Son James and I spent July 4 in Taos, New Mexico, where we were working with Habitat for Humanity building homes (a project of the youth group at the church we attend, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Duncanville, Texas). We took that day off, saw Transformers, looked at the sights in Taos, and drove to Eagle Nest Lake to see fireworks.
At some point through the week I was discussing with others the stories that make history memorable, in my view, and we discovered that few others on the trip knew the story of the deaths of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a story that is generally glossed over in U.S. history texts, but one that I make room for in U.S. history courses. My experience is that once kids get the story, that these two great men from such radically different backgrounds became great friends, then in presidential politics, great enemies, and then were reconciled, and then died on the exactly the same day which commemorated the event that both made them famous and that they made famous, kids don’t forget the story.
The story of their friendship is powerful and can be accompanied by readings from their letters in their later life (DBQ opportunity, teachers!). Generally, the story gets told in response to a question from a student. If I do it well, there will be sniffles from the class when we get to the part about Jefferson’s near-coma, awakening to ask whether it is the 4th of July, and then dying, and Adams’ death a few hours later, saying in error that “Jefferson still survives” (which is good that some students choke up, because it always gets me).
The story offers several mnemonic opportunities: 1826, the 50th year after the Declaration (1776); the presidencies of Adams and Jefferson, following one another; the fact that Adams and Jefferson were on the committee to write the Declaration, and that Adams nominated Jefferson as the better writer; the order of the terms of the presidency; the bitter politics at the end of Washington’s presidency (kids get interested in conflict, and the founding seems more vital to them when the controversies rear up); the reverence for law; Adams’ and Jefferson’s service as foreign ambassadors; and so on.
Once I’d told the story, others got the point. The story illustrates Mark Twain’s point about how much more difficult it is to write fiction. Fiction must stick with possibilities, Twain noted, while reality isn’t so constrained. If you wrote a screenplay with two heroes like Adams and Jefferson, and then had them die on the same day within a few hours of each other, hundreds of miles apart, you’d be criticized for being unrealistic. But it happened in history. It’s a true story, better than any lipsticked version Parson Weems could ever invent.
Study of history should never be a drudging trudge to memorize dates. The stories are what count, they are the things people remember. The stories tell people why history is important, and what mistakes to avoid, to satisfy Santayana’s ghost.
Such stories, especially about the founding of America, make history come alive and, often, grab students by the throat and make it memorable for them. History is Elementary carries a nice story with the same message, though using Washington’s surprise attack on the Hessians from Trenton. Teachers in need of such stories might do well to pick up a copy of David McCullough’s 1776, or Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers.
What other stories are there? Well, the story about the scar on James Madison’s nose, and how it led to the cementing of the American Revolution (James Monroe, by the way, also died on July 4 — but in 1831). The story of Lincoln’s trip to New Orleans; the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s capture of Mike Finnegan and two other outlaws, in the Dakotas; the story of Calvin Coolidge’s son’s death; the story of Robert Lincoln’s brushes with presidential assassinations; the story of the Civil War beginning in one man’s back-40 acres, and ending in his parlor; the story as Stephen Ambrose tells it of three men pinned down on a beach in Normandy on D-Day, and deciding the best course of action was to move forward to win the war; American history is rife with bizarre coincidences and seemingly minor events that go on to have great consequences.
I love to hear the story, especially told well. Well told stories help students learn and retain history, and, I’ll wager, they boost the scores on standardized tests.