Rationale

This two-week institute focuses on constitutional history and will serve 25 primary and secondary schoolteachers. Too often the U.S. Constitution is taught either as a set of static institutions such as the Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, or only in reference to a set of discreet events; for instance, the Constitutional Convention, secession, and the Civil War. In either case, the Constitution generally is pictured as fixed in historical time. While there is value in knowing such institutions and events, it is vital for students and teachers alike to understand that the Constitution’s meaning has been disputed, and that it does in fact change over time. Modern political discourse has been confounded in part because citizens seem largely unaware that constitutional meaning is contested and that a variety of mechanisms work to settle its meaning.

This institute will address this larger problem by examining the central constitutional dispute of the antebellum era—the question of whether the Constitution was a document that embraced ideas of liberty and equality, or whether it protected slavery. This debate spanned the entire antebellum era, produced a significant body of constitutional law, and left a lasting cultural, social, and economic legacy. Perhaps because the contest between equality and slavery is so vast a subject, it is most often subsumed in social and cultural history. But teaching it as constitutional history helps reveal the processes that transform abstract ideas into actions with constitutional consequences. A knowledge of this history is vital to the ongoing national discussion about race and law, and a vital subject for schoolteachers to study.

Antebellum Americans (and contemporary scholars) argued over the extent to which the Constitution protected slavery. This institute examines the Constitution’s relationship with slavery as a conflict between contending normative visions of the Constitution. The emergence of equality as a core constitutional concept cannot be understood apart from this contest. Participants will explore these topics through careful consideration of primary sources. To accomplish this goal, the project directors have developed a curriculum that has bridged the expertise of faculty in fields including: African American Studies, History, Education, and Law.

The two-week institute curriculum integrates documentary evidence, secondary readings, place-based learning, and teacher-created projects. The institute will embrace two overarching themes, one for each week, to serve as the foci of the institute. In the first week, the focus will be on the concepts of equality and slavery during the “constitutional period,” from roughly 1776 through 1820, when much of the Constitution’s structure was established. In the second week, the focus will shift chronologically to the period after 1820 and will place emphasis on specific constitutional disputes such as fugitive slaves, abolitionists’ free speech, and the interstate slave trade. Core readings in constitutional history will both familiarize teachers with advanced content and give them strategies for reading and understanding statutes, court cases, and legal/political arguments. Field trips to museums, plantations, and to historically preserved landmarks will introduce teachers to the geography of the Slave Power, allowing for a better understanding of the setting in which proslavery constitutionalism flourished. Participants will analyze slavery as a constitutional and legal question born from social strife in the past in order to encourage classroom engagement with current conditions of national life. The resolution of past problems through legal and statutory means illuminates how civic participation today can address contemporary constitutional issues, especially with respect to race.

The institute’s cross-disciplinary collaboration of leading scholars will link research in the humanities with classroom teaching. The goal will be to provide illustrations of how best to understand, and teach, constitutional history as a subject. Ample attention will be given to cultivating participants’ historical understanding of the development of central institutions in the American constitutional system as well as the substance of the ferocious constitutional debates that took place. But the intellectual focus on equality and slavery also supports exploration of myriad American subcultures, many with seemingly insurmountable cultural divides—such as slaves, abolitionists, proslavery advocates, free blacks, and women—who participated in the antebellum civic discourse on slavery and equality. As participants will learn, these groups played an important part in a genuine constitutional crisis that none of the central institutions—Congress, the presidency, nor the Supreme Court—proved able to resolve.

In addition to seminars and field trips, participants will engage in an immersive historical role-play. Entitled “Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and the Constitution, 1845,” this simulation is part of Reacting to the Past (RTTP), a peer-reviewed collegiate curriculum with a documented impact on student learning. Institute participants will assume the roles of historical characters such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William Lloyd Garrison, John C. Calhoun, and Frederick Douglass himself. In a series of debates, these historical characters will pit antislavery against proslavery arguments. In the process, we will rigorously examine how peoples of the past were able to read very different meanings into the same constitutional text. The result will not just be a richer appreciation of History, but also a better understanding of how constitutional arguments are made. Participants should be aware that they will be asked to assume roles and ideas that may not correlate with their contemporary political beliefs. This is part of the Institute’s pedagogy. The directors of Courting Liberty will facilitate in-depth debriefings with Institute participants on the challenging topics of abolitionist and proslavery arguments.

While the central focus of the institute is to deepen NEH Summer Scholars’ understanding of core constitutional documents—such as congressional statutes, Supreme Court opinions, the Constitution, abolitionist and proslavery literature from the time period—the institute has another purpose: to broaden participants’ understanding of constitutional history as a contest between normative orders rather than as a set of “true” principles to be explicated by the Supreme Court. This goal will be accomplished by emphasizing critical reading skills in the best tradition of the humanities—teaching schoolteachers how to read constitutional documents as texts, and in context.

 

 

 

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