What Is Freedom?

This racist cartoon (which you can click on to enlarge) is from the 1866 Pennsylvania governor’s race, in which the position of the Republican candidate, John W. Geary, is being attacked by Hiester Clymer, his Democratic opponent. Clymer was in favor of white supremacist policies and the defunding of the Freedman’s Bureau, which attempted to look after the affairs of newly freed blacks. Geary stood in favor of tax dollars being used to fund the bureau. Geary ultimately won the election.

In your web comment, contrast this depiction of the black dependency on a federal agency to this 1865 letter written by a recently freed slave, Jourdan Anderson, who is replying to his former master who wants Anderson to come back and work for him. Put these two sources in dialogue with each other. What are the different ideas of black freedom that are conveyed by these two sources?

For a sophisticated overview of how historians currently think about what freedom really meant for emancipated slaves, check out this essay on the New York Times excellent DISUNION blog by City College history professor, Greg Downs.

Published in: on December 16, 2011 at 1:51 pm  Comments (12)  

David Walker’s Appeal

David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, published in Boston in 1830, was one of the earliest publications by a black abolitionist, and also one of the most radical and angry. His fiery prose invokes the language of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia to make his case for the immediate abolition of slavery. Walker managed to have many copies of the pamphlet smuggled into the South, where it caused enough anxiety among slave owners to cause them to put a bounty on his head, and prompted Georgians temporarily to suspend the entry of black sailors into their ports.

But who was David Walker? He was a free black man born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to a free mother and enslaved father, in 1795 or 1796. In his early adulthood, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, then made his way northward, first living briefly in Philadelphia, and then settling in Boston in 1825. It was there that he composed his renowned pamphlet. You can read more about Walker here (a pretty decent Wikipedia entry), as well as an interesting entry from an online encyclopedia of North Carolina history, and another good piece from the Virginia State Archives. He died not long after the publication of the pamphlet, in June 1830, the official record stating that he died of tuberculosis, although their have been many claims that he was poisoned.

In this web comment, chose one or two paragraphs from the Appeal from the excerpts here. Read them over carefully, and then in your web comment, note which paragraph you are looking at and then summarize briefly what point Walker is making in that paragraph. In addition, analyze how Walker is making his point: What strategies is he using? Is his argument persuasive? What sort of emotional response does the paragraph elicit in the reader? Your comment should be about two paragraphs in length.

Published in: on November 25, 2011 at 11:00 pm  Comments (19)  

Getting to Know the Constitution

Before we get into this required web assignment, I would strongly recommend that you read this excellent overview of the role that the Constitution has played in our political discourse from the 1790s through the present. It’s by Jill Lepore, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and a professor of history at Harvard, and was published last January, when the Tea Party still seemed to matter. It is a little long, but I actually found it a fun read, and I guarantee that it will change the way that you think about this document that we all take for granted but that very few of us have actually read. In any case, I think it will really help you think about this assignment.


Here are the directions for the assignment. Please read them carefully as they are a bit complicated. What we are going to do is create our own annotated version of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I have posted every article, section, and amendment, and will have each of you pick one. You then each will write a commentary of your chosen piece of about two paragraphs in length. (The longer articles are broken up into sections, but Articles V, VI, and VII are not since they are short, so if you pick one of those, you will write on the whole article). In your commentary, you will tell us what you think that section/article/amendment means, and what issue or problem the founders sought to address by it. The assignment will happen in two stages:

First Stage: Everyone will pick a first choice and a second choice. You can read the whole Constitution here, and the Bill of Rights here. E-mail me at bo’malley@gc.cuny.edu once you have picked your two choices (in your e-mail, make sure to include your name and section number, which is 6752). I will post who got what assignment here. Since there are only thirty-three items, two people will be assigned to a few of the pieces. The assignments are first-come, first-serve, so don’t wait too long to make a choice.

Second Stage: Once you see that your assigned section/article/amendment has been confirmed, you can post your commentary by clicking on the link to it on the assignment page. Since this is a history class, the emphasis of our commentary should be on the Constitution and Bill of Rights as they were initially ratified (parts that were later amended or deleted appear as a hypertext link, which will direct you to the text of the relevant changes). You can see an example comment that I wrote by clicking on Article I, Section 1.

Published in: on October 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Oct. 12th Question: A Loyalist Satire

Just a reminder: We do not have class on Monday, October 10, because of Columbus Day. We will have our quiz on Chapter 5 on Wednesday as usual, and you can download the review sheet here.

