Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Wrote the U.S. Constitution? Playing Historical Detective

My own love of history dates back my childhood reading of the Ladybird Adventures from History Series, which were written between 1940 and 1980. I loved learning about the Kings and Queens of England. I came late to American history, but remember the day in college that I read about the death of Silas Deane in the prologue to James West Davidson and Mark West Hamilton’s After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. The idea of the historian as a detective still informs my teaching.

This past summer, for example, I participated in teachers’ institutes on the Constitution Period in Mississippi, California, and Nevada. I used my presentations to elementary, middle school and high school teachers to emphasize key historical concepts, such as a context, sequence, and interpretation. As I have learned over the years, it’s generally a good idea to begin these sessions with an exercise designed to generate discussion among the participants. This summer I asked the teachers to play historical detective. I gave them a brief quotation and asked them to speculate about when the statement was made and then to develop an argument supporting their answer. We then discussed possible authors of the quotation.

Here’s the quotation:

“I hope that you have re-read the Constitution of the United States in these past few weeks. Like the Bible, it ought to be read again and again.”

I should add that I stressed to the teachers that I’m not interested in them getting the “right” answer. Instead, my goal was to use the exercise to learn more about how they approach historical problems. We then turned our attention to the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

By the way, the quotation comes from FDR’s Fireside Chat on March 9, 1937. The text and audio are available via the Miller Center at the University of Virginia: