Teaching the US Declaration of Independence in a World History context

Philly 2012 - Congress Hall - House DeskJoseph Adelman has a nice post on how he teaches the US Declaration of Independence in his early US survey — he reads it aloud; with the class standing, as in an 18th century church or town meeting — and I thought I might offer another perspective, since I use the same document in my World Since 1500 course.

For the last few iterations of the course, I’ve had students’ primary source readings focus on the rising tradition of rights in Western, then World, civilization.  So I have them read the US Declaration as part of a group, along with the English Bill Of Rights and the French Declaration Of Rights Of Man And Citizen. (Later in the semester, they read the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights).  This is in the context of a discussion of revolutionary change, following one on the Western Enlightenment.

When we talk about the Declaration, it serves as focal evidence for talking about the American Revolution, and I talk about historiography. (I talk about historiography a lot in World History, as it turns out, but my favorite bits are this one on the US Revolution and the Fall of Rome, where the historiography just layers and layers….) There are many ways to see the US Revolution — I’m increasingly fond of the “creole” generational theory, myself, as it helps situate it in the context of the Latin American revolutions, and connects it to post-colonialism, a little — and I point out that there’s evidence for most of them right in the text of the Declaration itself.

In particular, I raise the question of just how revolutionary the American Revolution was. The famous preamble is a classic statement of Enlightenment principles about humanity and government, which suggests the power of new ideas and real change. The body of the document, though, lists grievances based, in large part, on the earlier English Bill of Rights, and the structure of the whole Declaration follows closely on that example, which suggests less revolutionary aims and more an attempt to conserve rights already in existence against changing circumstances. And, of course, I have to talk about the Seven Years’ War, the tax and mercantilist policies which were driving much of the tension between the colonies and the Crown, and the extent to which many of Founding Fathers were involved in import and export related businesses.

Philly 2012 - Liberty Hall - Liberty Bell - FrontI point out that the “all men” of the Declaration was limited in effect, and that the attempt to preserve the self-governance of the colonies against royal interference largely succeeded in the short term, as the states continued to govern themselves and only slowly to create coordinated or national policies. In this it was also conservative, rather than liberalizing. But the Constitution, when it came to be, embodied Montesquieu’s tripartite scheme, which is clearly foreshadowed in the complaints of the Declaration, and maintained an elected executive and legislature, a political experiment of the most ambitious sort. Well, ambitious if you discount the even more radical political experiments of the French, which began at that very moment, and the example of which helped to solidify some of the more conservative elements of American leadership.

I have little patience for those who would fetishize the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as written, turn them into an icon of secular faith in American Exceptionalism. But I’m always impressed, as I work through this material, with the way in which the intellectual and political resources of the moment were marshalled into the Declaration, and the tensions of the moment were balanced into an effective and productive evolving Constitutional system. But clearly my presentation cuts against the grain of American exceptionalism: the American Revolution shows clear evidence of Enlightenment thought, English civic tradition, post-colonial pride, economic competition, and a desire for social stability which meant that very little changed in most people’s lives as a result.

A note on final grades

As you know, for test grades I use the highest raw score in the class as the 100% mark and adjust everyone’s grades up accordingly. I don’t use a “curve” which assumes that there’s a certain percentage of the class which deserves A, B, C, etc.

I don’t use quite so dramatic an adjustment on the final course grades — since I’ve already done it on tests, and dropped the lowest one besides, it would be excessive. But I do shift the final raw scores up some.

Test 5 Results and Adjusted Test Grades

Each question was worth up to 4 points, for a possible total of 32. The highest score in the class before extra credit was 26; the median was a B-, which is good, and nobody who took the test failed. The grade scale works out like this:

Grade starts at distribution
A+ 26
A 24.5 20%
A- 23.25
B+ 21.25
B 18.75 40%
B- 16.75
C+ 14.75
C 12.25 30%
C- 10.25
D+ 8.25
D 5.75 10%
D- 3.74
F under 0%

If you answered 8 questions, but failed to answer one from each chapter, I took a 2 point penalty off your grade. (If you didn’t answer all 8 questions, I did not)

If you want to discuss your performance, and how you can improve it next time, feel free to come by my office hours. If you want to dispute your grade, feel free to do so in writing.

For the overall test grade, the average of the highest 4 grades (including students who have not taken the last few tests), the median grade is right on the B-/C+ border and the approximate distribution was like this

Grade %age
A 15
B 35
C  25
D 5
F 20

Test 5 Organization

For the last test, because there are so many chapters, I’m going to reorganize the terms into three categories: Cold War (mostly 36, 39, 40), Developing World (Mostly 37, 38), Globalization (mostly 41). You’ll be required to do at least one term from each category, and the remaining 5 terms may come from anything else on the test.

Last Extra Credit Opportunity: Kligman Art Lecture and Exhibit

Reminder: For extra credit, you need to attend the event, and write a short (1-2 page) summary and reaction to it. All extra credits must be handed in by Friday, May 4th. You might want to look through the list of extra credit opportunities and see if you did something credit-worthy without realizing it.

May 3 @ 4:00 pm Room 409 Russ Hall
Reception to follow at 5:00 pm in Porter Hall

The Kligmans will deliver a public lecture May 3 at 4:00 pm in room 409 Russ Hall followed by a reception in Porter Hall at 5:00 pm. In 2009, Misha earned a MFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Kansas at Lawrence, KS. In 2001, Amy earned a BFA from the Ringling College of Art and Design of Sarasota, FL. The Kligmans were the recipients of the Juror’s Selection first-place exhibition award for their entries in Visual Territory, the PSU Art Department’s biannual national juried exhibition. The exhibition gathered artists from around the U.S. to investigate “the intimate territories of personal experience and the global landscape of place and the environment”.

About his recent body of work, Misha writes that his work reflects his “continuous struggle to understand the insistent nature of nostalgic longing tinted by the history of exile and the knowledge of genocide.” History is a major influence for Misha and his work aims to clarify and reflect his beliefs. Amy writes, “While creating this body of work, I have been thinking of a kind of place… I don’t think of this place as a location on a map, but more a place in one’s head where life reveals itself… Its a place where you start to put things together, where things seem clear, though not always logical.” Her focus on this “thinking place” is evident in her colorful and engaging work.