J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Sidestepping the Difficult Issues

As I wrote yesterday, Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj’s picture book Unite or Die accepts the Federalist position and depicts the creation of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 as a Good Thing. Not that it wasn’t, but the book doesn’t leave space for considering otherwise. It also sidesteps some details of the document that would make today’s students have second thoughts.

I mentioned before how the kids portraying the constitutional convention reflects today’s classrooms: there are girls and boys, and little people from different ethnic groups. Only a few sentences in the afterword acknowledge how for many decades most non-whites and women were excluded from the system the Constitution set up.

Unite or Die hinges on the compromise between small and large states over representation, but never addresses another of the convention’s compromises: to treat slaves as both 100% property and 60% people, providing voters in states with large enslaved populations disproportionate power in the House and Electoral College. Nor does the book mention the convention’s decision to preserve the transatlantic slave trade from legislation for twenty years.

The book has even less to say about items that can cause partisan controversy today. It makes only a brief mention of the Electoral College and none of the religious establishment clause. I suspect it would be harder to highlight those knotty issues and maintain a picture of the Constitution as a clearly Good Thing.

In essence, Unite or Die introduces young readers to some of the intellectually challenging compromises of the convention, but it sidesteps some emotionally challenging decisions that might make those kids question the wisdom of the document.

TOMORROW: A presentist view.


G. Lovely said...

Fourth paragraph first line is missing the word 'on' or 'about'.

Robert S. Paul said...

Does the book discuss the Bill of Rights, or just the text of the Constitution as it was first presented?

If it's the latter, I'm not sure a "religious establishment" discussion would be proper in context.

I'm also not sure what age this book is geared for, so I can't say whether or not they'd be mature enough to understand those other compromises.

However, I'd be the first to say that teaching them how "perfect" the Constitution is and that it was a "Good Thing" objectively is not something we should be doing. It will only influence them later when they are old enough to understand the more complicated parts of history.

J. L. Bell said...

Not anymore, thanks to your sharp eyes!

J. L. Bell said...

Unite or Die discusses the Bill of Rights on the last page of the afterword. Its main story ends before the national ratification process. Perhaps the team is saving that for a sequel! There’s certainly enough material for a picture book on the amendments.

The Constitution stipulates no religious tests for office, which in the context of the eighteenth century was a striking step away from a state religion. I read the First Amendment as barring Congress both from establishing one church and from interfering with the New England establishments. That’s an even more complex story, but then the wording of the amendment is complex.

The suggested age range for Unite or Die is 8 to 12. I think kids that age would be able to understand some of the issues—they certainly study slavery in history, for instance. But they also study slavery as a Bad Thing. So discussing how the Constitution, as presented here, treated slavery would mean reconciling a Good Thing and a Bad Thing.