Discussion Questions and Document Links

Date Posted


Aug. 24, 1999

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A term we will use occasionally in this course is "American exceptionalism," the commonly-held belief that the United States is the most unique (and uniquely fortunate) nation in the history of the world, that it is an exception to the typical problems that have plagued other places (for example, Russia) throughout history. Is there any truth to American exceptionalism? What, if anything, do you think makes the United States, and the American experience generally, unique in the world and in history?
Aug. 31, 1999

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This question has two major sections and several subquestions. For purposes of the bulletin board, you may respond to any or all of the parts, though in section you should try to cover more of it:

-- First, read the biblical texts that are the basis of the Christian doctrine of original sin, roughly Genesis 2:4 to 4:16. (You may want to look at the first four books of Genesis in their entirety, which adds up to only about 7 pages.) Did Early Modern Europeans interpret these passages correctly in developing their notions of the innate depravity of human beings? What kind of society and political structure would be likely to develop based on this idea of original sin? Leaving aside the religious questions involved, is there anything to be said in favor of the idea as original sin as a basis for ordering a society?

-- Second, read this brief document recounting the Iroquois story of the founding of their confederacy. Compare and contrast this founding story with the one in Genesis. How would a society and political structure based on this story differ from the European one? Where would you rather live? (You may also bring in the material on American Indian politics in Nash & Schultz, chap. 2)
September 7, 1999

Captain John Smith

Think about the similarities and differences between the colonization projects at Virginia and Massachusetts (including the Plymouth Colony), in terms of their intentions, personnel, and results (social, political, or economic).  What were some key institutions and/or events that reflected these similarities and differences? Where would you rather have lived, as a colonist?  Who would you rather have dealt with as an American Indian, or would it have made any difference? In which colony (Virginia or Massachusetts) can you more clearly see origin points (if any) for aspects of later American culture? 

Before answering this question, make sure you have done your reading for this week,  Goldfield, et al., American Journey, Ch. 2; Nash & Schultz, Chs. 3 & 4.  In addition, here are some documents to help you with these questions. All are helpful, but required readings are listed in BOLD type.

blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)Sketches from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities web site: The Virginia Company of London, Captain John Smith, John Rolfe, Pocahontas.  Perhaps the most interesting documents on this site are these lists of colonists at Jamestown, noting their occupations.  Also helpful are this "Brief History of Jamestown" and this chronology.
blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)John Smith was considered a harsh ruler by many of the Jamestown colonists, but look what happened after Smith left. To hold things together after that, these harsh laws were passed.
blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)Compare the First Charter of the Virginia Company, especially its sections regarding religion, with this 1661 report to the Bishop of London on the actual state of religion in the colony.
blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)The classic statement of Puritan intentions and aspirations for the Massachusetts Bay Colony is "A Modell of Christian Charity" (1630) , by the first governor, John Winthrop.  The key passages appear near the end of the document. Before assuming that the Puritans migrated for religious freedom, read Winthrop's views on how much and what kind of liberty he would allow in Massachusetts Bay.  Also, glance over The Charter of Massachusetts Bay: 1629 and compare it with the Virginia charter.

September 14, 1999
Southerners before and after the Civil War often defended slavery (and later, segregation) as the basis of a "way of life" that Southerners had led since the founding of the colonies. (Refer to your reading in Stampp to see what I mean.) Is this true? What was the most important cause for slavery becoming the South's dominant labor system? One theory holds that racism, European prejudice against darker-skinned peoples, was the main cause. Does this make sense to you? (Some historians have felt that it does not make sense.) If you agree that racism was the main cause of slavery, what do you make of the fact that racism has continued to be terrible problem more than 130 years after slavery was abolished? Before answering look at these brief documents on the evolution of the Virginia labor system: letters on the experiences of a male indentured servant and a female indentured servant, the changing laws of Virginia regarding children and marriage, the reaction of Virginia planter William Byrd to a proposal to ban slavery from the new colony of Georgia, and an African's memories of the "middle passage" to slavery in America.
September 21, 1999 What were the most significant ways in which the Middle Colonies (focus on New York and/or Pennsylvania) were different from Virginia and Massachusetts? Is it possible that New York and Pennsylvania, though less aggressive than the South or New England in claiming to define Americanism, actually contributed more to later American culture than the more extreme colonies did?
October 5, 1999

Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson in Hell

Make sure you have read through chapter 5 in your textbook before trying to answer this question. As citizens of the United States, we naturally tend to side with the American colonial protesters when reading about the American Revolution. But is there anything to be said for the British side of the equation? The British government did not expect such controversy over their reforms of the empire and efforts to generate some tax revenue in the colonies. They saw the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, etc., as moderate, reasonable, necessary measures that were well within the government's rights and perfectly just in any case. The colonists saw these same measures as intolerable acts of tyranny, part of a conspiracy to take away the colonists' rights and reduce them to "slavery." In your opinion, who had the more reasonable and convincing position, the British or the Americans? 

Here are some documents exemplifying the two positions. Reading them is optional, but you will have to understand the general positions that they outline: 

blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)Daniel Dulany, "Considerations," October 1765
blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)Resolutions of the "Stamp Act Congress," 1765  
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Benjamin Franklin, Testimony Before Parliament on the Stamp Act, 1766
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John Dickinson, "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania," 1768
blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)George Washington's fears of a British Conspiracy

BRITISH (looking for more)
blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)Soame Jenyns, The Objections to the taxation consider'd, 1765
blueballC234.gif (326 bytes)The Declaratory Act, 1766

October 12, 1999: Option A

Precursors of the Declaration: 

Virginia Declaration of Rights
Mecklenberg Resolves

Documents Relating to Jefferson, the Declaration, and Slavery:

Jefferson on Race and Slavery (from Notes on the State of Virginia)
Slaves in Massachusetts petition for their freedom
Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Law
Information on Sally Hemings and DNA testing from the Monticello web site.
Probably most of you are familiar with some of the words of the Declaration of Independence, but now you should really read it, on the web or in your textbook. How should we regard the document from the perspective of 200 years later? Does it give an accurate account of the American colonies' problems with Great Britain? Was it really so original? (See the optional documents listed at left for earlier statements that, some historians claim, may have beaten Jefferson to the punch.) Finally, what should we think of the Declaration and its statements about equality in light of the fact that its author, Thomas Jefferson, was a large-scale slaveholder, a committed racist, and (as has now been proven by DNA testing) the father of many children by his slave Sally Hemings? (Given a female slave's utter lack of choice in the matter of submitting to her master's sexual advances, one could argue that Jefferson was little better than rapist in this aspect of his life.) Can a document written by such an author have any value for us? (DO NOT ASSUME THAT ANY ANSWER IS THE RIGHT ONE. THESE ARE OPEN, DEBATABLE QUESTIONS.)  The documents listed to the left will help give you a deeper understanding of Jefferson's views on slavery, and slaves' views the Declaration? 
October 12, 1999: Option B

Historians and journalists have long dismissed the early U.S. government operating under The Articles of Confederation as ridiculously weak, inept, and unworkable. Putting yourself in the shoes (and mind) of a person who lived through the 1760s & 70s, would there be anything you could say in favor of the Articles? How would you have defended them against critics (such as the advocates of the present US Constitution), who wanted some stronger form of national government?
Bonus Question
(very optional)

Documents useful in answering this question (optional):

Franklin's letter to James Parker on the Indians and a colonial union 

Albany Plan of Union

Franklin's defense of the plan.

U.S. Constitution

Articles of Confederation 

The "Iroquois Constitution," a document dating from the late 19th century, but purporting to reflect practices and oral traditions going back centuries.

