Monday, September 24, 2018

Founding Father vs. Founding Father

Reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, I was struck again by how little has changed in the last two hundred years—a point I always tried to hammer home with students. (I’m retired now.)

Much as I admire the handiwork of the Founding Fathers, I have always believed we should take them off their pedestal.

I think, for example, that it would be easy for teachers to draw interesting parallels between the political battles of their era and the battles of our own. The Founding Fathers had their own “Fake News” issues, Pizzagate rumors, financial corruptions, and fears of foreign meddling in elections.


Looking back on that era, most Americans imagine our young nation was led by giants. (That assumes they give the matter any thought at all.) George Washington, James Madison, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton all played roles in creating a system of government we cherish.

(Don’t forget James Wilson. He was one of the most influential thinkers of all during the Constitutional Convention.)
Yeah, nobody remembers him.

It is my theory, that when it comes to political division, history proves we’re all extras in a Hollywood remake. The title and plot of the movie are the same. Only the actors and director have changed.

Whenever I hear some expert talking about what the Founding Fathers believed—and how we can’t do anything they wouldn’t have done—and, just by chance, how what the Founding Fathers believed is exactly what the modern speaker believes now—I have to wonder. Shouldn’t we remember that the Founding Fathers often disagreed vehemently with other Founding Fathers?

Certainly, Hamilton understood that he lived in no golden era. As an army officer he was horrified to find that contractors were cheating the Continental Army when it came to delivering supplies. “When avarice takes the lead in a state,” he grumbled in 1778, “it is commonly the forerunner of its fall. How shocking it is to discover among ourselves, even at this early period, the strongest symptoms of this fatal disease?”

(Drain the swamp!)

In 1780, he questioned whether Americans were even ready to govern themselves. Our “countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the passiveness of the sheep in their composition,” he grumbled.

It seems to me, we should make clear to students that the Founding Fathers had their own fiery fights over policy, their ridiculous conspiracy theories and sordid sexual escapades. Hamilton, of course, carried on a lengthy extramarital affair with a young woman named Maria Reynolds. Mrs. Reynolds and her husband—who connived at the affair—used Hamilton’s failings to blackmail the lascivious Founding Father. At the same time Hamilton’s peccadillos were being revealed, like a semen-stained blue dress or an Access Hollywood tape, Jefferson was scuffling to cover up his own lustful sinning. He was deep into a long-term sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave woman, which began when his chattel was fifteen.


(Think Anthony Weiner sending “dick pictures” to teenage girls. Wait. Blot that out of your memory.)

The Founding Fathers really had no idea what to do about slavery.
So they punted.

Plus, there was dueling! And not just the famous duel that led to Alexander Hamilton’s demise. Hamilton once challenged James Monroe, the future president, to a duel. A witness to their heated exchange reported that Monroe shouted angrily, “I am ready, get your pistols.”

The man who cooled the potential duelists down?

Aaron Burr.

(Think how much more interesting current political debates might be if Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer were prone to reach for their pistols. I might even start watching C-SPAN.)

The Founding Fathers were as bitterly divided among themselves as our political classes are today. Robert Yates, and John Lansing Jr., two of three New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention (Hamilton being the third), opposed almost every change suggested in the Articles of Confederation. Both left Philadelphia in a huff. Fifty-five men convened that summer. Only 39 agreed to support the final blueprint that became our Constitution.

Reacting to the departure of Yates and Lansing, Washington wrote Hamilton to complain about “narrow-minded politicians…under the influence of local views.” Such men would block “a strong and energetic government” out of naked self-interest. Then they’d claim to have done so in the name of liberty.

Fundamental disagreements divided delegates at the Convention. Franklin argued that members of the executive branch in the new government should serve without pay. Then only “civic-minded” individuals would run for office. Early on, a proposal was put forward to limit the president to a single seven-year term in office—meaning Donald J. Trump would be serving till 2024. This proposal was voted on and adopted. It was not until much later that delegates reconsidered and opted for four-year terms. And we know they failed to set a limit to how many terms a president could serve. They weren’t prescient, any more than George W. Bush or Barrack Obama in our time.

