Next school year, 2014-15, I will be teaching history at Chapman University in Orange County, California. I hasten to add, for those eager for the Edwin Stanton book, that I will only be teaching one class each term, that I should have time for my research and writing. In the fall I will be teaching a course on America from 1760 through 1815; in the spring I will be teaching the period from 1850 through 1876.
Yesterday I had the honor and pleasure of addressing the trustees of Chapman University. It was a very short talk, just after lunch, just before their afternoon board meeting, so I thought it would be fun to “put them in the classroom.” I asked them to imagine that they were students, in September, attending the first day of Mr. Stahr’s American history class. This is roughly what I said:
What are my goals for this course for this term? Four words: passion, people, stories, research.
First of all, I want to make you more passionate about history. I know that some of you already ARE history people, the sort who stop at historical markers and read them through. But I know that most of you do not care much about history. So a word of warning: I intend to INFECT you. I intend to infect you with the history virus, so that you start to look at the world in historical terms, raise historical questions with your roommates, spend your spare time in the history section of the library. I intend to make you, if not full-fledged history fanatics, MORE historical in the way you see and think.
This course will cover a particular period, 1760 to 1815, in a particular place, the American colonies and states. But a better way to think about this course is as a list of questions, including:
Why do we live in an independent nation rather than in a colony of Great Britain?
How did the tiny American colonies, with no military, no government, manage to beat the most powerful military nation in the world?
Why do we live in ONE nation, rather than a set of loosely affiliated states?
Why do we here in southern California live in the United States, speaking English, rather than in Mexico, speaking Spanish?
Why are there women in this school? What changes started, between 1760 and 1815, in the education of women, in the way in which women thought of themselves?
Why are there no slaves in the United States? How did views of blacks and slavery start to change in the period that we are studying?
Second, people. I want you to get to know, to REALLY know, some historical people. I have assigned my book on John Jay because he is the man I know best in this time period, and I want you to meet him, and his lovely wife Sarah Livingston Jay. And others: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson: I will be giving a lecture this term on each of their lives. And yes, when we get to Thomas Jefferson, we are going to meet and talk about his slave and lover, Sally Hemings.
Third, stories. What we remember about history are the stories. The story of how Paul Revere rode to warn the men of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming to seize their arms. The story of how a shot rang out, early the next morning, “by the rude bridge that arched the flood.” The story of how the penniless immigrant, Thomas Paine, wrote a pamphlet, Common Sense, that changed how Americans thought of themselves and their relations with Great Britain. The story of how Thomas Jefferson fumed and fretted as the Continental Congress edited his elegant draft declaration of independence. The story of how Franklin consoled Jefferson with a joke, about how a hatter’s sign was edited down from “John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money” to just the two words, “John Thompson” with the figure of a hat attached. The story of how, during the War of 1812, as the British approached Washington, Dolley Madison ripped the portraits from the walls of the White House, to save them from destruction.
Read properly, the books we read are filled with stories, both small stories like these, and larger narratives that answer large questions. “Leap in the Dark” refers to the leap in the dark taken by the American colonists declared war against their rightful British King. Why did they take that leap in the dark rather than remain comfortably part of the British family? “Empire of Liberty” refers to the expanding American empire, moving west across the country. It also refers to the expansion of the very IDEA of liberty, as people start to question why “all men are created equal” does not include women and blacks.
We read and remember stories, but as historians we also QUESTION the stories. We want to know: what is the source of that story? Is it a primary source or secondary? Is it a letter written on the day of the event or a memoir written down years later? Is it consistent with other sources or in conflict? How does it fit, or not, into a larger framework?
Fourth, research. Again, a word of warning: we are going to the library. We are going to look critically at some paragraph or two of some prior book, see if it “proves out” in the library. And each of you is going to research and write a serious paper, as a way of getting deeply into some particular event.
I want you to face the questions a historian faces: what do we do when two documents tell two different stories about some particular event? What do we do when we cannot find ANY document to tell us about some particular question? How do we turn our mass of notes into a story, a narrative, that brings the reader along without overwhelming her with details? What is a thesis, how do we develop a strong thesis, ground it in facts, through footnotes, so that readers know that they are reading history, not just a historical novel?