APUSH and the American Founding: Concepts Supplant History

Joseph F. Kett

The distinctive claim made by the APUSH prospectus is that the AP course it sketches will teach students how to think like historians and become “apprentice historians.” The course will educate students to assess the evidence that supports different interpretations of the same historical event, to understand both how and why interpretations change over time, and thereby to explain that historians are not just reporters who state the facts of the past. The prospectus describes (p.12) nine “historical thinking skills” that the AP exam will test.  In addition, the prospectus outlines a course that seeks to stay abreast of developments in the historical profession. To these ends, the prospectus presents “key concepts,” which are defined as “claims, based on current scholarship about United States history, that are typically analyzed in a college-level survey course.” Students are expected “to be familiar with these concepts,” which are nevertheless open to “differences in interpretation.” The section of the AP exam devoted to free-response questions gives students the opportunity to challenge, support, or modify assertions made by the concepts.

Information vs. Concepts

To an observer, it’s not clear whether or how students will be equipped to challenge, support or modify the concepts. While the prospectus states that students must be “familiar” with the concepts, the concepts do not provide “a list of groups, individuals, dates, or historical details” (p. 10).  Perhaps students will receive direction from their teachers; each teacher is responsible “for selecting relevant historical evidence of his or her own choosing” to “explore the concepts in depth” (p.10). As far as I can determine, the AP course does not require students to master specific historical information. The prospectus appears to assume that teachers will know which facts to connect to each concept, but the concepts are so general that it is difficult to see how they can form the basis of a curriculum that affords students a grip on the sort of basic knowledge of American history that professors expect that students have mastered. The authors of the prospectus acknowledge that in trial runs teachers have asked for examples to support the extremely general key concepts and they have responded by inserting “gray boxes containing possible examples” into the prospectus (p. 30). 

A broad synthesis of the material in each time period precedes the key concepts. For example, for the period from 1754 to 1800 the synthesis states: “British imperial attempts to reassert control over its colonies and the colonial reaction to these attempts produced a new American republic, along with struggles over the new nation’s social, political, and economic identity.” I will say more about this shortly.

In addition to each period’s synthesis followed by its key concepts, seven themes - also called “thematic learning objectives” - are enumerated: identity; work, exchange, and technology; peopling; politics and power; America in the world; environment and geography; and ideas, beliefs, and culture. These themes “focus student understanding of major historical issues and developments” and assist students in recognizing broad trends. The themes are stated as learning objectives because each seeks to educate students how to “explain” or “analyze” the past rather than ensure that they are familiar with the master narrative of events, personages, and dates.  Because “every AP Exam question will be rooted in these specified learning objectives” (p. 10), these “topics of historical inquiry are to be taught throughout the course.” Although required to teach each theme in each period, teachers nevertheless will be free to select “relevant historical evidence” to teach both the key concepts and the themes.

Facts Out, Subjective Analysis In

I hope that the foregoing, very brief statement summarizes the essentials of the prospectus. The prospectus is ambitious, even revolutionary. Out goes any requirement for students to learn specified facts and dates; in comes a new requirement that students be able to bring information of their or their teachers’ choosing to bear on the analysis of historical issues. In the words of the prospectus (p.20), “all questions on the AP U.S. History Exam will measure student understanding of the specified [thematic] learning objectives.” The prospectus also provides a coding system to aid students and teachers. It gives each thematic learning objective a code designation: ID (Identity), WXT (Work, Exchange and Technology), PEO (Peopling), POL (Politics and Power), WOR (America in the World), ENV (Environment and Geography – physical and human), CUL (Ideas, beliefs and Culture). This coding “will help teachers see how the learning objectives, which are the source of all AP Exam questions, can be applied to various statements in the concept outline” (p.31).