If anything, politically-charged violence was more common in their era. A July 4, 1788 clash between supporters and opponents of ratification of the Constitution left one dead and eighteen injured. An opponent of the new government and a foe of an overly-powerful government it created (in his opinion), called it “a monster with open mouth and monstrous teeth ready to devour all before it.”

Supporters of the new Constitution honor Hamilton's efforts in winning ratification.

Following ratification, as all history teachers know, the new government struggled with debt left from the Revolutionary War. The Founding Fathers might have feared “factions” in politics but factions quickly coalesced into parties, whether they liked it or not. A sharp divide developed during debate about how to handle the debt. Politicians on both sides accused rivals of nefarious motives. Jefferson believed Hamilton and his minions wished to create a perpetual national debt, “because they find it an engine for the corrupting the legislature.”

If there was debt, taxes would need to be levied to pay for it. Newspapers for Jefferson’s faction—soon to be known as the Democratic-Republicans—complained loudly about the tax placed on whiskey. “The government of the United States,” said one angry editor, “in all things wishing to imitate the corrupt principles of the court of Great Britain, has commenced the disgraceful career by an excise law.”

Tax agents tasked with collecting the duty ran into serious problems in western Pennsylvania, where farmers turned corn into alcohol to ship east for sale and make a living. “They drew a knife on him,” a reporter said of one unlucky tax collector, “threatened to scalp him, tar and feather him, and finally to reduce his house and property to ashes” if he did not agree to cease enforcing the hated tax.

Bone-deep political distrust was common even then. The Democratic-Republican press warned that Hamilton was plotting to make the Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III, the first king of the United States. Even George Washington sometimes faced blistering criticism. The newspaper editor, Benjamin Franklin Bache, lambasted him for failing to side with France against England. “The world,” said Bache of the president, “will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.” Washington complained in his Farewell Address (but had these lines excised by Hamilton) about newspapers filled “with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent to misrepresent my politics.”

Another critical question facing the Founding Fathers was how to respond in the face of the French Revolution. John Adams, who was not supportive of the revolutionaries, feared pro-French mobs might attack his home, family and friends. To be safe he ordered a cache of arms and ammunition delivered to his house through back lanes. In one unpublished essay, Hamilton wrote of “wily hypocrites,” and “crafty and abandoned imposters” who filled the pro-French camp.

Certainly, the Founding Fathers were not timid about turning to invective. Adams described Hamilton as “the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States.” Hamilton slammed Jefferson. Beware, he told a friend, the machinations of the master of Monticello, “the criminal, the ignoble aim of so seditious, so prostitute a character.” Burr described Monroe as, “Naturally dull and stupid, extremely illiterate; indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him.” Abigail Adams (Founding Mother!) chimed in, offering this assessment of Hamilton for her husband’s pleasure. “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes. The very devil is in them.” At news of a possible duel involving his father—one not fought—Hamilton’s son later wrote that opposition politicians having wine at dinner, toasted, “A speedy immortality to Hamilton.”

As always, greed was a problem. “My soul arises indignant at the avaricious and immoral turpitude which so vile a conduct displays,” James Madison wrote, describing speculators in government bonds. Jefferson warned against crooks in Congress. Even “in this, the birth of our government, some members were found sordid enough to bend their duty to their interests and to look after personal rather than public good.” President John Adams referred to bankers as “swindlers and thieves” and warned that Hamilton had introduced the “gangrene of avarice” into government. Jefferson described the business of high finance in that era as “an infinity of successive felonious larcenies.”

The same kind of personal attacks we see launched today were to be seen in the early days of our Republic. In private, Adams often referred to Hamilton, whose birth was illegitimate, as a “Creole bastard.” He gave credence to a rumor that Hamilton “never wrote or spoke at the bar or elsewhere in public without a bit of opium in his mouth.” Hamilton complained of Adams’s “disgusting egotism” and “distempered jealousy.” Adams labeled Washington “Old Muttonhead,” faulting his intelligence. The poor man “could not write a sentence without misspelling some word,” Adams complained. Washington was “but very superficially read in the history of any age, nation, or country.” As for Franklin, Adams was shocked by his peer’s licentiousness. As for Ben, he had doubts about Adams. “He means well for his country,” Franklin wrote, “is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”


Bitter policy disagreements are nothing new and one Founding Father was often at the throat of another. When Washington threw his support behind the unpopular Jay’s Treaty, the House of Representatives tried to interfere with his ability to conduct foreign policy. First, James Madison, then a member of the House of Representatives, argued that since the treaty touched on commerce between Britain and the United States, the House should vote on ratification. When that plan failed, he suggested the House refuse to appropriate money to implement the agreement. His suggestion—which might have circumscribed the power of not just Washington but all future presidents—was only narrowly defeated by a 51-48 vote.

