UNIT: Colonial Society
Issue: Is America Exceptional?
Yes: Seymour Martin Lipset, from "Still the Exceptional Nation?" The Wilson Quarterly (2000)
No: Godfrey Hodgson, from "The Corruption of the Best", Yale University Press (2009)
Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006) claims that the United States remains an “outlier” nation in that it is much less welfare-oriented‚ the federal government taxes and spends less‚ Americans are more heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity‚ and Americans benefit from a higher rate of mobility into elite positions than is the case in other developed nations. Godfrey Hodgson criticizes what he describes as the “myth of American exceptionalism” that emphasizes the uniqueness of American values while largely ignoring the extent to which the development of the United States has been connected to international, especially European, historical processes and ideologies.
Issue: Was the Pequot War Largely a Product of Native American Aggression?
Yes: Steven T. Katz, from "The Pequot War Reconsidered", The New England Quarterly (1991)
No: Alfred A. Cave, from "The Pequot War and the Mythology of the Frontier", University of Massachusetts Press (1996)
Steven Katz argues that the Pequot Indians, through a series of raids, ambushes, and murders in the 1630s, sought to realize their geopolitical ambitions by destroying European settlement in New England and that, after efforts to negotiate failed, New England colonists sought to protect themselves from Pequot aggression by waging a defensive war to prevent further assaults on colonial settlements in the region. Alfred Cave insists that the Pequot War resulted from a clash of cultures in which Puritan leaders, preoccupied with the idea that Native Americans were part of a Satanic conspiracy, were convinced that violence was essential to intimidate indigenous Americans in order to secure colonial settlements, terminate Indian autonomy, and control land and resources in New England.
Issue: Was the Colonial Period a "Golden Age" for Women in America?
Yes: Gloria L. Main, from "Gender, Work, and Wages in Colonial New England", William & Mary Quarterly (1994)
No: Cornelia Hughes Dayton, from "Women Before the Bar", University of North Carolina Press (1995)
Gloria Main notes that New England women were highly valued for their labor and relative scarcity in the early colonial period and that their economic autonomy increased in the years during and following the Seven Years War as more women entered the paid work force and received higher wages for their work. Cornelia Hughes Dayton offers a nuanced challenge to the “golden age” thesis, concluding that women in seventeenth-century Connecticut enjoyed direct access to the county courts but that new rules and practices in the eighteenth century reinforced patriarchal authority and significantly limited women’s access to the courts, which instead came to serve the interests of commercially active men.
Issue: Were Socioeconomic Tensions Responsible for the Witchcraft Hysteria in Salem?
Yes: Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, from Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, Harvard University Press (1974)
No: Laurie Winn Carlson, from A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials, Ivan R. Dee, Publisher (1999)
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum argue that the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692 was prompted by economic and social tensions that occurred against the backdrop of an emergent commercial capitalism, conflicts between ministers and their congregations, and the loss of family lands, which divided the residents in Salem Town and Salem Village. Laurie Winn Carlson believes that the witchcraft hysteria in Salem was the product of people's response to physical and neurological behaviors resulting from an unrecognized epidemic of encephalitis.
Issue: Was There a Great Awakening in Mid-Eighteenth-Century America?
Yes: Thomas S. Kidd, from The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, Yale University Press (2007)
No: Jon Butler, from "The Plural Origins of American Revivalism", Harvard University Press (1990)
Thomas Kidd insists that preachers such as George Whitefield engineered a powerful series of revivals in the mid-eighteenth century that influenced all of the British North American colonies and gave birth to a spirit of evangelicalism that initiated a major alteration of global Christian history. Jon Butler claims that to describe the religious revival activities of the eighteenth century as the “Great Awakening” is to seriously exaggerate their extent, nature, and impact on pre-revolutionary American society and politics.
UNIT: Revolution and the New Nation
Issue: Was the American Revolution a Conservative Movement?
Yes: Robert Eldon Brown, from "The Nature of the American Revolution", Boston University Press (1963)
No: Alan Taylor, from "Agrarian Independence: Northern Land Rioters after the Revolution", Northern Illinois University Press (1992).
According to Robert Brown, the British North American colonies were middle-class democracies by the eighteenth century; hence, the American Revolution was fought to preserve a social order that already existed. Alan Taylor, however, emphasizes the class conflict over property that began before the American Revolution and continued for two decades after, in which yeoman farmer's organized local resistance to large proprietors in an effort to realize the revolutionary commitment to liberty by obtaining free or cheap access to land.