 To illustrate, if we turn to Period 3: 1754-1800, we first meet the synthesis quoted above, immediately followed by key concept 3.1, which states that “Britain’s victory over France in the imperial struggle for North America led to new conflicts among the British government, the North American colonies, and American Indians, culminating in the creation of a new nation, the United States.” This is immediately followed by three subheads that focus on white-Indian conflict. One of these subheads states that, after Britain’s defeat of France in the Seven Years War, “white-Indian conflicts continued to erupt as native groups sought both to continue trading with Europeans and to resist the encroachment of British colonists on traditional tribal lands.” This is followed by a gray box that tells teachers that they have flexibility to use Pontiac’s Rebellion and the Proclamation of 1763 to illustrate the claim just quoted. Pontiac’s Rebellion aimed at far more than resisting “the encroachment of British colonists on traditional tribal lands.” Do the authors just assume that teachers will know about Neolin, not to mention the blankets infected with small pox that the British distributed to the Indians? The sentence in which “native groups” form the subject can’t accommodate the Proclamation, which was a decree issued by George III and aimed at restricting the movement of white settlers.

Similar problems bedevil the next subhead: “During and after the colonial war for Independence, various tribes attempted to forge advantageous political alliances with one another and with European powers to protect their interests, limit migration of white settlers, and maintain their tribal lands.” Here a gray box inserts the Iroquois Confederation, Chief Little Turtle, and the Western Confederacy. But the Iroquois Confederation was formed long before the American Revolution. The “Western Confederacy” is not a household name, though the prospectus might be trying to make it one.

There is a bigger problem here, the failure of the prospectus to integrate its sections on white-Indian conflict into the larger narrative of American history. One gets the impression that the authors of the prospectus are trying to cram the Indians in at every turn but the right turn. “During and after” the war the most important development contributing to white-Indian conflict was the formation of states out of colonies and their cession to the United States of more than 160 million acres of land north of the Ohio River. Would it not have made more sense to integrate the land cession and the resulting conflicts between whites and Indians with the story of the new Confederation and to point out that the Indians now confronted land claims by a nation most of them had fought against? 

We finally get to the Imperial Crisis on p. 43. From this point, the logical direction would be to describe the evolution of resistance to British rule. The gray box on p. 43 drops a few names: the Stamp Act, Committees of Correspondence, and the Intolerable Acts. But no real attempt is made to describe the development of American Whig thinking. There is an outstanding secondary literature on this topic, which unveils the stumbling process by which Revolution came to be seen as inevitable by those who previously doubted. In 1760, no one saw the movement for independence on the horizon, and even after the Stamp Act, which elicited furious and violent resistance, colonists, elite and grassroots alike, expected to stay in the Empire. The prospectus doesn’t even hint at the complexity of the issues that had to be resolved before Independence.

The Revolutionary War: Short Version

Nor does the prospectus do more than drive by the Revolutionary War. Perhaps we should be grateful that it at least mentions the war. In the chapter on the period from 1607 to 1754, the prospectus refers to factors promoting “Anglicization in the British colonies” (p. 40) and then blows an opportunity to integrate the colonial wars that were side-shows to European dynastic wars (King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War) into the narrative. In each of these wars, Anglo-Americans and the British fought side-by-side, the Indian tribes played a significant role in all of them, and each war saw Protestants aligned against Catholics.  In sum, there is a lot of ID, CUL, and WOR in these wars, and they could have been cited as evidence of Anglicization.

As for the Revolutionary War, all we learn is that, despite the considerable number of loyalists, the patriots won because of their greater familiarity with the land, resilient military and political leadership, ideological commitment, and “their support from European allies.” Really? Why then did the British win most of the battles, including the battles of Brooklyn and Camden, where the Americans were fighting nearly in their backyards? The British were defeated more by the immensity of the country than by their lack of familiarity with the countryside. The Americans did not have “European allies.” The Americans had one ally who counted, France, which was allied with Spain. The French monarchy had little sympathy with the American cause, but it did have a score to settle with Britain. France’s contribution—it sent both an army and a navy—was indispensable to American success.

