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Gilder Lehrman's Flawed History of Emancipation

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Publishers and curriculum developers are racing to align social studies lessons with new national Common Core literacy standards. Most are clearly motivated by financial incentives -- they want to sell textbooks, workshops, and online packages to school districts anxious to comply with new demands.

But some have more ideological motives -- they are selling a point of view about history -- and Common Core gives them new access to teachers and students. In this second category, “The First Emancipation,” a model history lesson developed by Anthony Napoli, director of education for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, is an example of Common Core at its pedagogical and ideological worst.

At its best, Common Core draws the attention of teachers to the need to be conscious and systematic as they work to develop student reading, writing, computational, and analytical skills. It also directs English Language Arts and teachers of other academic subjects to focus on careful reading and analysis of non-fiction sources in the different fields, including primary source historical documents. When Common Core promotes a higher level of skill and understanding by students as they master content knowledge and formulate their own questions about the world, it performs a useful function and should be broadly supported.

At is worst, or when misapplied, Common Core has students doing careful reading of primary source documents without providing them with an adequate background or with alternative viewpoints that would support real analysis. The lesson developed by Napoli for Gilder Lehrman purports to support common core goals because it is organized around an examination of nine primary source historical documents. However, they were either carefully selected to direct students to reach predetermined conclusions, or they are just a hodge-podge of inappropriate choices. The documents include Lord Mansfield’s decision in the 1772 Somerset Case in London; excerpts from Lord Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation offering freedom to enslaved Africans who fight for the British; an excerpt from a report by Governor Robert Hunter to the British Lords of Trade about a 1712 New York City slave revolt; an excerpt from the Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery; an excerpt from an anti-slavery pamphlet published by a Pennsylvania Quaker in 1766; two advertisements for the recapture of runaway slaves; and sections from the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the Vermont Constitution of 1777, and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance.

Unfortunately, the lesson is both bad teaching and bad history.

The term “first emancipation,” which is not in general usage amongst historians, refers to the gradual end of slavery in the northern states in the decades after the American Revolution and comes from a book First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North by Arthur Zilversmit (University of Chicago Press, 1967). The lesson itself is organized to engage students in exploring the “essential” question: “Did the first emancipation make the Great Emancipation inevitable? Explain.”

The lesson fails on a number of levels.

First, the historical context provided teachers and students assumes one correct answer to the essential question -- “Students will be able to identify various actions taken by colonists, slaves and freedmen to bring about emancipation in the period before 1863.” In addition, teachers and students are told: “The Great Emancipation of the 1860s cannot be understood without studying what is often called the “first emancipation” -- the growing belief among many Americans in the Revolutionary era that slavery was incompatible with the idea that “all men were created equal.” As a result of this evolving view, government and private organizations and individuals spoke out and took action against slavery ... and many of the Founding Fathers believed that slavery would gradually come to an end.” The reality, of course, is much more complicated. For example, Washington, Jefferson, Mason, and Henry, none of whom are quoted here, neither desired or predicted the end of chattel slavery in the new nation. Meanwhile the Constitution was designed to provide Southern slaveholders a check on the ability of free states to alter or abolish the peculiar institution. William Lloyd Garrison viewed it as a pro-slavery document that was essentially a compact with the devil.

Second, the primary source documents provided to students offer a distorted view of opposition to slavery in the United States at the time of the revolution. Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset case referred only to enslaved Africans transported to Great Britain and had no bearing whatsoever on slavery elsewhere in the British Empire, particularly on the former British North American colonies after they gained independence. Lord Dunsmore’s promise to emancipate enslaved Africans who fought for the British in the Revolutionary War was specifically rejected as an option by Washington and the Continental Congress. In fact after the war Washington demanded that slaves freed by the British be treated as contraband and returned to their American owners.

I am not sure what Governor Hunter’s report on a 1712 slave rebellion demonstrates other than that the British brutally repressed attempts by enslaved Africans to gain freedom and that the author of this lesson has no sense of chronological order or the need to demonstrate causality. Meanwhile, it is not clear that the abolitionist essay by the Pennsylvania Quaker or the Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of slavery had any lasting historical significance. It is true that Massachusetts did end slavery in that state with its 1780 Constitution and that Vermont signaled a trend toward gradual emancipation in other Northern states, but neither made the end of slavery in the South inevitable. It is also true that with the Northwest Ordinance the Articles of Confederation Congress decided to ban slavery north of the Ohio River, but it also decided to allow slavery to expand into territories south of the river that became the slave-holding states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Third, evidence that would make it possible for students to disagree with the Napoli-Gilder Lehrman position is completely missing. Nowhere in this lesson do students learn about the invention of the cotton gin, the shift to cotton production in the slave South, or that between 1790 and 1860 the number of enslaved Africans in the United States increased from 680,000 to almost four million, which strongly suggests that the “first emancipation” had little actual impact on slavery in the South. They also never learn about Lincoln’s reluctance to end slavery and his support for the pro-slavery Corwin Amendment that would have prevented the federal government from interfering with slavery in the states.

The Napoli-Gilder Lehrman lesson is so distorted that students can only conclude from the documents they are provided that it was those nasty abolitionists who must have caused a bloody and unnecessary Civil War because slavery was ending on its own initiative.

In the name of fairness, everyone does not agree with my criticism of Napoli and Gilder Lehrman. An article on a website sponsored by the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, which partners with the Gilder Lehrman Institute, avidly praised Napoli’s work with teachers. According to Susan Addington, community relations manager for the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, “It’s important for Americans to understand the principles upon which our country was founded ... Gilder Lehrman's focus on original source documents and archives provides a unique opportunity for teachers and students to experience our nation's heritage, history, and how they apply in today's world.” The article goes on to explain how following lectures, “Anthony Napoli, Gilder Lehrman's director of education, guides teachers in creating lesson plans using the historical documents referenced by the speaker.” Napoli claims his goal is to have teachers “move away from a didactic approach” and to show them “how to use the primary source documents to encourage research and critical thinking among students.” “The First Emancipation,” however, if it is the model teachers are expected to follow, neither encourages research or critical thinking.

In addition, for those unfamiliar with the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, it is part of a group of “philanthropies” created by their sons, Charles and David Koch, to fund groups promoting their right-wing political agenda.

I have criticized Gilder Lehrman in the past and was not really surprised by this “model lesson.” What does disturb me is that leading professional historians continue to serve as advisors to Gilder Lehrman, providing the organization with credibility, while getting paid extravagantly to speak at Gilder Lehrman sponsored institutes and forums. At some point they need to disassociate from Gilder Lehrman and speak out against the way it distorts history. Of course, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get a historian to understand something, when his or her salary depends on not understanding it.

According to the Gilder Lehrman website, its advisory board currently includes Joyce O. Appleby, Carol Berkin, Ira Berlin, Kenneth and Ric Burns, Eric Foner, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., James O. Horton, Kenneth T. Jackson, and Diane Ravitch. Appleby, Berlin, Foner, Horton, and Jackson are all part presidents of the Organization of American Historians.

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