Presidential Academy for American History and Civics led secondary school teachers in a careful study of the pivotal turning points in American history memorialized by the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the “I Have a Dream” speech. Participating teachers spent five days in Philadelphia, six days in Gettysburg, and six days in Washington, DC, studying the American Revolution and Founding, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement, respectively. The Academy thereby exposed participants to the ideas and arguments that shaped these three great American epochs, the documents that make up our history, and the places where the history was made. During their stay in each of these cities, participants were surrounded by the streets and halls, the battlefields, public places, and private lodgings where the history they were studying took place.
Our study was based on the rich heritage of primary documents from each of these great epochs in American history. The famous words in the three core documents raise, with a distinctively American poetry, the most significant issues of self-government in our constitutional democracy. Many of the texts the teachers read and discuss are speeches and debates from American history that are thought-provoking and inspiring examples of civic participation. By entering into these great debates, participating teachers became better equipped to invite their students to enter the great debates of their time.
The story that links these three pivotal turning points together is the American story. In 1776, proclaiming that all men everywhere possess by nature equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American founders undertook the historic effort to secure these rights, so far as they thought they could then be secured, to a small group of people at a particular place and time. They were acutely aware of the limits of their ability to secure these rights and of the significance of their effort. When they were able to establish a Constitution, a “more perfect union,” they understood full well how far from perfection they remained. It was all the new republic could do in the first century of its existence to keep their experiment in freedom from collapsing in abject failure. Having survived the great crisis of the Civil War, it would take the American people another century to begin to secure the fruits of victory.
Proclaiming at the beginning of their history what Lincoln later called “a standard maxim for free society”—the principle of “liberty to all”—the American people struggled to live up to what Booker T. Washington called the “American standard.” Many times they fell beneath it, strayed from it, forgot it, became confused about it, even repudiated it. The civics dimension of our study of these three great epochs of American history will aim to accomplish what Jefferson, Lincoln, and King sought to accomplish in these three famous documents: to re-establish in the “American mind” what Jefferson called “the common sense of the subject,” what Lincoln called the American “proposition,” and what King called the American “creed.” So that, as Lincoln said, it “should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Beginning with three documents, studying in three cities, this Presidential Academy aimed to understand three great turning points in American history. We saw how these key events, infused with fundamental ideas, shaped and continue to shape our national identity, our public institutions, and our public discourse. Participants in this Academy joined in a conversation across time about the most important issues facing America in 1776, 1863, 1963, and today—a conversation participating teachers will be better equipped to continue with their own students.