Best American History Music Videos (Huh?)


Too Late to Apologize? By Soomo Publishing

We will end this semester of History 117, a survey of US history to 1877, with some quick glimpses at music video parodies that concern important episodes in US history.  That’s right.  Music videos.

Our main theme this semester has been about the rise and fall of slavery in America.  Here is a video by Tim Betts, a social studies teacher from Brooklyn, concerning Abraham Lincoln as Great Emancipator (to the tune of “All About That Bass”):

And how about this one from Mr. Betts on the Compromise of 1850 (to the tune of “Shake it Off”):

Betts is a pretty talented musician, especially for a classroom teacher.  And he’s productive.  If you like his stuff, you can check out several more historically inspired videos at his official channel.  However, if you want to see a professional, Tony and Grammy-award winning musician actually rap a historically inspired (and mostly correct) version of the Burr-Hamilton duel, you do not want to miss this jaw-dropping performance at The White House by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Finally, there is a slickly produced and pretty darn funny video parody of the Declaration of Independence (to the tune of One Republic’s “Apologize”) from Soomo Learning:

Race and Reunion

Emancipation_MemorialDuring the final week  of History 117, students will discuss how historians such as David Blight and James Oakes portray Frederick Douglass’s evolution after the end of the Civil War. Blight wrote an article that offers a vivid portrait of an aging and angry Douglass fighting to preserve what he believed was the central legacy of the Civil War –the promise of emancipation.  Oakes concludes his notable joint study of Lincoln and Douglass by deftly examining how Douglass’s evolving views about Lincoln actually reflect a great deal about his own evolving sense of self.   Both scholars analyze why Douglass was distraught but still defiant over what he considered the betrayals of the “new birth of freedom” that occurred during Reconstruction.  Students should be able to explain how the great orator attempted to use the 1876 dedication of a Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln to forge what Blight described as a place for blacks within the national identity.  They should also be able to explain what was at stake for figures such as Douglass in the partisan the contest over defining the war’s legacy, especially over the movement known as “The Lost Cause”?  Less than a year before he died, at the age of 76, Douglass sounded an especially poignant note in what became one of his famous Dedication Day speeches.  “I shall never forget the difference,” he said, “between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”  His frustration was palpable and remains understandable but students should ask themselves how other Americans from that period, even those sympathetic to Douglass, might have reacted to such divisive commentary.

Southern Women and Civil War

Augusta Jane Evans

In her article,”Altars of Sacrifice,” Drew Faust, a leading historian and current president of Harvard University, concludes with a startling judgment:  “It may well have been because of its women that the South lost the Civil War.”  Students should be able to explain what Faust meant by this observation.  After all, southerners during the Civil War and in years since have extolled the virtues and sacrifices of the southern homefront.  Even Faust describes how white southern women sacrificed for the cause, especially during the first years of the war.  But Faust departs from the traditional narrative by documenting ways that southern women because increasingly disenchanted by the conflict and demonstrated their discontent.  Students should consider the examples that Faust describes and decide for themselves if southern women actually contributed to to the fall of the Confederacy.  Students should also take special note of Faust’s description of the popular wartime novel, Macaria by Augusta Jane Evans.  What does Irene, the protagonist of the novel, represent, according to Faust?  What does the popularity of the novel suggest about the evolving nature of southern (and American) society in the middle of the nineteenth-century?

Emancipation and Its Consequences

There might be no image more appropriate for understanding the revolutionary meaning of the Civil War than the one above.  The original is located at the Library of Congress, but the photograph (Men of Company E, 4th US Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln, Washington DC, circa 1865) is now ubiquitous. Students in History 117 should examine the image carefully.  Try to imagine yourself as one of the soldiers depicted in this detail.  What was he thinking about? Then they should reflect on the meaning of this image in light of what they have read this week in James Oakes’s monograph on Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  How did these two men differ on the question of black soldiers?  Where did they agree?