Keep in mind that the midterm will be held on Monday, Oct. 24, as scheduled on the syllabus, and it will cover everything up through Chapter 6 (the syllabus says up through Chapter 7, but we are a week behind due to the semester’s late start because of the hurricane). It would be a good idea to start organizing and reviewing your notes–we’ll talk some more about some study strategies in class on Wednesday.

Lastly, I would recommend that you begin reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, particularly if you are a slow reader. You can buy the recommended version here, or simply read it online here. We will begin our discussion of the first few chapters of this book on the class session after the midterm (Wednesday, Oct. 26).

Now let’s move on to this week’s web comment. The syllabus says that the Oct. 5 comment was required, but since we’re a week behind, we will not yet do the required one yet–we’ll save it for the following week when we actually read about the Constitution. So instead, I have an optional question that deals with the last phase of the Revolutionary War. If you have not yet commented, please think about doing so as you need to do at least six over the semester to receive a decent grade for this component of the course.

# # #

For almost the entire Revolutionary War, New York City was occupied by British forces, serving as the headquarters for the British war effort. A great many patriots fled the city, making it a redoubt of loyalist sentiment. One influential loyalist was the printer James Rivington, who published a newspaper called the Royal Gazette (the masthead is at the top of this post). On January 31, 1781, Rivington published a satirical “last will and testament” of the Continental Congress. You can read his satire here.

Before answering the questions below, make sure you understand what was going on at that particularly point in time. The war was still going on, with most of the fighting now happening in the South. Patriot General Nathanael Greene had just defeated Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, but the war still was far from over. Cornwallis wouldn’t surrender at Yorktown until later that year, in October. Review the events of this period on pages 123 – 125 of your textbook. when you have done that, reread Rivington’s satire and answer the following questions: What tactics is Rivington using to make fun of Congress? Why might his audience find his depiction of the independence movement as pact with the devil amusing? What do Rivington’s attacks tell you about his own position? (He was obviously against independence, but what might be some specific reasons)? Please answer these questions in one-to-two paragraphs, citing evidence from Rivington’s text.

Published in: on October 8, 2011 at 12:42 pm  Comments (12)  

Sept. 26th Question: Benjamin Franklin Testifies before Parliament

Just a reminder: we don’t have class on Wednesday, so we will be having the weekly quiz on Monday (this will be the only Monday quiz of the semester). The quiz is on Chapter 4, and you can find the review sheet for it here.

Now for the web comment: Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) had many dramatic moments in his lengthy and esteemed career, but one that must have been particularly memorable was when he gave testimony to Parliament against the Stamp Act in 1766.

Franklin traveled back and forth to London several times throughout his life: as a young man in 1725-1726, as an as an agent representing the political interests of the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1757-1762, and returning again in the same position from 1764-1775. During his 1757-1762 trip, Franklin was awarded honorary doctorates for his scientific work from the University of St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford University (1762), and thereafter referred to himself as “Doctor Franklin” (there were no doctoral-granting institutions in the colonies).

During his second stint as a Pennsylvania agent, he argued against Pennsylvania continuing to be a proprietary colony owned by the Penn family, demanding that it come under direct royal control. Despite William Penn granting significant freedoms under the Charter of Liberties in 1701, many Pennsylvanians resented the Penn family’s control, especially under the rule of William’s son, Thomas, who some viewed as arbitrary and corrupt. Franklin made a persuasive case, but his petition was rejected by King George III in 1765. In 1766, Franklin was called before Parliament to testify about the crisis triggered by the Stamp Act. You can access the text of Franklin’s testimony before Parliament here.

In your comment, describe the kinds of arguments that Franklin is making against the Stamp Act. Do you think Franklin may have contributed to Parliament’s decision to repeal the Stamp Act? What does Franklin say about the possibility of military force being used to enforce the Stamp Act? What possible strategies of resistance does he mention?

If you’d like, you might also want to say something about the above portrait of Franklin painted in London in 1767 by the British painter David Martin. How does this portrait differ from the traditional way we see Franklin depicted?

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 1:58 pm  Comments (19)  

Sept. 19th Question: The Salem Witch Trials

A woodcut from Cotton Mather's 1692 account of witchcraft

Here is the review sheet for Wednesday’s quiz.