Issue: Was the Second Amendment Designed to Protect an Individual's Right to Own Guns?
Yes: Robert E. Shalhope, from "The Armed Citizen in the Early Republic", Law and Contemporary Problems (1986)
No: Lawrence Delbert Cress, from "A Well-Regulated Militia: The Origins and Meaning of the Second Amendment", in Jon Kukla, ed., The Bill of Rights: A Lively Heritage (1987)
According to Robert Shalhope, in eighteenth-century America the Second Amendment guaranteed individuals the right to own guns in order to maintain freedom and liberty in a republican society by fulfilling their communal responsibilities within a "well-regulated militia." Lawrence Delbert Cress argues that British common law and the laws of the various state legislatures in the United States during the 1780s were designed only to permit armed and “well-regulated militia” to protect citizens from domestic insurrections as well as from tyrannical rule by the national government.
Issue: Was Alexander Hamilton an Economic Genius?
Yes: John Steele Gordon, from "The Hamiltonian Miracle", Walker and Company (1997)
No: Carey Roberts, from "Alexander Hamilton and the 1790s Economy: A Reappraisal", New York University Press (2006)
John Steele Gordon claims that Alexander Hamilton’s brilliant policies for funding and assuming the debts of the Confederation and state governments and for establishing a privately controlled Bank of the United States transformed the new nation’s financial circumstances and propelled the United States into a position as a major world economic power. Carey Roberts argues that in the 1790s Hamilton’s financial policies undermined popular faith in the Federalist Party and diminished confidence in the federal government.
Issue: Did the Election of 1828 Represent a Democratic Revolt of the People?
Yes: Sean Wilentz, from The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, W. W. Norton (2005)
No: Daniel Walker Howe, from What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford University Press (2007)
Bancroft Prize winner Sean Wilentz argues that in spite of its vulgarities and slanders, the 1828 election campaign "won by Andrew Jackson produced a valediction on the faction-ridden jumble of the Era of Bad Feelings and announced the rough arrival of two distinct national coalitions." Daniel Walker Howe denies that Jackson’s victory represented the coming of democracy to the United States and claims that, in the dirtiest campaign in American history, Jackson won on his personal popularity as a military hero and appealed to the agrarian virtues of an earlier age, while John Quincy Adams lost on a program of planned economic development and a diversified economy led by the national government.
Issue: Did Improved Educational Opportunities for Women in the New Nation Significantly Expand Their Participation in Antebellum Society?
Yes: Mary Kelley, from Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic, University of North Carolina Press (2006)
No: Lucia McMahon, from "Between Cupid and Minerva" and "Education, Equality, or Difference", Cornell University Press (2012)
Mary Kelley describes how expanding educational opportunities encouraged women to redefine themselves by opening doors to careers beyond the domestic sphere, economic self-support, and public participation in civil society that transformed their understanding of the rights of citizenship in the post-revolutionary and antebellum United States. Lucia McMahon concludes that the unprecedented access to education afforded women in the early national period fostered recognition of women’s intellectual capacity, but she argues that most educated women confronted a limited range of opportunities in a society that remained largely committed to a social and political order rooted in notions of sexual difference and male hierarchy.
UNIT: Antebellum America
Issue: Was Antebellum Temperance Reform Motivated Primarily by Religious Moralism?
Yes: W.J. Rorabaugh, from The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, Oxford University Press (1979)
No: John J. Rumbarger, from "The Social and Ideological Origins of Drink Reform, 1800-1836", State University of New York Press (1989)
W. J. Rorabaugh points out that in the first half of the nineteenth century, evangelical Christian ministers’ portrayed liquor as the tool of the Devil and developed temperance societies as socializing institutions to ease social tensions and anxieties that contributed to alcohol consumption. John J. Rumbarger concludes that nineteenth-century temperance reform was the product of a procapitalist market economy whose entrepreneurial elite led the way toward abstinence and prohibition campaigns in order to guarantee the availability of a more productive work force.
Issue: Did African American Slaves Exercise Religious Autonomy?
Yes: Albert J. Raboteau, from "Slave Autonomy and Religion", Journal of Religious Thought (1982)
No: John B. Boles, from Masters & Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South 1740-1870, University Press of Kentucky (1988)
Albert J. Raboteau claims that the religious activities of enslaved African American were characterized by institutional and personal independence, which undermined the ability of slave owners to exercise effective control over their chattel property. John B. Boles recognizes that slaves often worshiped apart from their masters, but he asserts that the primary religious experience of southern slaves occurred within a biracial setting in churches dominated by whites.