The question of black troops, just like the issues of emancipation or civil rights, forced radicals and moderates to struggle mightily over tactics.  Students should explain how Lincoln and Douglass approached these issues at pivotal moments.  First, how was there emancipation before Emancipation?  What were the contraband and confiscation policies? Oakes describes their evolution in 1861 and 1862, but you can read more about them at the Emancipation Digital Classroom, here and here.   To a large degree, the Second Confiscation Act (July 17, 1862) helped trigger Abraham Lincoln’s decision to embrace emancipation as a Union war policy in the summer of 1862.  The president’s behavior during that period was very complicated, however.  He drafted an emancipation policy but kept it secret.  Why?  In class, we will examine his actions through an analysis of the Greeley letter.  Then we will explore how Lincoln’s apparent hesitation in August 1862 turned into dramatic, bold action by January 1863.  We will conduct a close reading of the Emancipation Proclamation itself and consider how it affected the Civil War.  If you want a preview of that close reading, check out this video:

Also, read about this image of blacks in Beaufort, South Carolina receiving the news of Emancipation on January 1, 1863.

Of course, the proclamation did not free all of the slaves –not even most of them.  Instead, it took not only two more years of hard war, but also a fundamental change in the Constitution to finally abolish slavery.  We will look at one example of how the Union army actually liberated slaves after 1863 –through the diary of James T. Ayers, a recruiting agent.  And we will end class by previewing a discussion of the Thirteenth Amendment –the subject of Steven Spielberg’s recent “Lincoln” movie.

Rise of Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is now the best known American in history, but until he won the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 he was a comparatively obscure political leader and attorney from Springfield, Illinois.  Yet James Oakes argues in the second chapter of his book, The Radical and the Republican (2007) that if Lincoln was little known, he was nonetheless entirely representative of an emerging antislavery consensus that was increasingly binding together the opponents of slavery on the basis of free soil principles.  Students in History 117 should be able to explain Lincoln’s antebellum views about slavery and why both the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857) proved to be so pivotal in shaping his antislavery positions.  Students should also explore the House Divided website “Lincoln Douglas Debates Digital Classroom” which offers an array of tools for understanding Lincoln as a politician in the 1850s.

It’s also worth checking out this video of Lincoln’s 1859 autobiographical sketch procduced by Dickinson College student Leah Miller (Class of 2014).


In the first chapter of his book, The Radical and the Republican (2007), James Oakes explains how Frederick Douglass became a radical.  A runaway slave, Douglass joined the abolitionist movement spearheaded by editor William Lloyd Garrison but before too long, he found himself conflicted over the best means to end slavery.  Students in History 117 should be able to explain how anti-slavery radicals argued over the meaning of the Constitution and the best ways to promote the destruction of slavery in America.   For students who might benefit from a quick primer on the period, please consult the online textbook from Digital History –see especially chapters on abolitionism and colonization here and Jacksonian Era politics here.  Students should also explore the Underground Railroad Digital Classroom for an array of tools about the fight to end slavery.  To see specifically how abolitionism and the fight over runaway slaves affected Carlisle, check out this video on the Old Courthouse.

There are also some terrific online resources for the further study of Frederick Douglass.  Here is a custom-made map of his life in Baltimore from the House Divided Project. To read the full text of his famous “Fourth of July” speech (1852), click here.  This transcription comes from the Frederick Douglass Project at the University of Rochester, which offers a host of Douglass-related resources online.  The Library of Congress also provides access to more than a thousand Douglass documents and a wonderful set of resources for teachers and students about the great man’s life and career.


Violence in the Early Republic

Dueling pistols of Burr and Hamilton (Courtesy of NY Historical Society)

Dueling pistols of Burr and Hamilton (Courtesy of NY Historical Society)

This week’s readings for History 117 include two fascinating accounts of violence.

First, there is the story of the most in famous duel in American history. In 1804, the Vice-President of the United States killed the former Secretary of Treasury.  Historian Joanne Freeman uses this incident as the starting point for a sophisticated analysis of politics in the early republic.  She provides a new way to understand the behavior of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, both as by-products of their age but also as men striving to demonstrate their independence from convention.  Students in History 117 should read Freeman’s article carefully and be prepared to summarize how she describes the nature and history of dueling in America.  They should also be able to explain what chain of events and circumstances led to the Burr-Hamilton duel and why Hamilton, in particular, was conflicted over the proper course of action.  Finally, students should ask questions about the way the article characterizes the principle of honor in early nineteenth-century America.  Students may want to consult a helpful website from PBS on “The Duel.”  See especially a good timeline, helpful summaries of key people and events, and excerpts from the Code Duello.  The New York State Historical Association has posted the entire Burr-Hamilton duel correspondence here.

