Fall SAVY 2019: Day 1 – Spies and Conspiracies (Grades 5/6)
This week, our SAVY students learned the keys to becoming historians and began delving more deeply into the critical but under-appreciated era of the Early Republic (Early US 1780-1800, roughly). We kicked off our day with introductions and setting our classroom rules. I asked our group to answer the following question: if you could pick anyone in history to have dinner with, who would it be? What an array of answers! They are a well rounded and cultured group. We were dining with everyone from Shakespeare to Benedict Arnold, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Queen Elizabeth II! We moved on very quickly to brainstorming. I’m so impressed with the background knowledge and interest our historians have of the American Revolution and Early Republic. They also did quite a nice job of describing spies and conspiracies that they had already heard about.
Our first exercise was to consider the questions: what is a historian, and what does a historian do? We concluded that a historian and a detective really use a lot of the same techniques. First, they identify a big question or mystery. Second, they gather evidence. Third, they interrogate the evidence (the who done it questions, who, what, when, where, why, how). Fourth, they piece together timelines and analyze their evidence and data. Fifth, they use the evidence to make an argument or a theory to address their initial question. Our detective historians then made their own detective notebooks, complete with detective or spy code names and a list of tools that they want to bring with them on their historical pursuits.
We got some practice analyzing and piecing together evidence by looking at Paul Revere’s famous etching of the Boston Massacre and comparing it with Theodore Bliss’s testimony of the same event. Our historians did a nice job of deciding what we could conclude about the event based on the evidence, and well as what questions we still could not answer.
From there, we jumped into our material. We did a brief overview of the American Revolution and the end of the war with a focus on the importance of France and Spain in the war. Not only did France and Spain contribute to the military success of the United States, but Spain’s active participation in the war impacted territorial claims in North America after the war ended in 1781.
After our delicious pizza lunch, it was back unpacking the challenges facing the young United States. We discussed the territorial challenges of the new nation and then turned our attention to the articles of Confederation. Why were they so “weak”? What could the national government do and not do? What challenges did this pose for the new nation? We discussed national security, the problem of paying national debts when congress couldn’t levy taxes or compel the states to pay taxes, the inability of congress to pay the continental army and the danger of mutiny and military take-over of the revolution that that issue posed, the conflict among the states as they competed for territory and raced to slap tariffs on one another. These were only some of the challenges facing the United States at the dawn of 1783.
Such an unstable and unpredictable environment was naturally ripe for conspiracy. We then turned our attention to the Newburgh Conspiracy of March 1783. Our detective historians did a remarkable job of decoding George Washington’s beautiful but wordy eighteenth century language to discover his experience of this conspiracy among his officers that threatened to take down the new nation. To read more about the Newburgh Conspiracy or for Washington’s correspondence with Alexander Hamilton, please visit https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/newburgh-conspiracy/ and https://allthingshamilton.com/index.php/hamilton-database/original-source-documents/56-hamilton-database/160-newburgh-conspiracy-correspondence-with-george-washington.
We covered a lot of ground on Saturday, and our detective historians did a stellar job. With the many challenges facing the United States under the Articles of Confederation, there were many other conspiracies besides the one hatched at Newburgh, New York. I’m looking forward to learning much more about them with our wonderful detectives this Saturday!