American History

Trying To Simplify The Thirteen Colonies

I surveyed thousands of teachers and students (well, OK – I asked, like... seven or eight of them) which topics were hardest to teach, care about, or remember, and selected two dozen of the most common responses. The Whigs. The Bessemer Process. The Interstate Highway System. All real knee-slappers in their own way, but so few Crash Course videos or feature films to substitute for an actual lesson plan.

Many of the responses were variations of “trying to remember stuff about the original thirteen colonies.” Most of us do pretty well with Jamestown, at least in its earliest incarnation, and we can fake our way through the Puritans or Roger Williams. Somehow, though, we’re expected to juggle things like joint-stock company charters vs. proprietary charters or remember which sections relied most heavily on the export of natural resources and how that shaped their feelings about potential rebellion.

After what feels like several millennia of wrestling with it, I have a rough draft of what might be the chapter about the thirteen colonies. At the moment, it’s subtitled “Three (or Four) Regions – Three (Evolving) Formats – Three Approaches To Religion.”

I know. Even the subtitle needs work.

The Bessemer Process (from "Have To" History)

Three Big Things:

1. The Bessemer Process made better steel more quickly and more cheaply.

2. Better, affordable steel played a significant part in the Second Industrial Revolution. It may have been its primary cause; it was at least a major catalyst.

3. Bessemer steel made it possible to build skyscrapers, massive bridges, and reliable railroad tracks, as well as lots of other cool stuff. That makes it way more interesting than it sounds.  

The Interstate Commerce Act & The ICC (from "Have To" History)

Three Big Things:

1. After several states attempted to limit the power of railroads and grain storage facilities on behalf of farmers and other citizens, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act (1887). This established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to regulate railroads, including their shipping rates and route choices.  

2. The ICC was the first federal regulatory agency; it’s “success” spawned hundreds of others in subsequent decades. When you hear people complain about “big government,” these are a big part of what they mean. At the same time, they remind us that economic systems are not natural rights; they’re practical mechanisms designed to serve the largest number of people in the most efficient ways possible – at least in theory.

3. Ideally, regulatory agencies attempt to balance the good of society and the general public with the rights of companies to make reasonable profits from providing useful goods and services. They oversee “public services” – things considered essential for most citizens but which don’t easily lend themselves to a competitive marketplace due to the infrastructure required or the necessary scale of the service.

The XYZ Affair (from "Have To" History)

Three Big Things 

1. France was mad because the U.S. was making nice with England, who France had only recently helped them break away from and who France hated most of the time anyway.

2. U.S. efforts to make nice with France led to serious drama when French representatives (code names “X,” “Y,” and “Z”) made demands the U.S. contingent found offensive.

3. The resulting kerfuffle led to a “Quasi-War” abroad and more pronounced divisions between political parties at home before being resolved by a new round of diplomacy and a new treaty. The dispute also prompted the Federalists to push through the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts (which didn’t turn out all that well).

Barbed Wire (from "Have To" History)

Three Big Things:

1. Barbed wire became the fencing of choice in the west after the Civil War. It was relatively cheap, withstood a wide range of conditions, and held back the biggest, most stubborn livestock.

2. Barbed wire favored homesteaders moving west, who tended to be small farmers. It threatened, and eventually helped destroy, the mythical “open range” and cowboy culture.

3. Barbed wire is rarely asked about specifically in history standards; it’s central to a wide variety of stuff that is, however.

The Docs Heard 'Round The World

Shot Heard Round

The first shots were fired at Lexington, but the first documented occasion on which colonial minutemen were ordered to fire upon British soldiers (and did) was on the North Bridge at Concord. That was what many would point to as the first official act of outright treason committed by the colonists and marked the beginning of open, violent rebellion in Massachusetts.

The Lochner Era & "Substantive Due Process" (Part Two)

Lochner Era Court“School choice” wouldn’t emerge onto the national scene until after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the various forays into moral corruption and social decay wouldn’t become staples of the nation’s highest court until a decade after that. The rest of the Lochner Era was largely about how freedom meant letting corporations do whatever they wanted to workers because those being exploited had just as much theoretical control over the outcome as their gilded overlords did. (They didn’t put it in those exact terms.) Between 1897 – 1937, the Supreme Court struck down nearly 200 different statues, most as violations of “freedom of contract” or other violation of “economic substantive due process.”

The Lochner Era & "Substantive Due Process" (Part One)

City Bakeries

The Lochner Era (1897 – 1937), however, is named for a case representing a judicial philosophy which dominated the nation’s highest court for nearly forty years. For over a generation, the Court pushed back against the reform efforts of the Progressive Era and gave FDR fits by overturning many of his best efforts to regulate industry during the Great Depression. They laid the foundation for the modern “school choice” movement by uncovering new rights related to parenting and families. In the process, they brought to life an understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment that would end up securing the rights of American citizens to contraception, gay sex, and abortions.

Property Rights vs. The Communal Good - Two Early Supreme Court Cases

Supreme Court GenericThe dilemma of any effort to compile “must know” Supreme Court cases is deciding where to draw the line. If you narrow it to a list of 12, there are at least 3 or 4 others that really MUST be added in the name of consistency. If you expand the list to, say... 24, you're sacrificing another half-dozen that should simply NOT be neglected if you're to retain ANY credibility.

A Moment of Silence: Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)

Is It Constitutional Now? How About Now? Or Now?

Three Big Things:

Moment of Silence1. After it became clear that state-sponsored prayer was no longer a realistic option in public education, states began experimenting with the idea of a “moment of silence” during which students could pray (although no one had ever suggested that they couldn’t).