Favorite Sources in the Survey

Teaching the survey, I have found, can be a blur. Events, people, and places zip by—on Monday, you’re at Jamestown in 1607, on Wednesday, Plymouth in 1620, and by Friday Cotton and Increase Mather are angling for a new charter for Massachusetts. (Okay, I don’t move quite that fast, but it’s still quick.) And in the meantime students deal mostly with brief snippets of texts in a document reader. Someday I may ditch it, but for now, it does the job.

One of my favorite parts of the course, therefore, is working with students a little more deeply on select texts, and getting to practice the craft of the historian more fully. So today I’ll share one or two of my favorites with you, offering no claims to originality.

I’ll start with my absolute favorite, which will come as no surprise to my friends: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.

Amazon.com- Ben Franklin Action Figure- Toys & GamesI have students read several excerpts. Most importantly for broader context, I use Franklin to continue a discussion of the Great Awakening with his passages on his friendship with George Whitefield, in particular the scene where Franklin visited a Whitefield sermon determined not to believe a single thing but ended up emptying his pockets of gold and silver, so convincing an orator was Whitefield.

A few passages are self-indulgent: while I frame it in terms of imperial striving and information circulation, it is perhaps a touch self-indulgent to have students read and discuss Franklin’s appointment as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737.

And some are just because Franklin is such a great storyteller. I could not assign the autobiography without having students read Franklin’s melodramatic entrance into Philadelphia, a “great puffy Roll” under each arm. Nor can I pass up the following passage, in which Franklin details just how he came to be respected in town:

In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, and gave no Scandal: and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas’d at the Stores, thro’ the Streets on a Wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem’d an industrious thriving young Man, and paying duly for what I bought, the Merchants who imported Stationary solicited my Custom, others propos’d supplying me with Books, and I went on swimmingly.

“Went on swimmingly,” indeed.

One other source we work with in greater depth is another classic first-person narrative: Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. It usually comes right after a discussion of religion and gender (a David Hall “World of Magic and Wonder”-witchcraft mashup), so students are primed to think about just how a woman was able to write such a book in the first place. We’re able to cover a great deal of ground (pun intended), ranging from her frequent mentions of hunger, to her sense of English identity, to what we can actually learn about Native Americans by reading a bit against the grain. We even manage to find some humor in the story (it’s a crutch, but it works for me) from Rowlandson’s, shall we say slightly inflated, estimation of her redemption price.

It’s one of the longest readings I assign during the semester and the language is miserable for students, even in the clean Bedford reader edition we use (I once had an upper-level class read the digitized Evans edition … don’t do that). So I don’t think many students would describe it as their favorite reading, but it has value for them. I also occasionally have a student who is taking the history survey simultaneously with the English department’s American survey, where the text is also popular (Franklin too), which brings an interdisciplinary note to the discussion.

I enjoy many more, and also have a few articles I particularly love to discuss, but I want to turn the floor over to you, dear readers: what are your favorite primary sources to teach in the survey? What works well, and why?

17 responses

  1. While it’s not my favorite source by a long shot, my students love (a judiciously-cut) Equiano. I use it in its traditional sense to dramatize the Middle Passage, but we also discuss the problems of the source itself. We usually have a good discussion about self-fashioning and the role of print culture in the abolition movement.

    • I haven’t used Equiano — I decided I didn’t want to invest the time in discussing the source problems with that one. About how much do you assign? And do you have them read any of the commentary, or just talk through that?

      • I actually initially present it to them with no commentary – it just comes as one of their assigned readings in a packet that I prepare. I use the section that runs from his capture in Africa to the famous “fanning” scene in Virginia…with cuts in between (so main points are capture, travel through Africa, Middle Passage, auction, and fanning). I let the students run with it for a few minutes – they talk about how evocative it is, what they learned about Africa, how vivid his writing is about the stench of the slave ship and the suffering, what it must be like to be separated from your family and not speak the language…and then I ask them “what if I told you that he was born in America?” It’s adorable to watch their minds be blown. I sketch out the controversy over his authorship and ask if it changes anything. We get a good conversation about the nature of sources, and almost always a large section of my students decide that the text itself is still admissible because it is a historical artifact that was read to evoke an emotional response to slavery, and while Equiano may not have experienced it directly, his race and education put him in a unique position to change the nature of the slavery debate and he ran with it. It’s perhaps not the most methodologically sound conclusion, perhaps, but it shows a higher level of understanding about how sources work in context. I’ll take it.

        • I actually do a similar activity with Parson Weems’ biography of George Washington (in particular the cherry tree story). I even had one student last semester tell me I’d ruined her childhood when I revealed the secret!

  2. When I teach my own survey course, I plan to assign William “Big Bill” Otter’s _History of My Own Times_ because Otter is a horrible, hilarious person who does a nice job laying out the post-Revolutionary milieu, I think.

    Also, Joseph Plumb Martin. Because, you know.

  3. I’ve used both of those sources, and remember them from the survey I took. City on a Hill, Wigglesworth, John Smith’s diary, the classics are still great. Additionally, in my survey, my most successful primary sources are those that excite me the most. I use Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Cole’s Course of Empire paintings, and the Hutchinson family songs, especially the Lincoln campaign song.

  4. My students loved reading William Byrd’s Journal (I used the excerpts from Rushforth and Mapp’s Colonial North America and the Atlantic World), and it allowed us to talk not only about the Virginia gentry, slavery, and patriarchy, but also the provenance of the journal itself, with its secret code, etc.

  5. I find that every time I teach using primary sources, the interest levels vary dramatically. Sometimes I’m met with complete boredom for a source that a couple of semesters later will really bring the class to life. The biggest surprises I’ve had were Bacon’s Declaration in the Name of the People (which sparked some really great comparisons to the Declaration of Independence), and the letters of the Continental Congress to Quebec, Ireland, and Jamaica. In both those cases, I think it was the fact there was one really enthusiastic student in each class that meant things went the way they did.

    The most reliable source, though, that I use, is the Laws Divine, Moral and Martial. I’ve not found anything that’s anywhere near as good for showing just how far a historical source can be used.

    • Ken, I wish I could tell whether or not you’re joking about LDMM.

      You’re right, of course, about their enthusiasm level fluctuating. I know it to be true, and yet it’s still unnerving when I run the same class back-to-back to get wildly different reactions.

  6. Ditto to Ken’s point. I generally always use Common Sense in the survey and get varying reactions. I’ve tried to use Emerson’s Nature and Self-Reliance with little success. The most popular work has been Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s Kingdom of Matthias. Students of course find cults and sex of great interest, but it allows us to discuss some of the key religious and economic developments of the era.

  7. I have used T.S. Arthur, Ten Nights in a Bar-room and What I Saw There in my survey for years and I think it has an ideal blend of engaging story of economic and social history, drinking, and violence. My students always enjoy the melodrama and it provides several opportunities for using humor in the discussion. As a plus I can always lead the students to a conversation on Arthur’s Swedenborgianism (which is fun given the Swedenborgian church three doors down from campus that none of them have ever noticed before).


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