Feelings were so bitter in regard to Jay’s Treaty that feared opponents might follow the example of the French Revolution, set up guillotines in New York City, and lead supporters of the treaty to their doom. On one occasion, when he attempted to speak to an anti-treaty crowd, Hamilton was greeted by a barrage of stones. After one struck him in the forehead, an ally complained that foes of ratification had endeavored “to knock out Hamilton’s brains to reduce him to an equality with themselves.”

The Founding Fathers were neither sages nor saints. Indeed, they were just as prone to compromise their principles as our leaders today. One particular facet of Jay’s Treaty angered Southern lawmakers. The British were not obligated to pay “damages” for the thousands of slaves they helped escape during the Revolution. Hamilton, who was fiercely opposed to slavery, considered the idea that the U.S. government should consider requiring payment “odious and immoral.”

Nothing ever seems to change. Who among us now will ever forget that moment in debate when Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump took turns accusing each other of being Putin’s puppet?

The Aurora, a newspaper supporting the party of Jefferson, intimated that Washington was a “puppet” controlled by Hamilton. As for Hamilton, the editor of the Aurora claimed the Secretary of the Treasury had lived a life “spent in wickedness and which must terminate in shame and dishonor.”

Noah Webster, of eventual dictionary fame, labeled Hamilton “the evil genius of this country.”


Even worse turmoil followed after Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act was aimed at diluting the impact immigrants had in American politics. Most immigrants supported the Democrat-Republicans. So Federalists set out to limit their numbers coming into the country and extend the period required to become a citizen to fourteen years. America, one Federalist leader insisted, should no longer “wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments.” Hamilton was equally blunt. “My opinion is that the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country.”

Of all the laws ever passed by Congress, the Sedition Act stands as one of the worst. And it was the work of several of the Founding Fathers we are supposed to revere. Once it was made law, it was illegal to speak or publish “any false, scandalous, or malicious” words or articles against the President or members of Congress “with the intent to defame…or to bring them…into contempt or disrepute.” Fines could range as high as $2,000, at that time equal to almost four years of pay for average worker. Conviction could mean two years in jail.

Whatever the flaws of our current leaders, we seem to have moved beyond such crude devices for silencing dissent as the Sedition Act. Ann Greenleaf, who edited her husband’s newspaper after he died, was prosecuted for saying “the federal government was corrupt and inimical to the preservation of liberty.” Greenleaf avoided jail time. Her editor did not. He paid a fine of $100 and spent four months behind bars. A second editor spent eighteen months in prison for suggesting that the government was operating in the interests of the wealthy, at the expense of ordinary citizens. A third newspaper man got into trouble after suggesting that President John Adams had a fat butt. James T. Callender, whose newspaper was also unfriendly to Adams, said of the second president: “The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions.” Callender spent nine months in prison for his trouble.

There are those who believe the Founding Fathers had a purity we now lack. Politics has never been pure. In January 1798, for example, an argument between Matthew Lyon of the Democratic-Republican Party and Roger Griswold of the Federalist Party descended into mayhem. On the floor of Congress, Lyon taunted Griswold for cowardice during the Revolution. To accentuate his point, he spat in Girswold’s face. Griswold responded by pounding his foe with a hickory cane. Lyon countered by battering Griswold with fire tongs. As Chernow writes, the two lawmakers ended up “fighting on the floor like common ruffians.”

On another occasion a Federalist pounced upon a Republican as his political foe was walking down a public street and beat his victim with a cane. For good measure, he gave the man’s nose a twist—a preferred insult of that period. The subject of the attack recovered, challenged his assailant to a duel, and shot him dead.

Duels were far more common than most of us remember. Aaron Burr faced off against a man named John B. Church, again a result of heated rhetoric. Burr missed completely with his shot. Church clipped a button off Burr’s coat; but the affair of “honor” ended without bloodshed.


