Thursday, September 16, 2010

US History: Gold and War

My thinking about history has been heavily influenced by my friend, Fr. Mark. He is a particularly brilliant person and the only natural historian I've met (besides being a particularly fine human being and a great priest- a rare find, indeed!). By "brilliant," I mean he got his doctorate (with distinction) by taking 2 years of classes and writing the dissertation in a few months while teaching a full load of classes. By "natural historian," I mean that he naturally looks at everything he encounters from a historical perspective. This is the sort of person I love to talk to about homeschooling stuff - talk about striking gold!

His perspective on history is fascinating: he sees history as a series of moral choices and consequences. He, in turn, is heavily influenced by Plutarch's Lives - a book which is often used for history but was intended as morality (remember our Plutarch Party?). Anyway, we've been looking at US History through this lens and I'm starting to see it really pay off.

This week we went "high tide" with history. We started with the Trail of Tears and the Indian Removal Act with a lot of conversation about why governments sometimes make immoral choices and how some choices can't be unmade. How much are we responsible for the choices made before we are born? We also talked about Andrew Jackson and how someone can do some good things and some bad things (he was the hero of New Orleans in the decisive battle of the War of 1812, but he went on to ignore the Supreme Court when it told him his Indian Removal Act was unconstitutional).

We went on to the Gold Rush of 49, with a lot of conversation about "getting rich quick" and greed. We've also looked at the Potato Famine and the problems with religious and political conflict in Ireland. We looked more closely at the flood of immigration between 1840 and 1860 and the back lash of the "Know Nothings" and other anti-immigration sentiment. I feel like I'm reading the back story of today's immigration debate. It's horribly ironic to read about the Indian Removal Act and have the same people fight against immigrants coming and taking their land...

I feel like I'm learning so much. I never really saw that the immigration was tied to the Civil War, but really, the North kept growing, economically as well as in population, through immigration. All those immigrants settled in the North because the jobs they would have done in the South were being done by slaves (besides, slavery was repugnant: the immigrants had just escaped oppressive regimes that wouldn't stoop so low as to allow slavery).

Meanwhile the South stagnated because of slavery. Cotton was so profitable when using slaves that there was no incentive to try anything else, but it was the North that bought the cotton and wove it into cloth. It was carried by Northern ships and the cloth sold by Northern traders. It was the North that was building factories and railroads.

We've talked a lot about why people make certain choices. Were the Northerners so much more virtuous? How much harder is it to oppose an immoral choice that you "benefit" from? How much are we affected by the consequences of our choices? What about the consequences you can't predict? What do you do if a law requires you to do something immoral (like the Fugitive Slave Act)?

All those choices and all those consequences. It's been a week of heavy conversations, but it's been fantastic!

For those following along at home (Hi, Grammie!) we are on page 150 of The Story of America.

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