It is also surprising, in view of the prospectus’s stress on placing the U.S. in a global context, that it makes no mention of the fact that the 1778 alliance with France linked the American Revolution to a global war fought from the Carolina back country to the West Indies and beyond to India and Gibraltar. Teachers cannot be presumed to know that a major reason for the decision by Britain to sue for peace after Cornwallis’s surrender lay in the fact that by 1781 Britain was involved in a global conflict. The Alliance was instrumental in the American victory and it affords a much better illustration of the global context than the prospectus’s vapid references to the French Revolution, which I will examine below. 

In view of the prospectus’s emphasis on Identity, it is surprising that it has nothing to say about the contribution of the Revolutionary War to the formation of national identity. I find no reference to the problem of forging a national army out of thirteen provincial armies, or constructing a national spirit at a time when most people’s loyalties were to their states, more than to the nation. Trying to account for this omission, I found an illuminating sentence on p. 21: the course is expected to teach students to analyze “how competing conceptions of national identity were expressed in the development of political institutions and cultural values from the late colonial through the antebellum period.” Identity is not a household concept for most historians. If the course is to teach what the prospectus claims it will teach, then we are going to need more guidance. For starters, I would like to see a few examples (I’d settle for one) of “competing conceptions of national identity” during the period 1754-1800.

Diversity Trumps History

The prospectus’s emphasis on diversity suffers from a related problem. The authors of the prospectus do not appear to be much interested in the conventional narrative of the public events of American history. I have the impression that they are eager to get on with the really important story, which is about the “formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities” (p. 21). They seem to assume that this mainly occurs off stage, in slave quarters and back-country clashes between Indians and settlers, and in areas that would not become part of the U.S. for decades. For example, on p. 47, in a section on migration to the interior which created “new distinctive back country cultures” and unspecified “social and ethnic tensions,” I encounter the following: “The Spanish, supported by bonded labor of the local Indians, expanded their mission settlements into California, providing opportunities for social mobility among enterprising soldiers and settlers that led to new cultural blending.” California would not become a state until 1850, so why is it in the 1754-1800 time period? Rather astonishingly, a reference to Shays’s Rebellion appears in the same section as an example of social and ethnic tensions arising from new and distinctive back country cultures.  Shays’s Rebellion in 1786 was indeed an important event. It helped to persuade conservatives of the need for a stronger national government. But it should be linked to the economic effects of the war (shortage of specie since Britain only accepted specie, loss of markets in the British West Indies, and the Massachusetts legislature’s decision to pay off the state’s war debt and thus create the need for higher taxes.)

This miscasting of Shays comes in a subhead following key concept 3.3: “Migration within North America, cooperative interaction, and competition for resources raised questions about boundaries and policies, intensified conflict among peoples and nations, and led to conflicts over the creation of a multiethnic, multiracial national identity.” There certainly was a debate over the possibility of forming such an identity. The trouble is that, stirred by the writings of Franz Boas, Israel Zangwill, and Horace Kallen, this debate flared in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Teachers and students should not be sent on a wild goose chase searching for cultural pluralism (or opposition to it) in the era of the Revolution. It wasn’t there.

In sum, we see a prospectus that appears to be more intent on increasing its head count of references to diversity and identity than in connecting these themes to the master narrative. Had the prospectus examined the wartime experiences of slaves and Indians, it could have provided teachers with an excellent way to integrate slaves and Indians into the political narrative of the founding. The flight of slaves to British lines, for example, alienated slaveholding loyalists.  After the war, Britain’s refusal to compensate slaveholders for lost property continued to roil relations between Britain and America, and it was among the reasons cited by Britain for refusing to evacuate its military posts in the northwest.  Wartime attacks by Cherokees in the Carolina back country turned a lot of loyalists into supporters of independence and contributed to Cornwallis’s undoing. Britain’s southern strategy had been predicated on support from back-country loyalists, but finding “a damned hornet’s nest of rebellion” in the Charlotte area (the NBA team has reclaimed the name), he decided to head for Yorktown. The Indians, having mostly sided with the British (for understandable reasons), were the big losers of the war. The British made no provision in the Treaty of Paris for former allies like the Iroquois. Most of the tribes were at the mercy of the U.S.  After having made several treaties with royal colonies, the tribes had made, by the usual count, exactly one treaty with the U.S., a nation whose claim on their lands most tribes refused to accept.

