My Beautiful Wickedness

Constitution-making as problem-solving
October 1, 2007, 7:05 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m going to spend this entire week working with my US survey class to soak them in the Constitution. I have never spent this much class time on it before, but I’m going to use it as a the framework to discuss provisional attempts to resolve some problems left on the table at the end of the War for Independence.

I’ve been trained to expect that students won’t know or care about the Constitution and that they’ve been drilled in political history until their eyes cross and that it hasn’t stuck yet. I’m betting that this is wrong. I think that the Constitution seems abstract and remote and boring because it’s been taught in abstract, remote, and boring ways.

I’m going to try this a different way. We’re going to start from the profound uncertainty of 1781 and tiptoe our way into the unknown future, worrying and trying different things and nearly going tits up. Let’s see if we can restore a little bit of the marvelous and the disappointment to this work.


10 Comments so far
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Can I come along? Pretty please?

I would be fascinated by this.

Comment by Slartibartfast

Please point out to them, or make sure they realize, that “God” and “Jesus” and “Christ” each appear zero times in that document, would you? I’d say, “It bears repeating,” but I’m willing to bet that nobody has pointed that out to them for the first time.

Comment by John Gruver

Recently, McCain said “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”


Comment by Nick Dupree

We’ve talked a bit about the varieties of religious thought (really diverse, when you come down to it) as well as the general disinterest in religion among part of the population. It has sort of contemporary overtones — some people are personally devout, others are pushily devout and think you ought to be too, a bunch of people are vaguely spiritual and would agree in some basic Christian dogma but don’t actually go to any church, there’s a surprising number who just don’t care about religion whatsoever, and then there are some who are downright hostile to its practice. Considering the magnitude of problems arrayed before them and the difficulties they were having attracting/keeping population, it was very unlikely that anyone would have thrown “hey guys, let’s insist that only Christians can be citizens!” into the mix. Population was wealth in the 18th century. Anything that was perceived as an impediment to population growth (and the trade that comes with it) was not going to get far. We did some early work on “was New Amsterdam actually religiously tolerant or were the administrators willing to allow diverse religious belief (but not practice) for practical reasons?” and so I think they’ll be able to think more independently about what would have been the costs and the benefits of trying to impose public order through religion.

Not only are there no mention of deities, the drafters go out of their way to specify that there should be no establishment of religion at the federal level. While individual states drafted more specific policies and implied that religion was, as my priest used to say, a positive good and should not, at least, be a cause of public riot…

Comment by bridgett

I wanted to add: people who teach the formation of the U.S. as boring amaze me. America formed from a raucous, diverse collection of pirates, prostitutes, convicts, debtors, exiles, political radicals and (perceived) religious extremists expelled from England, diamonds in the rough, fringers and innovators that Europe wasn’t quite ready for…. it’s got sex and violence and radical ideas….how can anyone make that boring??

Comment by Nick Dupree

Not to mention between 600-2000 Indian nations (depending on how one counts them), several million Africans, Russian fur traders in the Pacific Northwest….

I know. The history of empire in North America and state formation/citizenship issues totally rocks…

Comment by bridgett

No, really, how can you get so involved in such a modern topic?

Bridgett, I owe you a comment about Night Battles, late medieval agrarian cults, witches sabbaths (not) in the medieval imagination, and something else. Oh, right, historiography of the witch craze. I’ll get you the first part by the end of the week. If I’m really to do a decent job on the historiography, it’ll take a little longer.

Comment by nm

Where’d all those Russian fur traders go? how come there are no Russian-speaking enclaves in the NW?

Comment by Nick Dupree

I remember fondly an episode of “The Wild, Wild West” in which Artemus Gordon was (for reasons beyond my recall) kidnapped and made to believe he had been taken to Russia by dumping him in a Russian-speaking enclave along the Russian River (north of San Francisco). I have no idea whatsoever, now that I think of it, if there were still numerous Russian-speakers in California in the late 1860s, but I know that there had been at one point.

Comment by nm

I love this idea. I was in Future Problem Solvers in High School, and I think that approach (minus all the stupid rules, of course) is pretty key to understanding why things happened the way they did at any one time. What constraints were the people under, and what were they trying to accomplish?

Hah. Look at you, making me want to go take some history classes. Only then I remember just how terminally boring most classes are (and how friggin’ expensive the other ones were) and I content myself to bask in the glow of reflected internet smarts instead.

Comment by Magniloquence

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