GougeSecond, students will encounter a practical orgy of violence in an article by Elliott Gorn on the rough-and-tumble fighting culture of the backcountry South.   Students need to be able to answer the question, what was gouging and why was it significant?  Why would Americans, especially white men in the southern backcountry, engage in such behavior and what does it suggest about the culture?  How does the culture of rough-and-tumble fighting compare to the social dynamics of Chesapeake horse-racing that Tim Breen described earlier in the semester?  Students should also consider how Gorn weaves the story of the southern backcountry into the narrative of the coming of the Civil War.  Does he offer a persuasive interpretation of male behavior for that era, or any era in American history?


Founding Mothers

Martha Ballard’s diary, September 11-25, 1787

The same week in September 1787 that the Framers “delivered” their Constitution to the American people, midwife Martha Ballard was busy caring for and delivering real babies in Hallowell, Maine.  To the right, one can view an image of her diary from that very week.  Compared to James Madison’s notes of the Constitution Convention, this journal might seem insignificant, but it better represents the lives and concerns of the four million Americans who resided in the country at that time.  Most of them, whether male or female, could probably relate more easily to the terse, businesslike entries in Ballard’s diary than to the fierce but often abstract political debates over sovereignty, republicanism and governance that the Framers were having in Philadelphia.  Students in History 117 should read historian Laurel Ulrich’s account of Martha Ballard’s life and ask themselves if Ulrich has explained the case for remembering this particular midwife.  What do we learn from this account of medical care in the early republic?  How can we explain Martha Ballard’s place in a survey of American history?  And finally, what do we need to know about ordinary lives in order to better understand the context of the past?  Students should also experiment with the Do History website devoted to Martha Ballard and her story.  See especially the transcription engine and the Magic Lens.  Also, a good reference website is available from PBS “American Experience,” which did an episode about Ballard a several years ago.

Carlisle Versus the Constitution

Saul Cornell’s article “Aristocracy Assailed” uses Carlisle, Pennsylvania as a setting for an examination of Americans who opposed the new U.S. Constitution.  These Anti-Federalists are now sometimes forgotten, but their views have endured in critical ways.  Students should be able to explain the worldview and values of Anti-Federalists such as William Petrikin.  They should analyze the Carlisle Riot and decide what it means and question why it is not remembered in the town today.

Washington’s Greatness

Washington (By Gilbert Stuart, 1796)

George Washington (By Gilbert Stuart, 1796)

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “every hero becomes a bore at last” (See his essay “Uses of Great Men,” 1850).  Gordon Wood employs this famous line in his chapter on George Washington’s greatness as way to help us understand how Americans have come to take the once-revered “Father of Our Country” for granted.  He argues that Washngton’s greatness remains misunderstood and under-appreciated.

To begin, Wood claims that “Washington’s greatness, lay in his character” (34).  Students in History 117 should be able to explain what the author means by this claim.  What were some of the key elements of Washington’s “character” and how did they distinguish him from other notable peers that we have already studied in-depth such as Adams, Franklin, and Paine.

One test of Washington’s character by Wood’s estimation was how he treated his slaves. The historian provocatively calls the owner of Mount Vernon “a good master” (39), and details the story of Washington’s famous ambivalence about slavery.  How do you react to this interpretation? How does this characterization appear in light of the recent controversy over the Economist magazine’s aborted review of Edward Baptist’s new book on slavery and capitalism?

Another test of Washington’s character came with his seeming ambivalence over holding power.  Wood offers a series of fascinating insights about how the great founder approached his various “retirements” from public life and how he navigated sometimes-complicated episodes challenging his legendary disinterestedness.  Summarizing these episodes, Wood quotes from scholar Garry Wills who once observed that Washington, “gained power from his readiness to give it up.”  Students in History 117 should be able to explain the meaning behind this shrewd line. The essay covers much of Washington’s career but assumes that readers already know the details of Washington’s role as the commanding general of the Continental Army.  If you need background on that part of the story, and perhaps a refresher on the chronology of the Revolutionary War, here are some helpful resources (some of which we will also discuss in class):