Philosophy of History/Values, Beliefs, Political Ideas and Institutions

This is the third in the series of Vital Themes; Bradley Commissioner Michael Kammen discusses the importance of the theme “Values, Beliefs, Political Ideas and Institutions.” While examples are drawn from U.S. History, they could have been from World History as well.

Careful study of these concepts is essential for two inseparable reasons: their substantive significance and what they can teach our students about history as a process, that is, a fascinating pattern of change over time. Take, for example, American assumptions about the proper role of government in society. Back when America was first colonized, the Puritans assumed that government had a responsibility to regulate the economy and closely scrutinize the public and private behavior by individuals. Less than two centuries alter, however, Thomas Jefferson developed a notion that was diametrically the opposite – that government is best which governs least – and his understanding gained very wide credence for about 140 years. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal resulted in an ideological revolution and the revived expectation that government should have an activist role – a persuasion that many (but not all) Americans have doubted during the past decade. How and why those important transformations in American political values have occurred over the past 360 years is critical to any informed understanding of political culture in the United States.

The study of these ideas and institutions is also crucial in helping students appreciate certain anomalies in our culture as well as gaps between our ideals and realities. With respect to prevailing orthodoxies about government intervention, for instance, one must note that shrewd Puritan mercahnts invariably invested in those endeavors least regulated at any given moment by colonial government. And during the nineteenth-century age of laissez-faire, railroad entrepreneurs demanded and expected all sorts of favors from government: land grants, tax breaks, other forms of permission and encouragement. Values and realities have often been out of synch; and the historical impact of one acting upon the other provides a dramatics narrative.

For a final example I turn to the famous utterance by James Madison in Federalist paper number 51 (1778): Justice is the end of government. It is the end [ultimate goal] of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. We traditionally view trial by jury as a vital component of our system of justice. Yet many people believe that the jury system is, in fact, too slow and cumbersome for our litigious society; and that a tribunal of professional judges is more likely to “do justice” than twelve amateurs.

Be that as it may, my own recent experience as a juror in a complex murder trial did much to restore my own faith in the venerable jury system in general. I have reason to believe that I am not alone in undergoing a shift from skepticism to belief. There is great educational potential inherent in that sort of “conversion”: the gap between what we read in books and in the press, and what we experience as participants in the process of government – in this case the administration of justice. Before we ever get to such gaps, however, students must understand how the jury system evolved; how it has worked in the recent decades; how American attitudes towards justice have varied, from Madison’s statement in Federalist 51 to the harsh application of “Judge Lynch” in frontier America.

All of these historical issues, anomalies, and problems provide a rich menu for teachers to offer their students: readings, classroom discussions, simulated situations, and assignments to be explored in th students’ home communities. American values, beliefs, political ideas and institutions are always undergoing change. The best way to comprehend that phenomenon in our own time is to come to grips with it historically.

Examples of episodes form which the theme Values, Beliefs, Political Ideas and Institutions might be drawn in American History Courses:

Pre-Colonial: European and Indian ideas about land ownership; th estory of the House of Burgesses in Virginia.

Revolution and Constitution: James Otis, PAtrick Henry and opposition to the Stamp Actl a biography of Thomas Jefferson with special focus on May-to-August, 1776.

Early 19th Century: Role of 2nd Great Awakening in abolition, temperance, suffrace, public education movements; story of Jackson vs. the Bank of the U.S.

Civil War and Reconstruction: Relationship between the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the beginning of the Republican Party; the political implicaitons of the Battle of Antietam; Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and the course of Reconstruction.

Late 19th Century: Immigration and E. Lazarus' poem on the State of Liberty; the story of the Oklahoma land rush, story of the Pendleton Act/Civil Service.

20th Century: War with Spain; the story of the Progressive Party; neutrality, isolation, involvement and leadership in foreign affairs from G. Washington to T. Roosevelt to Wilson to FDR; story of th eauto in American society.