Locke's Second Treatise


One of the most tortured historical debates of recent times centers around an argument, made by a handful of determined historians and later picked up on by textbook writers and documentary film-makers, that the American Indians (specifically the Iroquois League) were an important influence on (or even a major inspiration for) the political thought and constitutional structure of the (white) American republic. The chief evidence for this concerns some comments that Benjamin Franklin made at a time (just before the French and Indian War) when he was promoting the idea of a defensive union of the colonies that would still be part of the British empire. Read Franklin's remarks (and his Albany Plan of Union) and give your own view of the possibility that the Iroquois provided the prototype for the United States. Even if you do not buy that argument, can you see any ways that the Indians may have influenced Euro-American political thought and government structure? Other helpful documents are available on the left.
October 19, 1999

Read the U.S. Constitution and think about the following questions:

1. One of the bitterest debates leading to the Civil War concerned exactly who created the Constitution, and what was created. Most southerners subscribed to the so-called "compact theory," which held that the Constitution was merely an agreement among the states that any state could pull out of or disobey when it felt that its rights were being violated or left unprotected. (Compare this idea to the Lockean standards for dissolving a government outlined in the Declaration of Independence.) Most northerners came to believe in a different theory, that the Constitution had been adopted by the people of the whole United States and created a single, consolidated national government ("the Union") that no state had any right to oppose or leave.  Which theory was a more accurate interpretation of the framing and ratification of the Constitution? 

2. The radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison became infamous before the Civil War for calling the Constitution a "covenant with death" and an "agreement with Hell" because of the way the protection of slavery was built into it. Garrison took to burning a copy of the Constitution at anti-slavery rallies.  Even many modern historians argue that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document.  What do you think? Did Garrison and these later historians go too far in condemning the Constitution, or was protecting slavery one of the document's fundamental purposes?

October 26, 1999

Imagine that you are a voter or congressman during the 1790s. Whom would you have supported, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, or Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans? What particular position or idea would most influence your choice?


Jefferson, Letter on Shays' Rebellion and the Power of Public Opinion
Jefferson on Revolution, letters to: William S. Smith (son-in-law of John Adams), 1787; William Short, 1793
Jefferson, Attack on the Constitutionality of the Bank of the United States
Hamilton, Defense of the constitutionality of the B.U.S. 
Jefferson, "Manufactures" from Notes on Virginia and impressions of Europe in a letter to Madison
Hamilton, Excerpt from the Report on Manufactures
November 9, 1999
After you have completely read chapters 9, 11, & (ideally) 13 in the AMERICAN JOURNEY, evaluate the following statement: "Though it has very little hold over the present national imagination, the War of 1812 is in fact one of the critical turning points of American history, paving the way for or actually causing numerous key developments in 19th-century American life." Agree or disagree with the statement, using specific examples from the text or lectures.
November 16, 1999

Read "David Walker's Appeal", along with William Lloyd Garrison's response to it . If you were an African American (slave or free) in the 1820s, what strategy would you have favored in dealing with slavery: violence as advocated by Walker and practiced by Nat Turner; colonization to Africa; or peaceful "moral suasion" and political agitation as advocated by William Lloyd Garrison and black abolitionists less radical than David Walker, such as Frederick Douglass? From today's perspective, which strategy was most effective? 
November 30, 1999

To learn more about party system "founder" Martin Van Buren (including numerous video clips), check the Van Buren page on the C-SPAN "American Presidents" website
The party system is one of the most unpopular institutions in the U.S. today. Increasing numbers of voters claim to be independents, "nonpartisan" is a positive label, crackpot billionaires and pro wrestlers have 100,000s of votes by bashing the major parties, and even Democrats and Republicans often hide their party affiliations in campaign advertising. Yet when the party system was invented in the 19th century, it was considered by many Americans to be one of the great political innovations in the history of the world, and was copied in 100s of countries. (Others, including many radical abolitionists and Christian reformers strongly disagreed.) What do you think, looking at the role of parties in the 19th century? What positive and negative contributions did the major national political parties (especially the Democrats and Whigs) make before the Civil War? Chapters 10, 9, & 15 of AMERICAN JOURNEY should be most helpful in answering this question.