A Short Break from Grading to Complain

The single most annoying thing about teaching American government is the apparent impossibility of getting some students past those trite unexamined beliefs that we’re taught all good patriotic Americans hold. Some are obstinately resistant to actually re-thinking them–Bartleby students.

So for example, in answer to the short answer question of what the framers of the Constitution were trying to achieve, i get, “They were giving power to the people, not the government.” This, despite repeated explanations that under the Articles of Confederation there was no true central government, that agreeing to the Constitution meant the states had to give up authority to a new government, and that the Bill of Rights was added after the fact because so many people were concerned about just how much power had been given to this new government.

None of it matters. We all know the genius of America is that we gave political power to the citizens instead of to the government. Unless, of course, it’s phrased as “power to the people,” in which case it’s a filthy left-wing lie.

[Side note: Thanks for continuing the discussion on the other threads in my absence. I haven’t read them yet, but after grading, I’ll try to get caught up on the discussions.]

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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5 Responses to A Short Break from Grading to Complain

  1. Dr X says:

    We all know the genius of America is that we gave political power to the citizens instead of to the government. Unless, of course, it’s phrased as “power to the people,” in which case it’s a filthy left-wing lie.

    heh…

  2. Matty says:

    Under the Articles was the USA considered a nation or an alliance of 13 separate nations?

  3. James Hanley says:

    Matty,

    Today we tend to teach students that (as the Schoolhouse Rock song has it) “The USA had just started out a whole brand-new country.” And there were some at the time who saw it that way, or at least thought that was the natural course events would take.

    But the structure of the Articles was clearly what we would call a confederal system; a confederation of independent states with no authoritative central government. This explains our unusual use of the word “state” to mean a subnational unit of government, when in normal usage it’s applied to an independent sovereign country. The colonies didn’t really have a lot of collective identity prior to the Revolutionary War, and after the war they each did the things that independent countries normally do, like keeping their own militaries, issuing their own money, imposing tariffs, etc.

    I think it’s important to recognize that they really were an alliance, not a single country, because a) it helps explain why the Constitution has the form it has (each state had a decision on whether or not to join in the reformed union, and 2 of them hesitated until after the first elections and the first session of Congress began), and b) it’s a good case study in the weaknesses of confederal systems.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I watched a Revolutionary War documentary a few days ago, and reached the disconcerting conclusion that had I lived back then — and had basically the same attitudes I have today, or at least the closest thing the 18th century had to those attitudes — I probably would’ve been a Loyalist due solely to the “black issue”: the Colonial Army, led by slavemasters, forbade any black soldiers from joining (Crispus Attucks was with an early Massachusetts militia, NOT the Colonial Army), whereas the British offered freedom to any slave who’d join their side. History is never as neatly black and white as we’d like it to be.

  5. Matty says:

    Jennifer,
    interesting point, on a similar line I have read that the authorities in London were regarded as more likely than the colonial assemblies to keep treaties with Native Americans and for this reason many native nations fought on the British side.

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