As the presidential election of 1800 approached—and it seemed clear a transfer of power was imminent—Federalists despaired. One party leader grumbled privately about President Adams’ “studied neglect and naked contempt” for the advice of his cabinet. Adams’ age, he added, had “enfeebled his mental faculties.” Oliver Wolcott, Jr., a member of that very cabinet, attacked the president behind his back. “We know the temper of his mind to be…violent and vindictive….The people believe the president is crazy.” Hamilton tore into Adams, as well. “The man is more mad than I ever thought,” he told a friend, “and I shall soon be led to say as wicked as he is mad.” A Delaware Congressman described Adams as one “liable to gusts of passion little short of frenzy, which drive him beyond the control of any rational reflection. I speak of what I have seen. At such moments the interest of those who support him or the interest of the nation would be outweighed by a single impulse of rage.”

Adams was so disgusted by what he saw as the disloyalty of his own political party that he eventually fled Washington for his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. There he remained for seven months. One South Carolina Federalist told friends that on the way north he hoped the president’s horse would run away with him and Adams would break his neck.

As Election Day approached wild rumors circulated. There were stories that Adams had gone insane. Many feared civil war if the Democratic-Republican Party took power. A Federalist was heard to groan “that a civil war would be preferable to having Jefferson.” Hamilton warned that the Virginian was “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics.” Clergymen predicted that if Thomas Jefferson took office he would force Christians to hide their Bibles. John Quincy Adams, who later joined the party of Jefferson, said of the winner in 1800, that Jefferson had been “pimping to the popular passions” in a bid to unseat his father. Hamilton feared that an “influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.” In the end he claimed immigrant votes propelled the Democrat-Republican Party to victory.

When a flaw in the Electoral College system left Burr and Jefferson tied with 73 votes each, it appeared the crafty Burr might steal the top office. The future of the United States hung in an uneasy balance. Many clergymen expressed a willingness to overlook Burr’s lack of morals rather than confront Thomas Jefferson’s “atheism.” Hamilton, no fan of Jefferson, was opposed. “The appointment of Burr would disgrace our country abroad,” he warned. Burr, he told friends, “is sanguine enough to hope everything, daring enough to attempt everything, wicked enough to scruple nothing” and prone to play upon “the floating passions of the multitude.”

In the end, of course, Jefferson prevailed. Adams boycotted his successor’s inauguration in a fit of pique, leaving town early that morning.

“The golden age is past,” Abigail Adams mourned. “God grant that it may not be succeeded by an age of terror.”

In his first Inaugural Address, President Jefferson tried to bridge the bitter political divide. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he said magnanimously.

In private, however, he promised a friend he would “sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection.”

On the other side, William Coleman, a Federalist editor, sent the president an angry letter. He accused Jefferson of pulling down a house of virtues and replacing it with “a foul and filthy temple consecrated to atheism and lewdness.”

Lewdness indeed!

James T. Callender, who had previously supported Jefferson and gone to jail after attacking Adams, now switched sides. On September 1, 1802, he broke the following story in his Richmond, Virginia newspaper:

It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally…By this wench Sally, our President has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story, and not a few who know it…The African Venus is said to officiate as housekeeper at Monticello.

Callendar labeled her as “Dusky Sally,” and said her son Tom, “yellow Tom,” bore a striking resemblance to the president. (By the time he finished his two terms in office, President Jefferson would be complaining about the newspapers’ “abandoned prostitution to falsehood.”)

Callender, like so many of us, then and now, was battling his own demons. After a night of heavy drinking, in the summer of 1803, his body was found bobbing in three feet of water in the James River.

Fortunately, the Sedition Acts soon fell out of favor. Jefferson did prosecute two Federalist editors, however. Harry Croswell, of New York, ran a paper whose banner bore the motto: “To lash the rascals naked through the world.” When Croswell attacked the Democratic-Republicans in print he was arrested. A jury found him guilty, after a judge instructed them to adhere to the old standard of libel—that it was libel if statements made against a plaintiff were defamatory.

Hamilton, by now returned to private life, served as Croswell’s attorney. If statements were true, he argued, they could not be defamatory. When the jury convicted Croswell, despite this plea, Hamilton decided to appeal the ruling. “The liberty of the press consists, in my idea, in publishing the truth from good motives and or justifiable ends, though it reflect on the government, on magistrates, or individuals,” Hamilton insisted. “Its being a truth is reason to infer that there was no design to injure another.”

“I never did think the truth was a crime,” he added. “I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided, for my soul has ever abhorred the thought that a free man dared not speak the truth.”

It was, Hamilton pointed out rightly, the primary job of newspapers to hold the powerful to account. “To watch the progress of such endeavours [i.e. the actions of our leaders] is the office of the free press. To give us early alarm and put us on our guard against the encroachments of power. This then is a right of the utmost importance, one for which, instead of yielding it up, we ought rather to spill our blood.”

On appeal, the appeals court split 2-2. Croswell was denied a second trial. In the end, he was never sentenced for his crimes. In April 1805 the State of New York passed a libel law that incorporated Hamilton’s idea. The truth, lawmakers now agreed, was protected under the First Amendment.


Today, we may feel that America has never been more politically divided. Our ancestors in the time of the Founding Fathers would surely disagree. It was a Republican editor, James Cheetham, after all, who goaded Hamilton and Burr into a duel. Cheetham wrote that Hamilton had privately accused Burr of heinous misdeeds.

Cheetham also claimed to have a list of “upwards of twenty women of ill fame with whom [Burr] has been connected.” He had another list of married women Burr had managed to bed. And he had a third list of “chaste and respectable ladies whom he has attempted to seduce.” Even worse, in those days of rampant racial prejudice, Cheetham accused Burr of holding a “nigger ball” at his estate, dancing with a voluptuous black woman, and sleeping with her too.

Burr blamed Hamilton for these attacks and challenged him to a fight. Late in life, Hamilton had become a devoted Christian. He could not kill Burr, in good conscience, he said. When the duel did play out, it is believed he meant to fire his pistol in the air, rather than shoot to kill. Burr had no such compunctions and struck his opponent down. Badly wounded, Hamilton was carried home by friends. As death approached, he remained calm. “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he told his doctor and family.

Near the end, with the fate of the United States still foremost in mind, he muttered, “If they break this union, they will break my heart.”

In his final letter he told his wife Eliza,

With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.    
Adieu best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Ever yours,

Burr prevailed on the dueling ground but fled south to avoid prosecution. He was indicted for murder in New Jersey, but presided over the U.S. Senate when it opened on November 4, 1804. He later headed to Europe where he traveled widely and continued to seduce various women.

He returned to the States in 1812. That summer his only grandchild died. His only child, Theodosia, sailed from her home in South Carolina soon after. She vanished at age 29, the victim of storm or pirates. Burr described himself at the time as “severed from the human race.” He became a famous recluse. In 1833, at age 77, however, he married Eliza Jumel, 58, a fabulously rich widow. She herself had been a courtesan and had borne an illegitimate son before marrying a rich wine merchant, Stephen Jumel. Burr now set about spending all her money. Within a year she filed for divorce.

On what grounds: Adultery! 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Value of a Penny and a Caring Teacher

I retired from teaching a decade ago; but I’m still interested in what happens in classrooms today.

So I check out several Facebook pages where teachers go to bond, to commiserate, to ask advice and share plans.

I am constantly reminded how many dedicated professionals are out there, working to help young people grow in all kinds of ways.

Today, I saw the post below by Peter Jas on Middle School Social Studies, a page with 3,300 members.

I thought it captured in a very basic way the sparks all good teachers try to cause to fly in young people—the response of an interested student—and the great concern of an educator for the child.

So, with his permission, I copied it to my blog and fixed a missing punctuation mark and added an “l” to “til.” I can’t help myself. I was a teacher. 

I have to check grammar, right?

A student came to class today with a 1892 penny. He found it in his back yard. Way cool! We study it under the magnifying glass. Value, maybe $2-3.00. Just a really neat find. It is in rugged condition. It’s been underground probably about 100 years. I told him to keep it as a special souvenir. At the end of the day he wanted to give me his coin! I told him I would get a coin holder and keep it for him until June. He said he would lose it at home. We are keeping it in our classroom. If he does not want it in June, I’ll keep it till he graduates high school. I’ll pass it back to him then. Middle School teacher moment! This is why we teach history.

