The reason so many academics miss the real history of America is that they assume that ideas don’t matter and that there is no such thing as virtue.
–Introduction to A Patriot’s History of the United States1
This quote contains two parts that we must consider when reading Larry Schweikart’s story of American history. First, his book is based on the claim that ideas matter (this ties in nicely with the Challenge III philosophy text The Consequences of Ideas). Secondly, he assumes that there is or at least was such a thing as virtue, particularly civic virtue.
In the Challenge program, our children learn primarily through dialectic. They learn to precisely define terms, to recognize patterns in history and literature, and to compare and contrast ideas. One of the things they learn very quickly is that ideas matter. Discussion of the big ideas which have influenced history leads to dynamic discussion and debate. Many of these rich conversations occur in the American history course.
In Challenge III, students begin their study of American history with a brief comparison of the ideas of mercantilism versus capitalism. When the Spanish explored South America, they fully supported mercantilism—the theory that the world’s wealth was fixed and that the nation with the most resources would automatically become the most powerful nation. Therefore, they approached South America literally as a gold mine and raced to extract its natural resources and export them to Spain. The result was enslavement and impoverishment of the native peoples. Ideas have consequences.
How does this compare to the ideas held by the first settlers of North America? The British newcomers to Jamestown, Virginia briefly flirted with the idea of mining North America for her resources. However, the realities of starvation quickly dawned on settlers who had no plans for feeding the community. So, instead of gold miners, they became tobacco farmers. As more settlers came to America, emphasis was firmly placed on acquiring personal land and cultivating a new society. In contrast to the mercantilism of Spain, young North American colonies were already flirting with the idea of capitalism. American settlers were not interested in mining the new land for resources and exporting them back to England. Instead, they focused on acquiring private property in order to support their families and, ultimately, a new nation.
In fact, perhaps the biggest idea to influence the formation of the United States was the emphasis on private property. Dialectic discussions lead students to the recognition of private property as a huge difference between America and other countries. The abundance of land and the commitment to private ownership and development of the land permeated every decision made by the new government.
Many modern history texts will teach students that the Founding Fathers tied voting to property ownership because they were wealthy, land-owning snobs who wanted to oppress the masses. These analyses fail to appreciate the guiding idea of the early settlers who believed that private ownership of the land gave individuals a vested interest in protecting their liberties and in building a new country. Thus, the private ownership of land was a prerequisite of voting because it was interconnected to their civic virtue. As Schweikart phrases it “character was tied to liberty, and liberty to property. All three were needed for success, but character was the prerequisite because it put the law behind property agreements, and it set responsibility right next to liberty” (xxiii).
In order to help students compare and contrast these big ideas, to truly engage in dialectic, we can use the common topics of rhetoric. The common topic of circumstance asks students to investigate what else was going on at that time. The investigation of circumstance might lead them to the previous discussion about the vast differences between European exploration of North America and South America.
Circumstance might lead them to ask questions about private property ownership in European nations during the colonial years. Was land readily available? Were citizens of other countries able to cultivate land for the improvement of themselves and their families? What kind of liberties did citizens of European nations enjoy during the colonial years? Is the idea of private property biblical? How did the colonials view liberty and property as inextricably intertwined?
The common topic of comparison might lead to other revelations. Comparison trains students to examine two ideas and discover their similarities or differences. One lesson that the students learn well in their studies of literature and world history is that succession—the change from one ruler to the next—is rarely smooth. Instead, it is often preceded by wars and followed by periods of chaos. In Challenge III, this is a lesson they learn well through the stories of Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Their studies of American history lead them to a much different conclusion.
In fact, the transition of power in America has remained smooth and peaceful for over 200 years. Students learn that the election of 2000 was not the first contested election in American history. Instead, it was the election of 1800, just eleven years into the presidential system. In that close race, John Adams quietly walked away from the presidency and handed the government over to Thomas Jefferson. There was no war or rioting, no military coup, just a peaceful transition from one leader to the next. What underlying ideal in the American system has ensured this peaceful transition of power every four to eight years from 1789 to the present?
Schweikart writes that the main distinctive of American history is that only here have the “twin principles of liberty and virtue . . . been adopted. Only in America, were one was permitted to do almost anything, but expected to do the best thing, did these principles germinate” (xxiv).
On this July 4th, my family will spend some time truly contemplating liberty. What is liberty—is it the freedom to do anything? Do we still expect our citizens to do the best thing? What must we do to ensure that freedom rings?
1 Schweikart, Larry, Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States. New York. Penguin Group, 2004.