“When people wrote ‘All men are created equal,’ they really meant men; but they didn't mean any other men except white men who owned land. That's what they meant. But because the ideas are powerful, there's no way that they could get away with holding to that. It's not possible when you have an idea that's as powerful and as revolutionary as a country founded on the idea that just because you're in the world, just because you're here, you have a right to certain things that are common to all humanity. 1 ” – Rosemary Bray
How did you learn about the Founding Era in your US History class?
During my K-12 education, I learned about the men that my teachers sometimes called the “Founding Fathers”. My classmates and I got Presidents’ Day 2 off of school to honor these men because they fought a revolution for freedom and founded the United States. I learned these uncomplicated facts in a textbook that I would later mindlessly replicate on a weekly quiz.
Despite the good grades I received on those effortless quizzes, an aspect of the Founding did not make sense: when Thomas Jefferson wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” his words excluded me. In fact, most people were excluded because he really meant white men who owned property. In my K-12 education, I did not have an opportunity to interrogate the dissonance between Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence and what my enslaved ancestors endured as they hoped and fought for freedom.
As a teacher, I was determined to teach a more accurate version of US History; therefore, I made some significant adjustments when teaching the Founding Era. Instead of relying on a textbook for instruction, I opted for the close reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In order to tell a more diverse range of stories from the Founding Era, I included voices from the Founding Era like Benjamin Banneker, Phillis Wheatley, and Abigail Adams alongside the voices of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. To make my lessons more engaging, I played Hamilton video clips and assigned letters that showed that first presidents did not particularly like each other. I was also clear about the role of slavery in the lives and fortune of most of our early presidents.
In spite of my pedagogical shifts, the story of the Founding Era still centered on the men who are honored on President’s Day. Yet, when students only hear the voices of similarly situated white men, the legacy of the Founding Era is incomplete. In order to better understand the Founding Era, educators also need to incorporate the voices of people who were excluded from the traditional narrative of the Founding. “We the People Expanding the Teaching of the US Founding”, our new C3-style inquiry, lifts up the marginalized voices of thinkers, leaders, activists, and advocates who offered powerful insights and critiques of a United States in formation, and both authored and claimed democratic ideals for themselves.
“We the People” begins by inviting students to examine the ideals of freedom written in the Declaration of Independence. Next, it asks students to explore the contradictions that were present at the Founding through the eyes of Pequot minister William Apess, women’s rights activist Judith Sargent Murray, and a group of enslaved men in Massachusetts who petitioned for their freedom. Then, students reflect on the legacy of the Founding as they interact with the words and art of Titus Kaphar. Finally, students take informed action by researching lesser-known Founding Era figures and exploring their legacy.
“We the People” is an important contribution to Facing History’s U.S. History resources. It invites students to think critically about the complexities of the U.S. founding, honoring the legacy of the historic actors who are often missing from our textbooks but who made pivotal contributions to the pursuit of integrity and inclusivity in the democratic ideals we continue to uphold today.
- 1Quoted in “Toward a More Perfect Union in an Age of Diversity,” PBS website, companion materials to A More Perfect Union, accessed February 7, 2023.
- 2While legally Presidents’ Day is celebrated as George Washington’s birthday, there has been a push to acknowledge the contributions of all of the presidents on this day.