This is why we teach history, indeed. This is exactly why Mr. Peter Jas (a pen name to throw off students on Facebook), and so many of you devote your lives to helping children every day.

My experience, personally, and having been fortunate to see so many of my colleagues working their own brands of magic every day, is that what we can, even in the smallest of ways, have lifelong impacts on those we teach. No doubt, Mr. Peter Jas, a 31-year veteran in the classroom, is having that kind of impact now, has in the past, and will in years to come.

To all dedicated young teachers, I would also say, “Keep up the good work.” If you are doing the job correctly, it will always be hard. At least one day a week, if not five, it will drain you emotionally. Still, even on the bad days, when it seems you might not be having the impact you would want, if you truly care you almost surely are, often in the subtlest ways. Older teachers know, because students come back and tell them so. As for you younger folks , you can catch up on your rest when you’re old and wizened, like me.

Now, having exhausted my fingers typing, I need a nap.

Not the penny found; but you get the idea.

Peter Kappas (pen name Jas) teaches eighth grade U.S. History and Personal Finance at Freedom Area Middle School in Freedom, Pennsylvania.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Useful Links for American History Teachers

I retired from teaching a decade ago but still take an interest in education. A few of my blog posts might interest history or social studies teachers.

I started writing my own materials my first year in a classroom, when I found the textbook our school used was almost never interesting to students. I always tried to humanize those we studied and read voraciously, looking for examples and stories that would intrigue students and illustrate important points.

You can find a few of these stories—and a couple of ideas for classroom control—if you check out the following links.


Many teachers have said they like the reading list I compiled for my students. If you’re an avid reader yourself (and most social studies teachers are) see: A Reading List for American History.

Several hundred books are listed and briefly described.


I am particularly proud of my post about 9/11, which has been viewed almost 24,000 times on my blog. This one I wrote after I retired. But I’m pretty sure, based on several decades dealing with teens, that it would interest students. It’s moving in the way I believe history should move people.


The post on Jim Crow has been viewed more than 20,000 times. I had a reading similar to this, which I used in my classroom.

I know my students were always stunned by the variety of ways in which the races were segregated, spanning the spectrum of life, from cruelty to idiocy (no interracial checker playing!?!)

The Emperor of A, B, C and D also deals with the topic, from the perspective of how constraining standardized testing can be. You might get a couple of ideas on how to address the topic, however.

See also: The Emperor of A, B, C and D (Auxiliary Post), which is more popular on my blog than the original post.


My students always liked the story of Women in the Revolution. (I sell an updated and better version on my website at TpT, called “Remember the Ladies.” This reading worked perfectly as the basis for a full-period skit.

In fact, I tried hard to increase the focus on women in history. You might also like A Bride Goes West: A Woman’s View of Frontier Montana. I can attest that my classes always found Nannie Alderson’s story of ranching and raising a family on the frontier, starting in 1883, to be interesting.)

Your students might also be interested in You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, the story of the fight for women’s rights that began in the 1960s.


The story of Thomas Jefferson’s Slave Son, Madison Hemings, might fill in an interesting piece when you cover slavery.

Oddly enough, I found using stories from Gone with the Wind helped students understand what slavery was really like. The author, Margaret Mitchell, was blind to reality, which helped make a critical point. See: Teaching About Slavery: A Novel Approach.

Another excellent resource, if you’ve never seen it, is A Former Slave Writes His Master.

For a few good ideas you might find value in you look at Teaching about Slavery.


Another topic we covered in depth in my class was the Holocaust—and the whole horrible history of dehumanization (including by teens of other teens). You might find value in: Notes on Hitler and the Nazis (the opening quote, alone is useful, and always caught my students’ attention). If you’ve never read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich from which many of the details come, I highly recommend it.

Light summer reading at a mere 1,136 pages!

And, if you’ve never read Mein Kampf, I can spare you the pain: I Read Mein Kampf so You Don’t Have To.

I sometimes compared the ideals in the Declaration of Independence with the thinking of Adolf Hitler, with good result.


My classes always liked the story of the Salem Witch Trials. In fact, I did the same lecture on the topic, six times a day, twenty-five years in succession, until I could have talked about the trials in my sleep.

Details on the trials and stories from women who traveled West by wagon and the picture of the sequoia tree branch always got students’ attention. See: A Few Good Ideas for American History.

