We Rest Our Case: American Slavery Is Widely Mistaught

After hearing from skeptics about our Teaching Hard History report findings, TT Director Maureen Costello came across striking new evidence that the project is necessary.
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I heard from plenty of skeptics last month when Teaching Tolerance announced that a year-long investigation showed that U.S. students were getting short shrift when it came to learning the full impact of American slavery on our nation. Teachers lamented poor resources, textbooks routinely whitewashed the story, and state standards were, in a word, timid. As a result, high school seniors we surveyed were unable to identify slavery as the key reason for southern secession and didn't know that the Constitution both enshrined slavery and ultimately needed to be amended to end it. 

We pointed out that, in general, teaching about slavery was superficial, failed to recognize the many ways enslaved labor fueled the economic growth of the entire nation during the 19th century, minimized the humanity of those who were enslaved, and failed to connect the dots between the past and the present. 

The skeptics questioned the survey, argued with the centrality of slavery as a cause of the war, and defended current school curriculum. A handful of textbook publishers pushed back, too. 

But only a few weeks after we published our report, new evidence landed in my inbox in the form of a promotional email from the Bill of Rights Institute, a Koch brothers-funded nonprofit whose purported mission is to educate young people about the Constitution by sponsoring student contests, providing curriculum and training teachers. 

This particular email was shilling a “Homework Help Video” in a series aimed at preparing students for the APUSH exam. The topic was “Slavery and the Road to Civil War.”  

I watched the YouTube video, and all I can say is, “I rest my case.”

The short presentation is narrated by a youthful actor reading a script that panders to the target audience by commiserating about “any exam that your teacher is inflicting upon you.”  

And then, in just 4.25 short minutes loaded with the kind of superficial facts you'd find in a middle school textbook, the Bill of Rights Institute manages to get at least eight of those facts wrong, causing this history teacher's head to explode a little. Here are a few areas where the Bill of Rights Institute should have done some fact-checking: 


Wrong: The 1820 Compromise maintained a “balance in Congress between the number of free states and slave states.” 

It's a common mistake to conflate the House of Representatives with the Senate, but not one you'd expect from a group dedicated to educating about the Constitution. In fact, the balance was in the Senate. In the House, by virtue of the three-fifths clause, southern states got a boost, so that a southern vote for representative effectively had more weight than a vote from a non-slave state. Not mentioned in the video. 


Wrong: The issue was reopened in “1846, with America's victory in the Mexican War.” 

While most AP courses aren't about memorizing names and dates, it would be good to get the date right when you do mention it. The Mexican War began in 1846; victory didn't happen for another two years. More importantly, what re-opened the debate was the so-called Mexican Cession, including what is now New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and part of Colorado, a part of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signed in 1848. 


Wrong: The Compromise of 1850 “allowed TX and CA to enter the Union under the concept of popular sovereignty.” 

This is emphasized with a bulleted list and helpful maps illustrating how California and Texas voters chose freedom and slavery, respectively, in 1850. Hey, hip dude, you might want to brush up here. The reason we entered the Mexican War in 1846 was because Texas was already a state. Texas was annexed to the United States as a slave state in 1845 by joint resolution of Congress. Popular sovereignty never applied in Texas. 


Wrong: The Compromise of 1850 preserved “the political balance in Congress, and sectional tensions calmed.” 

Actually, it ended the balance in the Senate. With the admission of California, there were 16 free states and 15 slave states. And anger over the stronger Fugitive Slave Act fueled the growing abolitionist and Free Soil movements.

Wrong: “Slave-owners supported popular sovereignty because it meant slavery could expand into northern areas.” 

Clearly, no part of the Mexican Cession can be geographically defined as a northern area, unless you're pushing the idea that slavery was an exclusively southern institution and the North was, by definition, anti-slavery. 


Incomplete: Abolitionists opposed popular sovereignty because they didn't think “inalienable human rights, such as liberty, should ever be subject to a popular vote.” 

While this is true, it vastly understates the motives and ideologies of abolitionists. 


Wrong: Popular sovereignty in Kansas came about because of the Compromise of 1850.

In fact, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act extended popular sovereignty, and the possibility of slavery, to territories where slavery had been outlawed under the Missouri Compromise. The omission of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a video that seems determined to list every major political stepping stone on the road to war is puzzling, but omitted it is. 


Whitewashed: The Dred Scott decision is an unfortunate one whose worst offense was finding that “slaves were no more than personal property that could be taken across states lines.” 

In fact, Chief Justice Roger Taney's decision in Dred Scott is appalling for enshrining racism in our law. Here's what Taney actually wrote: “They [enslaved people] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

In discussing our report, Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, one of the Teaching Hard History advisors, characterized the way American slavery is taught as “educational malpractice.” This “lesson” is ample evidence of what that malpractice looks like. 

Even were it accurate, it fails all the criteria for teaching hard history. It's superficial, drained of humanity and neglects to reckon with the economic and social reality of what opponents called “the slave power.” 

It's also false advertising. As a former APUSH teacher and reader (what those of us who gathered to read and rate the essays for the College Board called ourselves), I will note that the level of information in this video is far short of the deep content and thinking required of an AP student. 

Teachers everywhere, please don't recommend this resource to your students unless you are ready to plead guilty to educational malpractice. 

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.

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