For this week’s web question, we’re going to jump forward on the calendar and pretend it’s closer to Halloween (we are starting to feel the fall chill in the air) and address a favorite topic of historians : witchcraft.

Since the events transpired in the 1600s, scholars have puzzled over the causes of the witchcraft mania not only in Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but also across the Atlantic back in Europe. To get an idea of what some of the debates are about its causes in New England, make sure to read the “Debating the Past: The Witchcraft Trials” in the textbook on pp. 80-81.

Now you have your chance to make a contribution to the debate. The complete transcripts of the 1692 Salem trials are available at this link here. Click on and read through a few of the “examinations” and “indictments” and try to get a sense of what people were being accused of and what counted as evidence against them.  I don’t expect you to understand fully what is going on, but try to struggle with these short texts and glean whatever meaning you can out of them. Make sure to use one or two quotes from the sources to support your idea. Maybe you can come up with a new angle on an old debate!

Published in: on September 16, 2011 at 2:54 pm  Comments (17)  

Sept. 12th Question: Bacon’s Rebellion

After you have read the first half of Chapter Two in the textbook–and particularly the section on early Virginia (pp. 28-35)–please go ahead and read this primary source, a list of grievances put together by the leaders of Bacon’s Rebellion.

What made Bacon and his followers so angry at Sir William Berkeley (pictured here in red velvet)? In a comment of a paragraph or two, describe in your own words what this document tells us about the motivations for the rebellion, and why Bacon viewed Berkeley and his confederates as “traitors to the People.” If possible, say who you think Bacon means by “the People” here. (You should also know that by “Mates,” this document means “countrymen.”)

By the way, if you are still have trouble getting a copy of the textbook, you can rent an electronic version for $39.50 here.

You can also download the review sheet for next Wednesday’s quiz here.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 11:14 pm  Comments (13)  

Sept. 7th Question: First Contact

It was great to meet you all yesterday! I’m excited to work with you this semester.

As a reminder, please note that we will be having a brief reading quiz on Chapter One at our next class meeting, on Wednesday, Sept. 9. You can download the review sheet here.

Below please find the website question for this upcoming week. This comment is not required, but make sure to start to plan how you will schedule out the minimum six comments (keeping in mind that there are three required ones: Aug. 29, Oct. 5, and Oct. 31). If you have not done so already, please comment on the previous question as it is one of the required ones. (Please note that if you choose to write on a question, you typically would have to do it by Monday morning, but since we aren’t meeting this Monday, you have until early Wednesday morning for this one):

What do you think the moment of contact between Native Americans and Europeans was like? Try to imagine what was going on inside the heads of people on both sides, and write a few sentences from each perspective.

To help you think about this, you can take a look at the opening scene from Terrence Malick’s film, The New World (2005), which imagines what the American Indians and English might have been experiencing at this moment in Virginia in 1607 (as you will learn from the reading, this was not the first time that the English tried to set up a colony in this area). Your comment doesn’t have to be about the clip (for example, you might want to think about Columbus and the Taino–the latter are pictured above–or the Mexica and Spanish conquistadores instead), but if you do write about the clip, make sure to relate it to the textbook reading.

Published in: on September 1, 2011 at 5:09 pm  Comments (19)  

Aug. 29: What Do You Want to Learn from this Course?

Welcome! I hope you all had enjoyable summers and made it through the hurricane without any trouble. I wanted to let you know about a few items before we meet on Wednesday at 4:00 pm in Namm 1022.

1) Please download a PDF of the course syllabus here and review it before class on Wednesday. We will go over it together, but it would be good to look it over beforehand in case you have any questions.

2) There are two books required for this class, and they should be available now at the NYCCT bookstore:

  • Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, Volume I: To 1877, Sixth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
  • Frederick Douglass and David W. Blight, ed. Narrative of the Life Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, with Related Documents, Second Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

3) Lastly, you also have a very brief assignment for class on Wednesday. (No worries–it doesn’t require any reading!) Using the “Leave a Comment” function below, name one issue, theme, or event in American history (up through the Civil War) that you hope to learn more about in this course. Explain why you find this issue/theme/event important, troublesome, or hard to understand. Everyone in the course is required to provide an answer of at least three sentences. Ideally, you should follow the guidelines for posting on the course website on pages 3 and 4 of the syllabus.

Published in: on August 19, 2011 at 1:28 am  Comments (38)