Chairman’s Award Honors Capstone Tracing Debate Over Slavery
Julia Rae Fuette has taught social studies in a variety of settings. She began in a private religious school, Cornerstone Christian School in Wildomar, California, then moved to a large public school, Vista Murrieta High, where she developed an American history survey course that gave students dual credits through Mt. San Jacinto College. Since moving with her family to Missoula, Montana, she’s continued to teach the survey course for Mt. San Jacinto, preparing filmed lectures and conducting online interactive discussions. Fuette’s work in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program inspired the approach she’s used in each teaching assignment.
It also inspired her “to create a U.S. history curriculum that focuses on liberty as the philosophical cause of America’s great prosperity and therefore the nation’s most foundational principle,” she says.
To complete the degree she was awarded in 2012, Fuette decided to write a capstone project encompassing one of the most important themes she’d studied in her MAHG coursework. She wrote seven lesson plans that explored Americans’ contested understanding of liberty from the Founding to the Civil War.
She wrote an engaging narrative of moments in American history when the Constitution’s tacit allowance of slavery in the American republic threatened the continuity of American political life. This gave students historical context for the central work of the lessons: analyzing primary documents showing the Founders and their successors struggling to reconcile their quest for liberty with the compromises they’d made over slavery.
An Inexcusable Contradiction
The title Fuette chose for her capstone, “Slavery and the Constitution: ‘An Inconsistency Not to Be Excused’ – Analyzing a Series of Significant Moments from 1776 to 1865,” quotes a letter John Jay wrote in 1786, commenting on a report of a free black man being captured in New York and sold in South Carolina as a slave. Writing a year before the Constitutional Convention, Jay anticipated the debate that would divide northern and southern delegates. “To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others,” Jay wrote, “involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”
Two lessons in Fuette’s capstone dealt with the drafting of the Declaration and the Constitution. Both documents were dedicated to liberty. Yet in their final forms, both carefully avoided mention of the slavery introduced during the colonial period, which neither document would abolish.
The central principle of the Declaration remained clear to all. Yet because the Constitution did not reveal its principles in this transparent way, euphemistically referring to the slave inhabitants of the South as “three-fifths of all other persons” (a number to be counted in apportioning representatives), some abolitionists would later fault the Constitution, calling it a pro-slavery document. At the same time, some slaveholders would disavow the principles of the Declaration.
Fuette’s lessons covered the sectional crisis that arose as the republic expanded westward, repeatedly testing the agreement for balanced representation between slave and free states. “Compromise has to be based upon a common sense of justice, and the sectional crisis beginning in 1819 proved that the North and the South had diametrically opposed views of how to justly deal with slavery,” Fuette writes in her introduction. Only civil war would resolve the question.
Using Primary Sources to Follow a Theme
This ambitious capstone was honored with the MAHG chairman’s award. Professor Pete Myers of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Fuette’s thesis advisor, called her project “a remarkably well conceived, well researched, and well-executed work. Its narrative component tells the complicated, vitally important story of slavery and the Constitution briskly, clearly, and fairly, and her series of accompanying lesson plans should serve her for years to come as a small treasure of pedagogical resources.”
Fuette would not have been allowed to tackle a project of such broad scope in the standard graduate school department. There, students’ theses must show mastery of minute historical research on some detail of the past historians have not yet examined. By contrast, the MAHG program allowed Fuette to paint the broad context of a major part of American story, while inviting students into the work of examining historical evidence—key primary documents.
“The TeachingAmericanHistory.org website opened my eyes to the wealth of primary sources I could share with my students,” Fuette said. “This helped me to pull away from the textbook, which simply bombards students with names, dates and facts.” Instead of memorizing facts, Fuette’s students would now work out their own understanding of a perplexing contradiction in the American pursuit of liberty.
The Debates Among Statesmen, Not Historians
Fuette had already earned 30 credits toward a Masters in history at California State University at Long Beach when she found Ashbrook’s program. After her advisors at Cal State rejected her proposals for a thesis, Fuette began again, spending three summers in Ashland immersing herself in primary sources. Whereas her Cal State professors focused on historiography—the arguments among contemporary historians—the MAHG program focused on the debates among those who lived in America’s past. “Today, the Constitution and the Declaration provide the themes I use to teach American history.” Fuette said.
Developing the Theme of Liberty in a College Course
The yearlong, college-level survey of U.S. history Fuette teaches covers two themes. The first semester explores the theme of her capstone work, “Liberty vs. Slavery from 1492 to 1877.” The second explores a new tension that arose as America became a world power: “Liberty vs. Security from 1865 to 2013.” As texts for the course, Fuette has compiled two course readers with over thirty primary sources in each book, writing introductions and study questions for each document, to help students “analyze each theme with precision and depth.”
Primary documents, Fuette said, “allow history to come alive, as students participate in a conversation across time” with the voices of the past Interested in sharing this approach to history with adult learners, she is also writing a proposal to teach a course on “Slavery and the Constitution” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Montana.
You can watch Julia Rae Fuette teaching and talking about her teaching approach at the beginning of this film, produced by PBS station KVIE for “Inside California Education.”