You might also get some ideas about the Pilgrims from: The First Thanksgiving: What Your Third Grade Teacher Didn’t Tell You.


The gold rush seemed easy to make interesting. The story of the gold nugget found in Brazil in 1985—the size of a briefcase—always sparked interest. The story of the S.S. Central America is also compelling. See: A Few Good Ideas for American History, Part II.

Photo from author's collection; not far from Jeffrey City, Wyoming (population 58)
My students were always interested in pioneer days and the idea of wide open spaces.
Wyoming, even today, has five people per square mile.


If you’ve never had veterans talk to your students—and I mean really talk about what war is like—our school found it was easy to get them to come in and visit for a whole day. Joe Whitt’s story about the Battle of Savo Island made it hard to hold back tears. Some of our former students, who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan now visit my old school. It was one of the best days we had every year—and now that I’m retired that remains true with younger teachers taking over the program. See: The Veterans Come to Loveland Middle School. (We also found it relatively easy to set this up, so students heard a number of speakers all on the same day.)

Scars from the Civil War and Scars Today might help you tie the experiences of soldiers in 1863 with soldiers today.

If you want one good story about what it was like to serve for four bloody years in the Confederate army, Sam Watkins’ tale is great. My student loved this reading; and we used it (and others on the war) to do a great skit. For the reading, see: A Rebel Soldier’s War. 

To understand how my students turned detailed readings into memorable presentations, see the ending to: The Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere.

For ideas about how to work really good skits into your own class, see: How I Worked Skits in My Class. My students performed marvelously when it came to this kind of activity.

Teaching about Gettysburg may also provide teachers with a few useful ideas.

Personally, I always tried to make sure my students knew war wasn’t glamorous. You might like: The Tenth Anniversary of the Start of the Iraq War.


If you’d need good examples of why the fight for freedom mattered in the period from 1517 to 1689, see: The Battle for Freedom in England and America. The examples here might help students understand why the U.S. Constitution includes the guarantees of liberty it does.

I always enjoyed focusing on the Declaration of Independence. I explain how we approached that topic in Do You Know What the Declaration of Independence Means?

My students found the story of Watergate fascinating. See: An Affair Called Watergate.


I had fun teaching about the Northwest Cultures, along the Pacific coast, and my students seemed to enjoy the lesson. See: Stefanie’s Astute Observation.

If you focus on Native American cultures, the story of the Chachapoya, who were crushed by the Incas, might be of passing interest. My students found it interesting to imagine that at a time the French and English were establishing their national boundaries, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in South America, were doing the same. See: The Chachapoya of Peru (A. D. 650 to 1470).


Notes on Sitting Bull and the Sioux may also provide examples to use in your classes.

I found William Taylor’s account (he survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn) to be of great interest. I read his story after I retired. See: With Custer on the Little Big Horn. Again, you may be able to pick out details and work them into your own lessons.


In honor of my father, I did a post comparing life in 1915, the year he was born, to life a century later. Teachers might find some of the examples interesting. See: What a Difference a Century Makes.


The tragic story of three sailors trapped alive inside the sunken battleship West Virginia, after the attack on Pearl Harbor is chilling and sad. See: A Particular Tragedy at Pearl Harbor.

If you’d like a reading about the attack itself, see: The Story of Pearl Harbor. My students found this interesting.

The story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also compelling.

General Interest: Classroom Management

I highly recommend this seating chart, which students liked and also allowed for improved classroom control—a winning combination! Not that any of us ever have to worry about classroom control: The Best Seating Chart Ever.

I did come up with a creative way to use writing “punishments.” See: Elvis’ Belly Button Lint. Or: “Stupid Essays” as a Creative Punishment. These two posts are a bit duplicative, I’m afraid.

I had good success posting interesting quotes on my classroom walls. See: A Few Quotes that Still Matter.

If you’d like to read about a few errors to avoid as a young teacher (or an old one, for that matter), you might enjoy “Snowballs” Fly in History Class and Other Mistakes.

The Case of the Missing Homework might amuse you, as my students played a trick on me with great success.

I’m sure every middle school teacher in history has had to deal with the problem of students being bullied. I explain my approach: Bullies in Middle School.

I do sell my best writing for students at my TpT website: Middle School History and Tips for Teachers.