Arguing with American History 

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, where she teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, the humanities, creative writing, and American history. She is the author of many books, including the best-selling These Truths, which she has expanded into a two-volume textbook edition (publishing December 2022). She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and host of the podcast The Last Archive.

Jill Lepore
Image Credit: Dari Pillsbury

The most exciting final exam I ever gave wasn’t an exam at all. It was a constitutional convention. It lasted three hours. Every minute was thrilling: edge-of-your-seat argument, impassioned debate, rousing speeches, hard bargains, fragile alliances, pitched contestation, and excellent snacks (barrels of coffee, boxes of donuts, bags of clementines, and for lunch, burritos and Jarritos). Democracy isn’t easy, but it’s for sure better with beverages. 

I didn’t start out thinking that teaching American history meant teaching civics, too. I only came around to that point of view after decades in the classroom, decades during which American democracy has been in decline, decades when Americans have stopped engaging in some of the most basic practices of democracy—joining an organization, coming up with rules, making decisions together, listening, arguing, voting, compromising. Democracy is a habit, as The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum has pointed out, and, lately, a lot of Americans have lost the habit, or never even acquired it.  

You could see this in the classroom. I’d started to notice, as had a great many schoolteachers and professors, that my students had gotten uncomfortable with disagreement. They were happy to agree with one another, but they seemed to think that disagreeing meant being disagreeable. I started teaching in the mid-1990s. By the early aughts, I’d begun to notice a change. I blamed cable television, where you could see a lot of disagreement and nearly all of it was ugly, witless, and useless. I could see why my students had become shy of it. I started, here and there, in an occasional class meeting, staging formal debates. The first one I ever held, in 2004, was a debate about the presidential election of 1800, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. A much-admired colleague came to serve as moderator. Two students served as judges. The class was a freshman seminar. The point of the class was to examine the origins of the party system. Somehow, duking it out around a seminar table, Federalists on one side and Jeffersonians on the other, the abstraction of that idea became very real.  

I tried out exercises like that, here and there, until a few years back, when I designed a U.S. history survey class around the idea of arguing with American history. It doesn’t involve role-playing, or anything close to it. For this course, which I called the Democracy Project, I assigned students a different set of primary documents each week and staged what I came to call “deliberations” (rather than formal “debates,” which can freak some students out). The point was to hold a structured argument about a historical interpretation. Each week had a new set of readings, and a new resolution (Resolved: The American Revolution upended the political order. Or, Resolved: Annexing the Philippines represented a break from American democratic traditions. Or, Resolved: The environmental management state democratized nature and its resources.) They were all contestable claims, and I, and a tremendous team of graduate students, put together primary documents sets that would allow students to argue, effectively, either for or against the resolution. Early in the semester, we also practiced arguing, partly so the students could get familiar with the fairly strict rules for deliberating (which I designed, above all, to insure equality of student participation). I brought in an amazing acting instructor who offered workshops on public speaking, to help students get over their understandable anxiety about a class where nearly all of their work involved speaking up.  

And that was fun. But I got frustrated that the students were learning only one democratic habit: arguing either for or against something. What about creating something? What about forming an alliance? What about compromising? The best idea I ever had was to divide the students into caucuses. At the start of the semester, I asked each student to propose ten possible amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Then, based on their interests, I divided them into caucuses, by topic. Over the course of the semester, each caucus had to research their topic (say, voting rights, or immigration policy, or environmental justice) and propose a constitutional amendment. Each caucus had to write a paper, providing the history of amendment efforts on this topic and justifying their own proposal. They had to get petitions in support of their amendment and each caucus had to form a coalition with at least one other caucus. For a final exam, we held a constitutional convention. A Rules Caucus devised all the rules and moderated the convention itself.  

It was the best three hours I ever spent in the classroom, and I didn’t say a word. I drank my coffee and ate my donuts and watched, gripped, as a room of students argued about the past and present of every major topic in American history. They argued about everything from felon enfranchisement to Supreme Court term limits. They argued from history, and from evidence. They disagreed, and they agreed, and they compromised, and they made motions and proposed amendments to the rules and they won narrowly and they lost narrowly and when things got heated, the Rules Caucus restored order. They voted, and they accepted the results. And then it was time for burritos. 

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