Academic journal article Social Education

Why Did the Colonists Fight When They Were Safe, Prosperous, and Free?

Academic journal article Social Education

Why Did the Colonists Fight When They Were Safe, Prosperous, and Free?

Article excerpt

Teaching U.S. history can be daunting. I remember wondering at the end of some high school class periods whether my history students had understood or even attended to a word I had said. I felt at times that I might as well have been telling them fairy tales.

But despite my doubts about my own effectiveness, I never doubted the importance of U.S. history as a school subject. An American really is not well educated unless he or she has developed some sense of the country's past. Knowledge of the past really can help to develop a sense of national identify among our country's diverse citizens. It seems appropriate, therefore, that U.S. history--taught, typically, over six semesters at grades five, eight and eleven--holds a prominent place in the K-12 curriculum.

For all its prominence, however, young people tend to regard U.S. history as remote and uninteresting, and many of them learn little from the courses they are required to take. But you have heard all this before. The history of complaint is long.

What to do? Turn our students loose so that they can learn history on their own, when it suits their fancy? Staff our classrooms with clones of Mr. Kotter? Wait for legislators to drive the student-teacher ratio down to one-to-one? Myself, I can't waive mandatory attendance laws, or impart a knack for stand-up comedy, or hold out for utopia, and so I have taken an interest in a different possibility. It has to do with using economics in the teaching of U.S. history. Not economics as a long list of concepts embalmed in huge textbooks written for use in Econ 101 and l02. Instead, I suggest, history teachers can do much to improve their instruction by drawing upon a particular approach to inquiry as practiced by economists. Call it the "economic way of thinking." It involves formulating "mysteries" and reasoning about them by means of a small set of powerful principles from economics.

Applying the Economic Way of Thinking to History

Here is an example of how the economic way of thinking might be used to help students gain fresh insights into a commonly taught topic in U.S. history--the American Revolution. At first glance the Revolution seems to have been inevitable. A series of British initiatives--the Sugar Act in 1764, the Stamp Act in 1765, the Tea Act in 1773--touched off confrontations with England. With neither side willing to back down, the conflict predictably grew into a full-scale war.

But an inquisitive student of history, perhaps one accustomed to using economic analysis, might wonder at the colonists' decision to rebel. It was not inevitable that the new American republic would survive to become a nation. At the war's onset, nobody knew how things would turn out. The war occurred in the colonists' "present," and in pursuing the war, the colonists took enormous personal, economic, and political risks. They could easily have been defeated and lost their independence several times before their victory in 1783.

It is by no means obvious, moreover, why the Revolutionary War was fought at all. At least until 1775, radical separatists in the colonies had failed to gain majority support among their countrymen for the revolutionary cause. This isn't much of a surprise. As the colonists looked toward the last quarter of the eighteenth century, they might have given serious thought to at least three powerful reasons not to fight: they were safe, prosperous, and free. Let's examine each of these points.

First, except in remote areas, the colonists lived and worked in relative safety by about 1763, thanks to protection provided by England's Royal Navy and ground troops. This was no small matter. Throughout the earlier colonial era, imperial rivals and Native Americans often posed serious threats to the colonists' lives and property. The British spent heavily to protect the colonies from French forces and their Indian allies during the French and Indian War (1755-1763). …

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