Monthly Archives: September 2013

Constitution Day 2013

September 17 is Constitution Day in the United States. On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention approved the draft of the Constitution that would be sent to the states for ratification. The Convention thereby kicked off, not only the debates over ratification (which resulted in the Constitution’s establishment as the supreme law of the land), but the continuing debates over the meaning and interpretation of the Constitution.

By law (thanks, Sen. Byrd!), institutions of higher learning are expected to observe Constitution Day in some way.

This year, at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, we hosted Dr. Ryan MacPherson, Associate Professor of History at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.

Dr. Ryan MacPherson

Dr. MacPherson delivered an outstanding address built around the theme “7 Things Every College (or University) Student Ought to Know.” I suspect Dr. MacPherson would assert that all citizens–with degrees or without–should know these points, too.

In the interest of some public education, then, here are Dr. MacPherson’s 7 points:

1. The U.S. Constitution is a written document. Not a lived tradition, like the British constitutional system.

2. The U.S. Constitution was designed for a republic, not for a democracy. MacPherson distinguished between representatives governing for the common good, rather than having sheer numbers determining all questions.

3. The framers of the U.S. Constitution shared a common tradition of natural law, supportive of natural rights. I thought this was a good formulation that sought to connect “natural law” discourse with Lockean “natural rights” talk.

4. The U.S. Constitution was unique in separating the three powers of government. The framers were great fans of Montesquieu, the French theorist, who advocated separating legislative, executive, and judicial power. The U.S. Constitution divided these powers even more than did Great Britain, which Montesquieu had praised in his Spirit of the Laws.

5. The framers of the U.S. Constitution purposefully designed the electoral college. MacPherson offered a spirited defense of the electoral college, which I appreciated. A parallel that MacPherson used that seemed appropriate: “If you believe the World Series is fair for baseball, then you should believe the electoral college is fair for presidential elections.” There, the emphasis is on games won, not cumulative score. So, with the presidency, the goal is to win states. MacPherson did allow that the electoral system could be tweaked to proportion electors according to congressional district, rather than winner-take-all.

6. Over time, the U.S. Constitution has become less federal and more national. Here, MacPherson spent a lot of time explaining the effects of the Incorporation Doctrine of the 14th Amendment.

7. The U.S. Constitution remains a monument to humanity’s quest for ordered liberty. MacPherson asserted his belief that the Constitution provided for a fruitful balance of order and liberty. He concluded by challenging the audience to take up the responsibility of being custodians of American liberty.

Dr. MacPherson has posted his excellent hand-out and an earlier version of the talk on his personal website, here. It’s well worth your time to listen to it.

Also, I’m sure Dr. MacPherson would be happy to come speak in other venues. He offers a great presentation.

For commentators, what do you make of those 7 points?

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A New Semester I

We have already started the new semester at my newly-named University of Northwestern. I thought I would spend this week reflecting on the classes I’ll be teaching and some of the books I’ll be using in those classes. This might inspire some readers to go out and pick up some of these titles.

Let me start with my U.S. History Survey class. I’m supposed to take the class from First Contact to 1877. So, we’ve already talked about the condition of the Indians of the Americas in 1491, and in the last class we finally introduced the Europeans who will be settling in the New World.

I have a range of books for this class, and if I had more time I’d love to add a few more. This is a good start, though.

I start with a good narrative textbook. In as many cases as possible, I try to avoid this, but for this class it’s worthwhile. I have been most pleased with Eerdman’s text Unto a Good Land, which is distinctive as a survey text for the amount of attention it gives to religious experience in American history.

In the colonial period, I want students to think about the Great Awakening, and so we read George Marsden’s A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. This is a great introduction to Edwards for any general reader. Those inspired by the short life could also go on to read Marsden’s longer Jonathan Edwards: A Life. For undergraduates, though, the Short Life works well. One point that Marsden handles nicely is the relationship of evangelical awakening and American enlightenments, which Marsden talks about through the life of Benjamin Franklin. This is helpful, because in the next class after Marsden we spend a lot of time on Franklin’s Autobiography.

For the Revolutionary Era, we use two texts. To demonstrate to students how narrative can serve multiple historical purposes–especially showing historical contingency–we read David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. This book is a perennial favorite, and I would argue that’s because Fischer has done fantastic research that he then presents in a compelling way.

The other theme that’s important to me from the Revolution is to understand the nature an extent of religion in the American Revolution and what that means for the country today. To this end, we read John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? We read the book’s interpretation alongside historical developments. Fea presents an argument that students can engage with easily, either to agree or disagree. I also really like Fea’s introduction, in which he helps readers consider “How to Think Historically.”

For the Antebellum period, we read two famous slave narratives: Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The two works pair nicely, with each demonstrating different anti-slavery rhetorical strategies as well as contrasting complaints about the slave system. These are accounts that students need to consider.

If I had time, it would be great to work in a Civil War book, or perhaps several additional autobiographical accounts.

All the way along, we are also reading primary sources. Sometimes I’ve used printed document collections and sometimes I’ve done most of the collecting myself. Either way, students are reading primary sources for every class period.

These are good readings all, and I hope they wake up students to some very interesting topics in American History.

For readers, then, what books have you read or used in a survey course that have succeeded? Why do you think they did?

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Talking about death

I realize that’s a cheery topic on a Friday. But I raise this as a thought experiment. Do changes in how we talk about death reflect how we think about death? In particular, is there a difference between “passing away” and merely “passing”? I discuss this shift in my post today at the Religion in American History Blog.

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Not Quite Top-10

Over at the Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz, lists his “10 Blogs by Christian Historians You Should Be┬áReading.” Well, Historical Conversations didn’t make the list, but it did get an honorable mention. We’ll have to blog harder and try to crack that list next year.

In the meantime, if you’re enjoying Historical Conversations, you’d definitely do well to read the Pietist Schoolman. Chris offers thoughtful, sustained posts on a very regular basis.

For commentators, what blogs would you recommend that you read alongside Historical Conversations?

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