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Milestone Documents to Commemorate in 2021

January 5, 2021

by Teaching American History

This year, 2021, marks major anniversaries of several milestone documents in American history. Somelike the “Long Telegram” that for decades framed American policymakers’ understanding of the Cold Waryou’ve often read about. Otherslike the report by a commission of the Democratic Party that led to our current process for nominating presidential candidatesmay be new to you. The list below will help you and your students commemorate critical junctures in our history. Read the documents not only to learn what Americans thought and said, but also to engage the issues they debated.

Thanks to Professors Jason Jividen (The Progressive Era), David Krugler (The Cold War), Eric Sands (Political Parties), Jason Stevens (Causes of the Civil War), David Tucker (Slavery and Its Consequences), and Scott Yenor (Reconstruction)whose scholarly introductions to many of the core documents covered in this post are quoted from below. 

50 Years Ago… in 1971

McGovern–Fraser Commission Report


The Commission laid the foundation for the current nominating process, which requires that delegates be awarded based on results in primaries and caucuses. This move democratized the nomination process, taking it away from the control of party leaders.

75 Years Ago… in 1946

The Long Telegram

In February 1946, Kennan authored a lengthy analysis commonly called the Long Telegram. (To cable a message more than 5,000 words long from Moscow to Washington was highly unusual, showing the urgency of the report). Kennan had been asked to explain why the Soviet Union was opposed to the newly formed World Bank and International Monetary Fund. He took this opportunity to offer a perceptive, wide-ranging essay about the methods and motives of Soviet communism and how the United States should respond. This was the policy of containment, which Kennan described in detail in an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1947. Its essence, as Kennan phrased it in that article, was that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

“To Secure These Rights,” The Report of President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights

This report was the first government-authorized, comprehensive statement since the Civil War of the obstacles preventing African Americans and other minorities from enjoying full citizenship and equal participation in American life. It set the agenda for the reform agenda for the next two decades, offering recommendations that became law in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

100 Years Ago… in 1921

W. E. B. Du Bois, President Harding and Social Equality

Du Bois dissects the contradictions in a speech President Warren Harding made in Birmingham, Alabama on the much-discussed question of “social equality” between the races. His analysis exposes the illogic of the question itself, and the hollowness of arguments that the civil rights of citizens can be respected if their right to free association with other citizens is disallowed. Certainly, Du Bois writes, African Americans are not eager to interact socially with white Americans who despise or mistreat them. Yet to deny their right to such association is to deny their humanity. This 100-year-old essay clarifies the issues at stake when, 25 years later, civil rights activists fought for desegregation in education, housing, and the workplace.

125 Years Ago… in 1896

Booker T. Washington, Democracy and Education

In yet an earlier precursor to the battle over school desegregation, Booker T. Washington argues that the economic, political and cultural progress of the South depends upon educating all citizens equally. 

William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” Speech

Bryan’s passionate argument in this speech before the 1896 Democratic National Convention won him the party’s nomination as their presidential candidate. It repudiated the policy of backing American currency by gold alone, demanding return to the policy of “bimetallism” that had operated until the Coinage Act of 1873. Backing the currency with silver as well as gold, and allowing unlimited coinage of silver, would spur inflation, allowing farmers to pay off mortgages on their land with cheaper dollars (to the disadvantage of their creditors). Bryan presented bimetallism as a relief measure for western farmers buckling under the unreasonable demands of an eastern financial elite.

150 Years Ago… in 1871

Testimony to Sub-Committee on Reconstruction in Spartanburg, South Carolina

By mid-1869, a few months into Ulysees S. Grant’s first term as president, all the state governments of the former Confederacy had been restored to the Union. But Southern whites had by no means abandoned their intention to reimpose political and economic control over the freedmen. To this end, private organizations throughout the South, led by the Ku Klux Klan, were depriving freed slaves, blacks, and loyal union men of their lives and property. Southern governments allowed these private organizations to operate with impunity. 

To counter the threat to the freedmen, the Republican Congress passed the Enforcement Acts in 1871, These laws provided for a twenty-one member committee, appointed by the House and Senate, to investigate the Ku Klux Klan and other kindred organizations. The committee tried to discover how big a problem the Klan presented in the South, so that legislation and funding could match the nature of the threat. A subcommittee of eight members received testimony in Washington D.C. and traveled through several of the former slaveholding states to receive more. It produced over 8,000 pages of testimony and reports.

This excerpt offers just one harrowing story from one witness delivered to the subcommittee during July 1871 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Taken as a whole, the 35-volume report tells a story of unpunished violence against both freedmen and loyal union men. According to political scientist Forrest Nabors, who ran analytics on the entire text of the committee’s work, the word “shot” appears over 4,000 times and the word “kill” and its variants appears almost 9,500 times. It is an incredible documentary history of what happened under the redeemed Southern governments that no longer had a union military presence.

175 Years Ago… in 1846

James K. Polk, Special Message to Congress on Mexican Relations

When the United States agreed to the annexation of Texas in 1845, it also adopted the Rio Grande as the border, leading to a break in diplomatic relations with Mexico and, eventually, to Democratic President James K. Polk’s request for a war declaration in 1846. Polk asserted that the Mexican army had attacked on American soil; skeptical Whigs, including the freshman congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, questioned the veracity of Polk’s claim. Lincoln and his political compatriots accused Polk of illegitimately escalating a conflict over disputed territory for the sole purpose of extending slave territory.

200 Years Ago… in 1821

John Quincy Adams, Address Celebrating the Declaration of Independence

In 1821, while serving as Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams  was invited to give a speech marking the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The speech is most famous for the words, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Yet these words were preceded by a less famous but more important exposition of the causes and meaning of the Declaration of Independence. In this excerpt, Adams argues that the United States was the first legitimate government in the history of mankind, an achievement, as he says, that “must forever stand alone.” Expressing what is now called American exceptionalism, Adams’ speech epitomizes the moral and political view of the Protestant establishment that dominated the United States until late into the nineteenth century. This view credits the Reformation with preparing the groundwork for the Declaration. Adams argues that the Reformation restored reason to its rightful place in religion, making its restoration in politics only a matter of time. That time came with the Declaration. This understanding of the connection between the Reformation and the Declaration helps explain the longstanding animus of the Protestant establishment toward Catholics. Not accepting the work of the Reformation, how could Catholics be citizens of a country essentially shaped by its spirit?

225 Years Ago… in 1796

Washington’s Farewell Address

This lengthy address published near the end of George Washington’s second and final term as President includes his often quoted warnings against entangling alliances with foreign powers and against political parties. Yet Washington also commented on the role of religion and morality as “indispensable supports” of republican government, as well as on the role of education in preparing young citizens for self-government. 

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