On pp. 43-44, after this anemic treatment of the Imperial Crisis and Revolution, we are informed that the new nation, in response to domestic and international pressures, formulated “foreign policy initiatives and asserted an international presence.” Three subheads follow this statement. The first states that the continued presence of European powers in North America challenged the U.S. to protect its borders, maintain neutral trading rights, and promote its economic interests. But in a chapter that ends in 1800, shouldn’t the prospectus identify Britain and refer to the terms of the Treaty of Paris? To do so, of course, would be to state a fact in a generally fact-free prospectus, but it would also bring slaves and unpaid debts into the narrative. Or do the authors of the prospectus assume that all teachers know this? As for promoting economic self-interest, would it not have been desirable to give teachers some guidance? Promoting economic self-interest for what reason? What we really need here are some concepts and facts about the economic effects of the Revolution. Students need to know about these effects, and we cannot assume that most teachers know them and know how to relate them to the narrative of the new republic. Along with a nearly worthless currency, a major economic problem left by the war lay in the loss of markets abroad, especially in the British West Indies. These economic issues spurred calls for a new constitution and foreshadowed some of the partisan controversies of the 1790s. Many teachers, I am sure, know about the adverse economic effects of the Revolution. But can we assume that they know how to connect these effects to the master narrative of the next decade?

The second subhead states that the French Revolution “helped fuel Americans’ debate not only about the nature of the United States’ domestic order but also about its proper role in the world.” Once again, the reader and the teacher have to wonder what and how. The French Revolution began in 1789, after the keen debates over the ratification of the Constitution. Would it not be wise to inform teachers what to look for? When did the French Revolution start to “fuel” a debate over America’s role in the world? In 1789? Or in the wake of the Terror? How did the French Revolution fit into already established partisan divisions?

The following subhead proclaims that, despite Washington’s warning in his Farewell Address about the dangers of foreign alliances and divisive political parties, “European conflicts and tensions with Britain and France fueled increasingly bitter partisan debates throughout the 1790s.” But the French Revolution did not give birth to parties. Political alignments in the 1790s took shape in response to Hamilton’s economic program (assumption and funding of the state debts at face value and the establishment of the Bank of the United States), which in turn addressed the economic effects of the Revolution. Inasmuch as the Bank issue would roil American politics from McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819 through Jackson’s “war” on the Bank, shouldn’t the bank issue be placed up front? The contribution of “tensions with Britain and France” to partisan disputes ended in 1815, but the Bank issue went on, and on, and on. Once again, I have to wonder if the authors of the prospectus are just assuming that most teachers know all of this.

Whence the New Republic?

We next come to key concept 3.2 (p.44), which states that in the late 18th century, “new experiments with democratic ideas and republican forms of government, as well as other new religious, economic, and cultural ideas, challenged traditional imperial systems throughout the Atlantic World.”

This is a Big Gulp and I wonder how well prepared teachers will be to impart this perspective.   The first subhead under key concept 3.2 rampages over equally vast terrain. It states that in the late 18th century new ideas about politics and society led to “debates about religion and governance and ultimately inspired experiments with new governmental structures” (which subhead, we are reassured, hits the themes of ID, WOR, POL, and CUL.) Next, subhead A states that Protestant evangelical religious fervor strengthened many colonists’ view of themselves as a chosen people, while Enlightenment ideas inspired many American political thinkers to emphasize individual talent over hereditary privilege.

