Tag Archives: U.S. History

A New Semester II

Last month I reflected on teaching my Introductory U.S. History to 1877 class. (The post even got noticed here.)

Continuing my thoughts on the new semester, I thought I would give the same treatment to my “American Revolution and Early Republic” class. I go into this class assuming students have had an introduction to this period. As a result, I can go into greater detail. We are also able to look at the historiography of the period and actively debate both what was going on and how things have been interpreted.

This semester, I’m using a wide range of books to address various aspects of the period.

I’ve adopted a new narrative text for the class–Patrick Griffin’s America’s Revolution. Griffin’s book came out recently, and I was eager to give it a try. At the end of the semester, I’ll try to give a full review of this book. So far, I’ve really appreciated several aspects of Griffin’s presentation: the book’s readability, its transatlantic and international focus, its interpretation of issues of sovereignty and power, and its deep engagement with up-to-date scholarship.

For military matters, the class is reading David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing. The book is long, but we’ve stretched out our treatment of it over two weeks. I think the text gives students some insights into military affairs and connections between military culture and broader cultures.

For religious matters, I’ve assigned Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty. I appreciate that Kidd’s book looks at religious matters before, during, and after the Revolution. It thus helps me trace a narrative on the theme of religion across the chronology of the course. The book also reads smoothly, which is another benefit for undergraduates.

When we get to the Early Republic, we’ll use Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers as a springboard to get into the conflicts of the period. Ellis, too, reads well while making recognizable claims.

Throughout, we’re using a really interesting document collection, The American Republic, edited by Bruce Frohnen. The book is big (both physically and chronologically), but it contains many of the important documents from the period. I appreciate his selections.

I’ve also supplemented these readings with a variety of other digital and print selections, including Alfred Young’s depiction the shoemaker George Roberts Twelves Hewes, significant letters of the period, accounts from ordinary citizens, period literature and drama, additional sermons and orations, and interpretations from John Murrin, Jack Greene, and others.

It’s a full reading load, and I find myself constantly fighting the urge to assign more. It turns out there is a lot to learn about the period, and I want my students to get as much of it as possible.

So, for readers, what do you think? Any additional suggestions? What has worked well for you?


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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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