Issue: Was the Mexican War an Exercise in American Imperialism?
Yes: Ramón Eduardo Ruiz, from "Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War", Dorsey Press (1988)
No: Norman A. Graebner, from "The Mexican War: A Study in Causation", Pacific Historical Review (1980)
Ramón Eduardo Ruiz argues that for the purpose of conquering Mexico’s northern territories, the United States waged an aggressive war against its neighbor to the south from which Mexico never recovered. Professor of diplomatic history Norman A. Graebner argues that President James Polk pursued an aggressive policy that he believed would force Mexico to sell New Mexico and California to the United States and to recognize the annexation of Texas without starting a war.
Issue: Was John Brown an Irrational Terrorist?
Yes: James N. Gilbert, from "A Behavioral Analysis of John Brown: Martyr or Terrorist?" in Peggy A. Russo and Paul Finkelman, eds., Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown, Ohio University Press (2005)
No: Scott John Hammond, from "John Brown as Founder: America's Violent Confrontation with Its First Principles", in Peggy A. Russo and Paul Finkelman, eds., Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown, Ohio University Press (2005)
James N. Gilbert says that John Brown’s actions conform to a modern definition of terrorist behavior in that Brown considered the United States incapable of reforming itself by abolishing slavery, believed that only violence would accomplish that goal, and justified his actions by proclaiming adherence to a “higher” power. Scott John Hammond insists that John Brown’s commitment to higher moral and political goals conformed to the basic principles of human freedom and political and legal equality that formed the heart of the creed articulated by the founders of the American nation.
UNIT: Conflict and Resolution
Issue: Was the Civil War Fought Over Slavery?
Yes: Charles B. Dew, from Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, University of Virginia Press (2001)
No: Gary W. Gallagher, from The Union War, Harvard University Press (2012)
Charles B. Dew uses the speeches and public letters of 41 white southerners who, as commissioners in 1860 and 1861, attempted to secure support for secession by appealing to their audiences' commitment to the preservation of slavery and the doctrine of white supremacy. According to Gary W. Gallagher, the letters of white northern soldiers during the Civil War reveal a limited concern about the institution of slavery and an often open hostility toward the use of African American troops that reinforces the conclusion that their main motivation was saving the Union.
Issue: Are the Historians Wrong to Consider the War Between the States a "Total War"?
Yes: Mark E. Neely, Jr., from "Was the Civil War a Total War?" Civil War History (2004)
No: James M. McPherson, from "From Limited War to Total War, 1861-1865", in Gateway Heritage; Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society (1992)
Professor Mark E. Neely, Jr., argues that the Civil War was not a total war because President Lincoln and the Union military leaders, such as General William T. Sherman, respected the distinction between soldiers and civilians, combatants and noncombatants. In addition, the North did not fully mobilize its resources nor engage in centralized planning and state intervention as was typical of twentieth-century wartime economies. Professor James M. McPherson argues that the Civil War was a total war. While conceding the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, he insists that the war accomplished the abolition of slavery and the extinction of a national state system—the Confederacy.
Issue: Was Abraham Lincoln America's Greatest President?
Yes: Phillip Shaw Paludan, from The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, University Press of Kansas (1994)
No: Melvin E. Bradford, from Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative, University of Georgia Press (1985)
Phillip Shaw Paludan contends that Abraham Lincoln’s greatness exceeds that of all other American presidents because Lincoln, in the face of unparalleled challenges associated with the Civil War, succeeded in preserving the Union and freeing the slaves. Melvin E. Bradford characterizes Lincoln as a cynical politician whose abuse of authority as president and commander-in-chief during the Civil War marked a serious departure from the republican goals of the Founding Fathers and established the prototype for the “imperial presidency” of the twentieth century.
Issue: Did Reconstruction Fail as a Result of Racism?
Yes: LeeAnna Keith, from The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction, Oxford University Press (2008)
No: Heather Cox Richardson, from The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901, Harvard University Press (2001)
LeeAnna Keith characterizes the assault on the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana on Easter Sunday in 1873 as a product of white racism and unwillingness by local whites to tolerate African American political power during the era of Reconstruction. Heather Cox Richardson argues that the failure of Radical Reconstruction was primarily a consequence of a national commitment to a free labor ideology that opposed an expanding central government that legislated rights to African Americans that other citizens had acquired through hard work.