Thus, subhead A consists of two quite different assertions. The first states that Protestant evangelical fervor contributed to the self-image of many British colonists as a chosen people. This is a reasonable assertion, but how are instructors supposed to illustrate it in ways that students will understand? I find it extremely odd that in a prospectus that emphasizes Identity as a “thematic learning objective,” very little is said about Protestantism in this period or in the previous period (1607-1754).  I find only two statements: a statement (p.37) that Puritans seeking to establish a community of like-minded religious believers established the New England colonies and a reference (p. 41) to the Great Awakening, which the prospectus relates to greater religious independence and diversity. How are students supposed to comprehend the notion of a chosen people (chosen to do what?) from these references? Many teachers will know of John Winthrop’s city-on-a-hill sermon in 1629, but not all of them. Most of them would have difficulty relating the Massachusetts’ Puritans’ sense of a chosen people to American identity. The Great Awakening was over by 1770, in fact over by 1750.  It did spur religious diversity. But I can’t think of any figure associated with the Great Awakening who approved of religious diversity. At best, diversity was a byproduct of the revivals. Parishioners, fired by revivals, started to denounce their ministers as “unconverted,”  and in what contemporaries called “coming out,” abandoned Congregationalism and Presbyterianism to become Separatists (or Separate Congregationalists) and Baptists. The Great Awakening, in sum, was a divisive experience, and Identity implies uniformity.

If the prospectus wants to make the point that Protestant fervor became an important component of American identity during the era of the Revolution, why doesn’t it refer to the Quebec Act? Although not strictly speaking one of the Coercive or Intolerable Acts (to which the prospectus alludes) passed in response to the Boston Tea Party, colonists associated this act with the other Coercive Acts and for good reason. New Englanders were profoundly hostile to Catholicism. How hostile? In his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law in 1765, John Adams, eager to establish that New Englanders were ardent lovers of liberty, had to confront the charge that his Puritan ancestors had no regard for liberty for any but themselves (they had exiled heretics and hanged witches). Adams then exuberantly cited the recent endowment by the chief justice of Massachusetts of an endowed lecture “exposing the idolatry, errors, and superstitions of the Romish Church.” To the mind of the young Adams, New Englanders loved liberty because they loathed Catholics. And they went on loathing them; they celebrated Pope’s Day (Guy Fawkes Day) as an anti-Catholic festival into the 1870s, and in one New England town, into the 1890s. And then, nearly 10 years after Adams wrote, the Quebec Act reignited the identity of New Englanders, soon to become Americans, as apostles of the Reformation by extending the boundaries of Quebec to the Ohio River, by making Catholicism the official religion of Quebec, by giving power to a governor while neglecting to mention a legislature, and by institutionalizing French law on property disputes. Within a year the New England cause became the American cause.

The second part of subhead A refers to the role of the Enlightenment in inspiring American political thinkers to emphasize talent over inherited privilege. A gray box informs instructors that they have flexibility to refer to the works of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith as examples of the new ideas of the late 18th century. Locke did influence American thinking about the conditions under which governments could be dissolved and societies returned to the state of nature (the Declaration of Independence paraphrases Locke on this). But if Locke is to be included, shouldn’t the prospectus describe what students are supposed to know about him, perhaps starting with the fact that he died 85 years before the outbreak of the French Revolution? And what possible purpose is served by adding Rousseau and Smith in this context? Rousseau had slender impact on the framers of the American republic. Montesquieu, whose writings guided Americans in their framing of the new constitution, had far more influence, but I don’t find Montesquieu’s name anywhere. Adam Smith’s  rather sneering attitude toward religion (recall that he famously put clowns and clergymen together in his discussion of productive and unproductive labor) alienated many clergymen at a time when economics was a subdivision of “moral philosophy,” and moral philosophy in the colleges was the preserve of clergymen. Initially, Smith favored giving the Americans representation in parliament in order, as he snidely phrased it, to draw their attention away from the petty lottery of provincial politics and focus it on the grand lottery of British politics. Eventually, he supported American independence, but his was not a fiery voice. Smith was a Scot, but the colonists were far more influenced by other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Adam Ferguson, who taught them how societies evolved from simplicity to luxury and then to decay and tyranny (an image the American Whigs of 1776 had of England). Time and again, the prospectus seems more interested in establishing its WOR or ID head count than on linking its “thematic learning objectives” to American history.

