Our book club will be reading The Federalist Papers this winter, and I thought it would be a good idea to prep for that by reviewing the problems that developed between the end of the Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution in 1789. I dug a couple of books out of our library, and got especially involved with Samuel Eliot Morison's History of the American People.
I wasn't aware how desperate the situation became during that period, when we were not really a single nation, but a group of states pulling in different directions. The philosophy behind the Articles of Confederation, which had been adopted shortly after the shooting stopped, was that things would be run exclusively by the legislature. That would keep tyrants at bay. No Caesars here. The idea was to keep the government weak. Anyone who thinks that would be a good idea might want to take a look at how it worked out in post-Revolutionary America. The only power the federal government had was to make war. They couldn't make laws about commercial operations, couldn't establish federal parks, couldn't even impose taxes. If that sounds like a good idea, ask who you're going to call when the bad guys come? Or who will build highways and maintain bridges?
If you're wondering how people at the time responded, it's probably sufficient to point out that the Congress got kicked out of Philadelphia by a group of Pennsylvania soldiers, led apparently by a couple of sergeants. They were tired of not being paid. That happens, of course, when the government can't raise money.
I'm from Philly, and I can't imagine anything like that happening. In the Philadelphia I remember a crowd would have gathered outside the State House, where Congress was gathered, and booed them.
One of the lighter moments described by Morison comes during the Constitutional Convention, also held in Philadelphia, in 1789. Gouverneur Morris had a reputation for being outspoken and for, in modern terms, getting in people's faces. Alexander Hamilton bet him a dinner that he would not slap Washington on the back and say "How are you today, my dear General?"
Morris took the bet. Afterward, he reported that, after the look Washington had given him, he wouldn't do it again "for a thousand dinners."
I was an English teacher more years ago now than I care to think about. One year I was asked to fill in and do an American history class. I said sure and reviewed every book I had available. (There was no internet then.) We talked about battles and political fights and set dates for everything. And I was probably near the end of the school year when I realized there was a better way to teach history. Rather than concentrate on the facts (which tend to bore students) I should have done the same thing I tried to do with literature studies. That is, concentrate on getting my students interested in the topic. Create an approach that would send them out talking about the events, and hopefully raiding the library to find out more.
How do you do this? I can't really speak as a history teacher, so I might be dead wrong. But if I had it to do again, I'd be inclined to ask questions like where would we be today if George III had been smart, and tried to run a cooperative operation with the colonies? George Washington tried early in his career to join the British army. But the Brits didn't think colonials were good enough, so they turned him away. How would things have gone in 1776 had Washington been on the other side?
Robert E. Lee was reportedly torn by which side to support in the Civil War. What happens if he goes with the Union? (Hint: Much shorter war, far fewer casualties, and possibly Davis elected to the White House in 1868?)
If the assassination of Ferdinand never happens?
If Adolf Hitler succeeds in his ambition to become an artist?
If the Democratic leaders do not torpedo Henry Wallace as the VP nominee in 1944, and he succeeds to the presidency with FDR's death, might the Cold War have been avoided?
Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, suggests that history is like a very strong ocean current, that individual humans have no real effect on the direction the tide takes. To illustrate this, he uses the image of Napoleon sitting in a rowboat with a line connected to the bow of a large warship. Both are being pushed in the same direction by the tides. From the vantage point of the boat, Napoleon gets the sense he's pulling the ship behind him. But it is, of course, an illusion.
I'm sorry I never got to try it.