Review of “Engaging With History in the Classroom: The American Revolution” by Janice I. Robbins and Carol L. Tieso

It is illuminating to see what perspective of American History is being presented in educational materials these days, especially after the recent brouhaha in Colorado and elsewhere, including the Republican National Committee. Conservatives claim that the way American History is taught “paints a darker picture of the country’s heritage and undervalues concepts such as ‘American exceptionalism.’”

But of course, there is the small matter of truth hanging in the balance.

This book is intended for U.S. history units for grades six to eight, with a focus on “what it means to be an American citizen.” The authors claim their approach will enable students to learn “to question the accounts left behind and to recognize different perspectives on the major events in U.S. history.”

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The book includes a number of “scripts” for teachers, handouts, project ideas, maps, lists of relevant websites, and guides to analysis.

The questioning of history encouraged by this book is commendable, but not really very extensive.

Most notably, it only skims the surface of the role of Native Americans in the period before and during the American Revolution. For example, the section on the French and Indian War is short and not very informative. Although the account in the book mentions that Natives participated on both sides, in fact the numbers of Natives were significant. The book also does not mention at all the role 21-year-old George Washington played in actually starting the war. In 1754, France and Britain were disputing the right to control the fur trade from the Ohio River Valley westward and southward. Washington led a group of men who attacked the French with bayonets while they were sleeping, killing ten of them including their commander. This skirmish led to a countermove in revenge, and escalated from there into a world-wide conflict (the Seven Years War). This would have provided a good opportunity to discuss the often less than “noble” incentives for going to war. Nor do the authors mention that the French were kept well-supplied by colonists eager to make a buck.

In addition, the Treaty of 1763 (ending the war), which forbad colonies from making land grants beyond the Appalachian continental divide, was in fact one of the biggest issues leading to the American Revolution. The land-hungry colonists were enraged, as they felt the “barbarous” non-Christian natives did not deserve the riches of this vast country. Encroaching on Indian land and the subsequent genocide of the natives is barely a footnote in this book. (The war is discussed as part of Lesson 3, “Whose Land Is It, Anyway?.” The thrust of this section is that ownership and control of the land was a source of contention among the American colonists, the British, and the French. Really? What about Native Americans?!!!!)

The book does correct the canard that the colonists were being unfairly taxed, when in fact they paid less taxes than people did in Great Britain, and there were a great deal of expenses in administering the colonies and seeing to their defense. But there is no mention of the network of greed, smuggling, and bribery by the “Founding Fathers” that underlay the objections to the taxes. The lowering of the cost of tea by Britain accompanying the tax on tea (a fact hardly ever mentioned) interfered with the huge smuggling operations which had been making the colonists exceedingly rich. (One of the biggest smugglers was the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.) Similarly, the Molasses Act to which colonists objected also interfered with their smuggling, of an estimated 1.5 million gallons of molasses a year! In addition to being tax free, the molasses was produced by slave labor and helped perpetuate the slave trade. As historian Harlow Giles Unger wrote, in American Tempest:

…many were ready to sacrifice their honor as human beings – and the blood of innocents – by disguising their struggle for wealth as a quest for liberty for the common man.”

Not only did some colonists amass wealth and power, but the British treasury suffered huge loses. Yet the Americans were still angry that the British did not do enough for them, especially in terms of guarding the frontiers from Native Americans unhappy with having had their land stolen. The authors mention none of this.

They also might have discussed how coming into power changed the revolutionaries into defenders of the status quo. For example, Sam Adams, the one-time arch enemy of taxation, served as governor of Massachusetts from 1793 until 1797. He now insisted taxes must be paid, declaring that “The man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”

On the other hand, the authors chose to include some aspects of the American Revolution not often told, such as the perspective of the soldiers in the field, who had to deal with fear, cold, starvation, disease, horrible weather, fatigue, etc.

They also include a letter from John Adams, husband of the remarkable Abigail, justifying to James Sullivan (a governor of Massachusetts) why he opposed giving the vote to women. There is also a small amount of material on slavery, but it is treated as a sort of a side-bar type of issue, along with the issues of women and Native Americans. Nevertheless, kudos to the authors for including it at all.

Evaluation: This material doesn’t really challenge the hegemonic American narrative – one that prioritizes whiteness, exploitation of the land and its resources, and the use of violence as a means of further entrenching the interests of white males, particularly those of wealth. It does not disrupt the American myth of heroic forbears, and imparts a very rosy glow to the causes of the American Revolution. It does make an effort to encourage students to consider multiple points of view, however (even if in a limited way). It also offers some minority perspectives usually missing from pre-college curricula.

On the positive side, the inclusion of “scripts” for teachers, primary documents, and lesson ideas is great, and will be much appreciated.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Prufrock Press, 2014

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