50 Core American Documents

I was a little amused to receive a letter that began, “As a leader in the Conservative Movement, you know that ideas matter.” The letter continued, “At Ashbrook we teach young Americans about the big ideas that define America by using original historical documents–avoiding the distortions that textbooks introduce to the story of American history.”

Although I am less worried than Ashbrook is about distortion in classrooms and textbooks, I am grateful for the volume that came with the letter: 50 Core American Documents: Required Reading for Students, Teachers, and Citizens, edited by Christopher Burkett.

It collects quite diverse perspectives. For example, John C. Calhoun’s “Speech on the Oregon Bill” denounces (as a “dangerous error” and an unnecessary insertion into the Declaration of Independence) the clause that “all men are created equal.” But the very next document is Frederick Douglass’ great speech for equality, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Calhoun should be read; he reminds us that secession was driven by hostility to human rights. But I might have chosen his Senate speech arguing that slavery was a “positive good” as a more illustrative historical example. And if I had chosen Calhoun’s “Speech on the Oregon Bill,” I would not have deleted the beginning. The excerpt in the 5o Core Documents begins:

The first question which offers itself for consideration is — Have the Northern States the power which they claim, to prevent the Southern people from emigrating freely, with their property, into territories belonging to the United States, and to monopolize them for their exclusive benefit? …

In the quoted excerpt, the nature of the “property” under discussion is not clarified; the question is presented as one of interstate migration and commerce. But Calhoun actually began his speech with slavery. This is his first sentence:

There is a very striking difference between the position on which the slaveholding and non-slaveholding States stand, in reference to the subject under consideration.

Texts won’t teach or explain themselves. They must be presented in some way. Political texts make complete sense only in institutional and historical contexts. For instance, a reader must understand that John C. Calhoun was a Senator, that the Senate has specific powers, and that Calhoun represented South Carolina as a slaveholder and apologist for slavery when the Senate was deciding whether to admit new states (such as Oregon) as slave or free soil. Students cannot avoid an interpretive framework that has some kind of ideological valence. Thus I don’t fully endorse the premise that an anthology of original texts suffices.

I am also not so keen on presenting history as a series of statements by national leaders (even if some of them are insurgents and critics). Ordinary people have roles as well, and they can be given voice. But certainly this volume presents a welcome diversity of views, including, for example, presidential defenses of the New Deal and Great Society. The idea of choosing fifty documents is worthy, and I would recommend the book as well as the website on which all the contents are available free. Although it makes some debatable choices about which texts to include and how to excerpt them, the debate is valuable.

Meanwhile, the Pioneer Institute, which is generally considered conservative, held a terrific session on the Civil Rights Movement with the goal of deepening how it is taught in k-12 schools. They invited my colleague Peniel Joseph, who said, “we live in the belly of the beast… we live in the American Gulag”; and Robert P. Moses, “who blasted a recent ruling by the Supreme Court that he said invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act.” Jamie Gass, director of Pioneer’s Center for School Reform, writes:

Where one comes down on any one aspect of history matters very little. People will always disagree — otherwise, historians would have little to do. But learning about the depth and richness of our nation’s civil rights movement, the injustices that existed and still persist, the blood that was shed, lives lost and destroyed, and the real progress that has emerged, ought not to be an adjunct or afterthought in our schools. It should, rather, be front and center in every curriculum.

Our civic responsibility as Americans demands nothing less.