did not sufficiently protect citizens’ liberties. The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights were quickly drafted by the first Congress to further weaken the reach of the federal government. Still, many were suspicious of the new charter and of the Congress that would be operating under its authority.

With the election of President Washington and the first Congress, we had a government, and a set of instructions in the form of a Constitution. But the question was, how would the general guidelines of the Constitution be applied in real world situations?

Those who were fearful of a strong central government adopted a theory of constitutional interpretation that became known as strict construction. The strict constructionist approach is to limit Congress to the exercise of the enumerated powers specifically granted to it in the Constitution.

But Hamilton believed that the nation needed to take aggressive action to strengthen its credibility and to promote economic growth. His theory, which became known as broad or loose construction held that Congress may go beyond the specified powers as long as its actions are in service to the intents and purposes of those powers. Article 1, section 8, clause 18, permits federal lawmakers to do what is “necessary and proper” to carry out the enumerated powers.

Under this theory, Hamilton recommended to Congress in 1790 that it create a federally chartered bank. While the Constitution does not bestow the specific power to charter a bank, Hamilton argued that such an institution would better enable Congress to carry out its enumerated powers to collect taxes, pay debts, and regulate the value of money. In an era when all paper money was issued by banks, the Bank of the United States would provide the only completely reliable currency in the nation. Economic growth in the young country would depend on the kind of financial stability such an institution could provide.

Thomas Jefferson and other strict constructionists’ protests against the expansion of federal power, and specifically against the Bank, led to the first political debate under the new Constitution, and led to the creation of the first American political parties.

The Federalist party supported Hamilton’s loose constructionist approach and government policies that actively promoted economic growth.

The Democratic-Republicans supported Jefferson’s strict construction and the kind of limited federal government that would ensure individual liberties.

Over time, the parties’ identities would change, but the debate over limits on Congressional power would remain constant. After the election of Jefferson as president in 1800, the Federalists became a marginalized as a regional party in commercial New England, and then finally died out after the War of 1812. Meanwhile, as the only national party responsible for serving the diverse interests of the country, the Democratic-Republicans lost some of their ideological purity. The party split into factions, with the loose constructionists identifying themselves first as National Republicans, then separating into a new party as the Whigs. The strict constructionists called themselves Democrats and coalesced their support behind Andrew Jackson.

More to come ….


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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History on currency, Part I

There is a movement afoot to put a woman’s face on American currency. A group called Women on 20s has submitted a petition to the White House requesting that the face that appears on the $20 bill be that of Harriet Tubman, the former Underground Railroad conductor.

In order to make this change, Andrew Jackson’s face must be evicted. A dead white male pushed aside in favor of an African American female who, well, is also dead. One of the qualifications for appearing on U.S. currency is that the subject is deceased. Perhaps this rule is to avoid the risk that the person so honored would commit some act late in life that would dishonor his or her reputation. Dead people don’t have this option. Their reputations rest in the hands of the people who keep history alive.

Much has been made of the irony of a slaveholder being replaced by a former slave. The fact that Tubman would be the first African American to appear on U.S. currency resonates with many as a significant symbol of national progress. Tubman would not be the first woman – Martha Washington was given that honor – but she would be the first chosen because of her own accomplishments, and not because of her association with a more famous man.

Commemoration on currency constitutes official acceptance and approval of an individual’s legacy as representative of American values.

“Our paper bills are like pocket monuments to great figures in our history,” said Susan Ades Stone, the executive director of Women on 20s.

But what are we memorializing?

Let’s make clear an important distinction between history and the past. The events of the past brought us to the present day circumstances that make up our daily experience. The past shaped our present whether or not we are even aware of it. We don’t need to remember or understand the past in order for this to be so. The past is unalterable, and however we may interpret it, it cannot be changed.

But history – the record of past events that we preserve, honor, and share today – is limited not only by incomplete source materials, but also by the errors, omissions, and biases of those who write and remember it. It is our own creation, and it is subject to the shortcomings, inadequate structure or materials, and creative engineering, that are found in anything that humans build.

And public history – the kind that is found in school textbooks, on monuments, and displayed in public places including currency – is selected specifically for its power to convey a message to us about ourselves.

We choose the history we want in our lives. We send messages to ourselves with the heroes we select, the achievements we trumpet, and the institutions we honor.

What message do we convey with the placement of Andrew Jackson’s image in a prominent position? What message is communicated when we select Harriet Tubman for such a distinction?

More to come ….


I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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