History is more complicated than simply a list of achievements or failures. Even the meaning of the word “triumph” is subjective, as one person’s achievement may be another person or group’s loss or failure. Traditionally, however, history has largely been written by the victors, giving them the greatest influence on the interpretation of events. For this reason, I think it is necessary that professors uncover narratives that are often untold in order to present a more holistic view. Presenting both failures and successes help to illuminate history and develop the critical thinking that students need to ultimately form their own judgments.
I believe the three most important topics to study in US history up to Reconstruction are: an examination of American political ideals as exemplified in the documents written by the founding fathers; contact with Native people; and the institution of slavery.
Together the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence provide the blueprint of the United States. They define the country’s political structure, form the foundation of laws and guarantee the rights of individual citizens. Therefore, an understanding of these charters is essential to the study of our country’s history. Though the United States has not always adhered to the ideals stated in these documents, citizens who understand these documents can both protect their rights and become active participants in refining these documents where they find contradiction.
The most quoted part of the Declaration of Independence is the statement on human rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Although Thomas Jefferson, a slave holder himself, did not fully understand the meaning of the words he penned, his decree is nevertheless of great consequence. These words have been used by marginalized groups, such as African-Americans and women, to gain rights. Only when people are familiar with professed ideals can they work to oppose laws and make amendments such as the 13th and 19th, which enfranchise voters, to best reflect these values.
The Bill of Rights, introduced by James Madison, was added to the Constitution to limit government abuses of citizen rights. The understanding of such a document is critical to protecting an individual from the excesses of government. By simply being aware of one’s rights, one can then identify violations and protect themselves. Included in the first amendment is freedom of press and speech. This has enabled journalists and citizens to express a variety of opinions including views that may be critical of government. These freedoms contribute to an environment in which people are not under constant censorship and allows for diversity of thought. At its best, this creates checks and balances for the government. The...