James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me (1996), is never afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. In his essay, “Using Confederate Documents to Teach About Secession, Slavery, and the Origins of the Civil War,” Loewen makes a series of claims about how the conventional wisdom in classrooms and textbooks remains frighteningly disconnected from the truth apparent in the primary source documents of the period. Loewen states flatly that the Civil War was about slavery and that the documents leave no doubt about that point, but that most teachers still believe it was about states’ rights. You can read Loewen’s full essay inside the print edition of Volume 25 of the OAH Magazine of History (April 2011) or online via Oxford Journals. But since Loewen’s essay is really a series of combative and thought-provoking arguments, we have excerpted some of the most important claims here as a series of blog posts and invite teachers, students and all visitors to this site respond to each claim with their own comments and impressions.
In his essay, “Interpreting John Brown: Infusing Historical Thinking Into the Classroom,” Bruce A. Lesh describes an extended lesson plan that offers a powerful challenge to his students: create the text for a historical marker commemorating John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry. You can read Lesh’s full essay inside the print edition of Volume 25 of the OAH Magazine of History (April 2011) or online via Oxford Journals. On this page, you will also find a link to the full lesson plan (with resource materials) as well as an extended description of the exercises pasted below.
Interpreting John Brown: Infusing Historical Thinking into Classroom Instruction
Author: Bruce A. Lesh
Duration: 90 minutes
- Identify the facts surrounding John Brown’s role in Antebellum America
- Compare and contrast various historical interpretations of John Brown
- Construct an historical argument regarding how John Brown should be memorialized
1. Initiate the lesson, by asking students why we would commemorate an historical event with a marker, sign, statue, or plaque. Display examples from your neighborhood, state, or region. Discuss why certain people or events might merit commemoration over others.
2. Display the visual depictions of John Brown and lead students through an evaluation of the messages conveyed by the sources. Further the examination of John Brown, by asking the following questions:
a. Why would artists produce two dramatically different interpretations of John Brown?
Answers should mention that pieces could have been created during different time periods, the artists may have a bias or point they wanted to make, or it could represent a particular historical interpretation.
b. What contradiction regarding democracy and freedom might John Brown’s actions symbolize?
Brown’s actions bring to the forefront the fact that the United States was formed to protect freedom and yet harbored within its borders an institution that was designed to restrict freedom.
c. Should John Brown be considered an American hero?
Student answers will vary depending upon their feelings regarding the rule of law, morality, and the use of violence as a political tool.
3. Review the beliefs and actions taken by John Brown by discussing the homework found on Resource Sheet 1. Introduce students to the basics of John Brown and his actions in Kansas, Missouri, and Virginia. Consult information found at the following websites to reinforce the review of the homework:
Be sure to emphasize Brown’s religious beliefs, his role in “Bleeding Kansas,” his raid into Missouri, and the Harper’s Ferry Raid. Discuss with students the various sectional reactions to Brown’s failed raid. Inform students that it is their task to determine how John Brown should be memorialized historically.
4. Provide each student with a copy of Resource Sheet 4 and one of the primary or secondary sources from Resource Sheet 3A-3L. Select six of the sources so that group size remain manageable. Ask students to read their source and answer the questions on Resource Sheet 4. Remind students that they are reading to determine the type of person that Nat Turner was described to be by the author.
5. Have students reorganize themselves into groups of six and share what they found in their respective
sources. Students should record the information that is shared on their worksheet.
6. Come back together as a full class and share the information that was gleaned from the documents and from discussion. As students share their findings record the information on the board or the overhead. Further the classes understanding of John Brown by asking:
- Why would the author’s interpretations of John Brown differ so much?
- Why would the author’s interpretations of John Brown be similar?
- How can we develop an interpretation of John Brown?
5. Return to some of the images displayed at the outset of the lesson. Ask the students which picture they feel best represents the accurate historical John Brown. Prompt students to defend their choices with information gleaned from documents and discussion. Focus students back on the question of whether or not John Brown should be considered a hero. Ask:
- What do we know about the sources of information and how that might impact the interpretation we develop?
