Many questions about the 1960s are actually rooted in the 1950s, so keep that in mind when asked about racial tensions, shifting political dynamics, Cold War anxieties, or anything related to rebellion against cultural norms or “their parents’ generation.” Avoid oversimplifying the 1950s as the sum of its clichés while recognizing that the perception of homogeneity was enough to generate both the pressure to conform and the desire to rebel – sometimes within the same subgroups.
In reality, the 1950s weren’t quite as universally unified or prosperous as they appeared. Still, it was close enough to give the 1960s something to challenge – a lifestyle and presumed set of values for the youth of the era to reject. (It’s difficult to rebel against the mainstream if there’s no mainstream.) If nothing else, the 1950s made the 1960s possible. The decade became the “ordinary world” for a whole new hero’s journey.
The British had for years flirted with the idea of building a canal right through Central America to allow their massive navy easier access from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over time, the U.S. started thinking maybe that actually wasn’t such a bad idea – although they, of course, assumed American merchants and military vessels as the primary beneficiaries. Neither side was ready to push ahead with such an ambitious project, but each began worrying that perhaps the other would – perhaps cutting them out in the process.
In the meantime, they at least agreed on the most natural location of such a venture. The geography, the political dynamics, even the catchy name once completed:
The “Nicaragua Canal.”
Several years ago, talk show host Jimmy Fallon did a wonderful bit with planted audience members in which they argued about which historical treaties were the coolest. The humor was built on the relative obscurity and banality of the treaties being discussed contrasted with the passion shown by the faux audience members. In other words, it was engaging because the subject matter was presumed to be so boring that no one could possibly care about it that much – and yet, they did.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.