Expanding “We the People”
This inquiry provides students with a vital reframing of the history of the founding of the United States. It centers the voices and experiences of people excluded from the definition of “We the People” enshrined in our founding documents. By exploring an array of primary sources from these perspectives—including the Pequot minister and activist William Apess, a group of Black abolitionists from Massachusetts, and Judith Sargent Murray, an advocate for white women’s rights—students will see how groups excluded from political participation and denied rights during the early years of the nation nonetheless played an essential role in articulating the promise of its democracy.
This inquiry explores their contributions in order to broaden students’ understanding of the pioneering individuals and identities that worked to build a more just and inclusive nation. The goal is to foster in students an awareness that the act of founding the nation is ongoing and open to participation by all. This awareness can both inform and inspire students as they prepare to exercise their civic agency today.
While this resource prompts students to expand their ideas about who should be considered a “founder” of the nation, it is important to note the complexities of the term “founder.” Many Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, for example, were not invested in the project of “founding” the nation or obtaining citizenship within it. They were not offered the option to participate or given the choice to opt out. Nevertheless, for those people denied rights at the time of founding, expanding the nation’s ideals became a necessary part of their struggles for freedom and self-determination.
Exploring the Complexities of the Founding
In both American popular culture and high school survey courses, our nation’s beginnings are too often celebrated uncritically, while the oppression endured by those left out of the nation’s political and social community at its founding is either minimized or erased. By presenting an uncritical view of the Founding Fathers and founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the dominant narrative also ignores the accomplishments of those same communities. Such narratives can foster in students a distorted understanding of history, as well as an incomplete sense of how individual and collective choices have shaped our history.
This resource, by contrast, invites students to probe the gaps between the ideals in those founding documents and the lived realities of injustice in the United States. At the center of this inquiry is an examination of the nation’s founding paradox: declaring that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” while refusing freedom and equality to so many of the nation’s inhabitants, both in 1776 and in the centuries since.
This inquiry takes inspiration from the author James Baldwin, who wrote that US history is “more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
Baldwin compels us to understand the history of the United States through the lens of its founding paradox rather than quickly resolving it. By examining both the revolutionary potential of ideas like “all men are created equal” and the nation’s failure from the start to live up to those ideals, students will be prepared at the end of the inquiry to explore US history in all its complexity.