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We the Teachers

What We’re Talking About: A MAHG Reading Roundup 2

July 2, 2019

by Sarah Morgan Smith

Every summer, TeachingAmericanHistory brings together scholars and teachers from around the nation to our campus in Ashland to enjoy week-long seminars on focused topics in American history and government. These courses can be taken for graduate credit, or simply for your personal enrichment — some participants describe the experience as an “intellectual retreat” where they can enjoy both conversation and collegiality.

If you aren’t able to join us in person this summer, we hope you’ll consider joining us in spirit by checking out some of the myriad texts we’ll be discussing. If you’re reading along, we invite you to join the conversation using #TAHreading to share your thoughts!


James Stoner, THE AMERICAN FOUNDING (online)

The title I recommend won’t cost you anything but the time and effort to read it and understand it—and then relate it to its better-known friends. It is the “Declaration and Resolves of the [First] Continental Congress,” promulgated on October 14, 1774. To see its importance, go to the middle of the more-familiar Declaration of Independence and read this charge against the king:

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation….

Whatever in 1776 did Congress mean by “our Constitution”? What we call the Constitution was drafted eleven years later, and even the Articles of Confederation, sometimes called the United States’ first constitution, was not drafted for another couple years.

But you won’t be perplexed if you’ve read the Declaration and Resolves, which make clear Americans’ claim to the unwritten English constitution as their own, including their entitlement to the common law and its privileges, especially the right to trial by jury, and their right to pass their own legislation on matters of taxation and “internal polity.” Compared to the Declaration of Independence it is a moderate document, calling on the king and parliament to respect constitutional rights. Only when that call is repudiated do the colonists resolve on Independence, and even then, they prove their case not only by appeal to abstract principle, but by reference to the inherited rights of which they were dispossessed. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


David F. Krugler, GREAT AMERICAN TEXTS: JOSEPH HELLER & KURT VONNEGUT

The MAHG class Great Texts: The Novels of World War II has, in the interests of full disclosure, a deceptive title: thousands upon thousands of World War II novels have been published in English, but we only read two of them! Granted, they are probably the two best-known American novels about the war, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, but there are others to recommend. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, inspired by his combat experience in the Pacific Theater, provides gripping, sometimes harrowing descriptions of one platoon’s fight to oust Japanese forces from an island. Mailer also uses so-called Time Machine flashbacks to tell readers about the prewar lives of his characters. Another classic: From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which is notable for depicting an infantry unit stationed in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Eric Pullin, AMERICA DURING THE COLD WAR

Carole Fink, Cold War: An International History, Second Edition (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 2017).

If there is one book to read as an introduction to the entire global history of the Cold War, then it is Fink’s broad and succinct work. Although neither a collection nor an analysis of primary source material, the book blends the most recently declassified documents from around the world with the most significant and recent historical scholarship on the subject. One of the book’s virtues is its readability. Despite covering nearly a century of international history, the book reads like a novel. Fink writes with elegance and fairness from start to finish. One can easily read it cover to cover, beginning with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Alternatively, one can examine in detail specific episodes or topics such as the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb; the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War; the role of third party players (Britain, China, India, France, Vietnam, etc.); the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Sino-Soviet Split; Détente; or the end of the Cold War itself. Perhaps the greatest strength of Fink’s work is that, while it presents arguments and opinions on controversial subjects, it does not force the reader to draw conclusions. Many subjects are intentionally left open-ended, precisely so that readers may feel free to disagree or investigate further. Indeed, Fink provides a valuable service by providing background on history and historiography and by encouraging the reader to read further. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Natalie Taylor, THE ADAMS FAMILY

Democracy: An American Novel by Henry Adams

Henry Adams, the great grandson and grandson of two American presidents, was a historian of the early republic.  His works include the biographies of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph, as well as his nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Through these works, Adams hoped to impress “a moral on the national mind.”  However, it seemed to Adams that the influence of great statesmen was declining as the American regime was transformed from a republic to a large-scale democracy.  And, so, Adams looked to other means by which the national mind could be shaped.  During the years in which Adams was hard at work on his histories, he also wrote Democracy: an American Novel.  It is the story of Madeleine Lightfoot Lee’s political education and courtship by the powerful, but corrupt, Senator Silas Ratcliffe.  If statesmen could no longer impress “a moral on the national mind,” perhaps American women could.  Published anonymously, the identity of the author and the identity of the ostensibly fictional characters became subjects for speculation in post-Civil War Washington.  Teachers of history will recognize some of the era’s leading political figures on Democracy’s pages. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.

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