Rather amazingly, the prospectus fails to mention one clear and distinct influence of the Enlightenment on American thought in the late 18th century: the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty. In this statute Jefferson went far beyond religious toleration to introduce a new and infectious belief in religious liberty (or freedom), which has become a distinctive feature of the U.S. Inasmuch as the prospectus refers to the connection between the Enlightenment and religion (while providing no remotely plausible example), why does it pass up this profoundly important statute and the important fact that Jefferson built a rather diverse coalition of Baptists and rationalists to secure its passage?

Subhead C under key concept 3.2 states that the new state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation reflected republican fears of centralized power and excessive popular influence in the legislative branch. True. But how does this relate to the concept, which refers to new ideals challenging traditional imperial systems across the Atlantic World? Won’t teachers, not to mention students, have a difficult time relating the new state governments to new ideas sweeping across the “Atlantic World”? The American notion of a constitution as a written document defining the limits of governmental power was new and it had a major influence in Europe. But it certainly was not a product of new ideas sweeping across the Atlantic World. As for the content of the new state constitutions, historians correctly attribute their restrictions on the powers of governors (e.g., term limits) and their enhancement of the power of assemblies to the experience of Americans during the Imperial Crisis, and not to ideas sweeping across the ill-defined “Atlantic World.”

Roman numeral II under key concept 3.2 describes the move to the new Constitution, which subhead A correctly attributes to “difficulties over trade, finances, interstate and foreign relations, as well as internal unrest.” A gray box then refers teachers to “tariff and currency disputes” and Spanish control over navigation of the Mississippi. OK but I find reference to “currency disputes” especially vague. The gray boxes are supposed to provide teachers with guidance as they instruct students in the key concepts. In effect, the box is telling teachers that if they need explanatory material to understand the difficulties over “finances” just cited, they should learn about “currency disputes.” Thank you.

Subhead B briefly describes the compromises implemented in the writing of the new Constitution, while C refers to calls during the ratification process for greater guarantees of rights, resulting in the addition of a Bill of Rights shortly after the Constitution was adopted. Subhead D states that the continued debates in the 1790s about the relationship between the national government and the states, economic policy, and foreign affairs led to the creation of political parties. The gray box then refers (not in chronological order) to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Hamilton’s Financial Plan, and the Proclamation of Neutrality.

Taken together, these subheads comprise an extremely brief and almost abrupt treatment of key developments in the narrative of nation building. With its references to the separation of powers and checks and balances, the prospectus’s treatment of the framing and ratification of the Constitution resembles a grade-school civics course. The prospectus makes it sound as if the key issue in ratification lay in the need for a Bill of Rights. This was a minor issue. Nowhere does the prospectus even hint at the issue that flamed up at most ratification conventions: the extremely small size of the proposed House of Representatives, set at 65 until the first census, making it smaller than nearly all of the state assemblies and one-tenth the size of the House of Commons. Antifederalists reasonably asked whether patriots had fought a revolution for such an unrepresentative assembly. Antifederalists migrated after 1790 to the Jeffersonian standard (one of them, James Monroe, became president) and they carried with them many of the views they first had voiced in opposition to ratification. In 1792 Hamilton published a pamphlet alleging that Jefferson himself had been a closet antifederalist. Noting this raises an important question: why did the supporters of ratification win? A prospectus so devoted to inducing students to think like historians and to see both sides of issues should have put this question into the foreground, but it is not even in the background.

An Unteachable Course

Some critics have attacked the APUSH prospectus for its liberal bias. My point is different. The course it proposes is unteachable. The key concepts thrust teachers into a conceptual haze; the examples provided to guide them are usually instruments of misguidance. Ten teachers randomly selected to teach this course will offer ten courses that differ rather dramatically in content and emphasis. The likelihood of this doesn’t seem to worry the authors of the prospectus, who celebrate the freedom of teachers to teach whatever they think appropriate to an AP course in American history. As one who taught the survey of American history to 1865 for more than a decade at a highly selective university, it worries me. I cannot support allowing students to place out of a college survey without some assurance that they have been taught the story of the founding of the nation.  

Image: Public Domain


Joseph F. Kett is James Madison Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Virginia.  He is the author of many works in American cultural and intellectual history including, most recently, Merit: the History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the 21st Century (2013).

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