6. Discuss how the background of the sources’ authors might impact our interpretation. Discuss the interpretive nature of history and how authorship of documents impacts the interpretations of past events, people, or ideas.
Assess students’ understanding of the lesson, distribute Resource Sheet 6 and instruct students to complete the activity.
In his pedagogy essay, “Monuments and Memory on the Cusp of Commemorating America’s Civil War Sesquicentennial,” James A. Percoco offers reflections on his experiences teaching Applied History at West Springfield High School in northern Virginia. This map, created by one of Percoco’s students, provides an example of how to integrate cultural history, geography, and digital technology in the process of engaging students in issues related to the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Educators who would like to learn how to create custom maps using Google Maps should go this instructional page at the House Divided Project. You can read Percoco’s full essay inside the print edition of Volume 25 of the OAH Magazine of History (April 2011) or online via Oxford Journals.
Summers With Lincoln: A Custom Map
View Summers with Lincoln, a Monument Tour in a larger map
From James W. Loewen’s essay in OAH Magazine of History
Since 1998, I have been asking general audiences, college undergraduates, people who run historic sites, and K– 12 history and social studies teachers, “ Why did South Carolina, and then ten other Southern states, secede?” Invariably I get four answers:
2. states’ rights
3. tariffs and taxes (or issues about tariffs and taxes)
4. the election of Lincoln.
Repeatedly, I then ask these audiences to vote. All my audiences weigh in similarly, whether they are teachers, students, or historic site staff. Nor does region make a difference: from south Florida to North Dakota, responses are the same. States’rights draws fifty-five to seventy-five percent of the votes. Slavery usually receives about twenty percent. The election of Lincoln usually gets only a handful — two percent. Tariffs and taxes varies from ten to twenty percent, depending largely on how many votes go to states’ rights. Teachers can modify what I do next into an activity for students. I ask my audiences, “What do we do now? Does majority rule? Is that how we do history?” “No, no,” they chorus. “ We need evidence.” “OK,” I reply, “what would be good evidence to resolve the matter?” Student audiences may say, “Google it!” to which one reply might be, “Google what ?” Googling does not replace the human judgment required to sift through the results and decide what is credible. Teachers typically volunteer, “Newspaper articles ” — on the right track, but vague. I reply, “From the 1993 Portland Oregonian ? “No, no,” they chorus. “From South Carolina in 1860.” Now we can discuss the meaning of primary sources and the important role they should play in this exploration. South Carolina newspapers are good, I admit, but they are hardly the best source. Audience members may volunteer, “Diaries from the time.” Again, these are primary sources, but hardly the best. Eventually, someone will usually say, “Wasn’t there some sort of convention? Didn’t it say why South Carolina was leaving the Union?” If no one does, teachers can pull out the document discussed below, read its title, and ask if it might be relevant. Students will immediately grasp that it is the “smoking gun.”
From James W. Loewen’s article in the OAH Magazine of History
Working with the American public to understand the causes of the Civil War can be an exercise in frustration. Confederate leaders themselves made it plain that slavery was the key issue sparking secession. And yet, four of five Americans — including many teachers — hold basic misconceptions about the era, revolving around a vague, abstract concept of “states’ rights.” Questions about why the South seceded, what the Confederacy was about, and the nature of its symbols and ideology usually give rise to flatly wrong “answers.” Because the states’ rights perspective on the Civil War is so pervasive, it can be difficult for teachers to get beyond this framework in their classrooms. But fortunately, there is a wealth of primary Confederate documents that teachers can use. Moreover, with the arrival of the Civil War sesquicentennial, public attention will be focused on the topic for some time to come. The time is right for teachers to help students grapple with the powerful evidence that slavery was the central factor in the formation of the Confederacy.
In her essay, “Becoming John Brown: Living History in the Classroom,” Gerry Kohler describes how she “becomes” John Brown for her students and uses their fascination with this controversial figure to help expand their understanding of his life and times. You can read Kohler’s full essay inside the print edition of Volume 25 of the OAH Magazine of History (April 2011) or online via Oxford Journals. Below are some video excerpts of Kohler as John Brown.