In the past I have spent a lot of time stressing over readings for my 300-level course on the American Revolution at Messiah College. How many monographs should I assign? How should I balance new works with classics in the field? What are the seminal scholarly articles that must be assigned? What about important primary sources?
This year I decided to avoid the stress and assign only two textbooks. The first text is Gordon Wood’s short and concise The American Revolution: A History. Wood’s text is limited in what it accomplishes, but I want students to have a political overview of the events leading up to the revolution, the war, and the confederation period.
The second text is Richard D. Brown and Benjamin Carp’s reader Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791. This text is loaded with excerpts from some of the best secondary essays in the field (Gordon Wood, Alfred Young, Gary Nash, Fred Anderson, Carp, McConville, Armitage, Jasanoff, Dowd, Sinha, Zagarri, Crane, Butler, Noll, Onuf, Gross, Beeman, Cornell, Bouton) and some very teachable primary sources.
Most importantly, Major Problems allows me to assign manageable readings that my students can actually digest and discuss. It allows us to spend more time analyzing primary sources and has enabled me to introduce historiography more effectively. The discussions in class have been much better because we are not rushing to finish one monograph and get to another. After fifteen years of teaching this course it now feels less like a graduate seminar and much more like an undergraduate history course.
Here is what we have done so far:
Day 1: Introduction to the course.
Day 2: Discussion of the “Britishness” of the colonies of the eve of the American Revolution. Here I reveal my preference for the Anglicization interpretation of British America. Ben Franklin’s “For Interest of Great Britain Considered” (1760) was perfect for this discussion.
Day 3: We talked about the 12-15 research paper the students will write. I introduced students to the Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers collections. (We are fortunate to have these resources at Messiah College–thanks Beth Mark!).
Day 3: Discussion of four documents on changes in British customs policy and the Proclamation of 1763. My favorite is George Washington’s letter to his land agent about trying to illegally buy land beyond the Proclamation line. It portrays Washington as a self-interested land speculator. This is a side of Washington that is new to most of my students.
Day 4: We read documents on the Stamp Act. Brown and Carp include sources chronicling the violent resistance to the Act as well as the more intellectual opposition that came through people like Patrick Henry and the Stamp Act Congress. The students really enjoy the descriptions of mob activity in New York written by Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden and his son David. Today one student pointed out David Colden’s blatant attempt to land a job as a stamp collector and court the favor of the powers-that-be in London. Rank ambition indeed! (Colden would end up fleeing to Canada).