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Final American history 2016


Siege of Constantinople: The capture of Constantinople “blocked” the Silk Road.


The 95 Theses: The Reformation set off religious wars.


The Three Sisters: Europeans wanted Native American land


I had the dubious distinction of teaching American history, Pre-Columbus to 1800 in the fall quarter (the Pacific Northwest is on the quarter system; courses are 5 credits per, and 3 courses is a full load for 10 weeks). In my syllabus, the election fell on the week we were discussing the Federalist papers and the formation of the Constitution. Lucky me, to have to explain the Electoral College on election night. This quarter, this year, this century thus far: all hot messes. I find it more and more difficult to teach the history of the US when I feel as though we are in very real danger of witnessing the end of the Republic.

Perhaps the most chilling aspects of this election cycle were the triumph of propaganda on television news and on the Internet and the vehemence of the propagandists’ steadfast followers. From my perspective, this unfortunate mix of ignorance and manipulation will only get worse when the children affected by the “No Child Left Behind” testing frenzy and other politicization of education reach voting age (very soon). My students who are directly out of high school (or still in high school and attending community college through Washington State’s “Running Start” program), show an alarming inability to think independently or critically. They have been tested into obedience. Since kindergarten, this generation has been told that there are correct and quantifiable answers for everything.

The liberal arts are an antidote to that kind of rigid thinking. Since I am a Kool-Aid swilling member of the cult of liberal arts and critical thinking, I could not let my students leave my class with the same level of zombiedom they entered with. (If I left the class for a moment to go to the loo or deal with an interruption, they were perfectly quiet when I returned. It is spooky and unnatural.) So, I wrote the final exam for my course with this liberal arts sensitivity in mind. I will receive the same answers as I would have if I had phrased the questions in the usual history speak, but I made it much harder by requiring independent judgment and freedom of thought. Also, to complete the exam, the students need to employ more than just critical thinking, narrative history method, and study habits. The formula requires thinking more suited to the physical sciences (and law) than the liberal arts. In essence, they have to recognize a faulty equation, fix it, and solve for two variables. Yes, My history exam is algebraic. Math is a liberal art. (So there, troll who laughed at my liberal arts education and told me to pick up a science book—the physical sciences ARE the liberal arts, ye wee numpty.)

I welcome feedback in the form of constructive criticism, reasoned and civil discourse, honest and helpful suggestions, and penetrating questions. To head off the first criticism, I fully prepared the students for this from day one and held two review sessions in which I gave them the answers. We also had mini listening and reading workshops during the quarter. My course is designed as Atlantic history integrating social, political, intellectual, environmental, and cultural history. I “race” and “gender” the master narrative and count Native American tribes as sovereign nations in commerce with Europeans.


The Fall Line dictated the size of any agricultural labor force.


Racial construction created an easily identifiable caste of unfree agricultural workers.



Final Exam

History 146: North America Pre-Columbus to 1800

Tacoma Community College

December 2016

Rather than give you a traditional final exam, I want you find the habit of questioning all assertions for logical consistency, historical accuracy, and intentional manipulation. This is now your civic duty. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

As we have gone over in class and in the review on Dec. 1 in the final class of the quarter, please follow the instructions carefully, and then upload your answers to this page in one document file.


Much of the news coverage this autumn surrounding the election of 2016 was more akin to emotional assertion and opinion than factual reportage. The situation was so bad that the Oxford English Dictionary, the record of the English language, added the hyphenated word “post-truth” to the official lexicon. Transparency and effective journalism are necessary in order maintain an informed electorate. When opinionated emotion and supposition rule over fact-based reporting and reasoned discourse, democracy itself is in danger.

Too often, a non-expert on television seeks to end discourse with a classic logical fallacy, the appeal to authority. Especially for college students studying history, critical examinations of assertions of authority are necessary. The most common attempt to justify a position has been, “America was founded on the principle of _____________!” Fill in the blank, and this statement seems to carry a great deal of weight. But, as we have discussed many times in class, this statement is far from complete, is oversimplified, and is, in essence, incorrect, no matter how one fills in the blank. Which America? Which founding? Is there a principle or just an expedient method? The word “the” is most obviously problematic because there are certainly more than one “founding” principles.

Your assignment is to complete the statement, to fill in the blank, explain your choice, and connect it to the United States c. 1804. However, you must first change the statement so that it is accurate. “America” is a hemisphere, and, in the time period covered by History 146, parts of “America” were claimed by at least five European powers and thousands of Native American tribes. To fill in the blank, you will have to specify which America you mean. British North America? The Early American Republic? The Revolutionary Era? New England, the Middle Colonies, Tidewater, or the South? Jefferson’s America? Hamilton’s? You will also have to verify that “founded” is the correct verb. Is “coalesced” a more appropriate term? Also, was there actually a principle involved, or can you argue that a system of labor procurement was in play?

Similarly, if you answer using the ideas of the any of the Enlightenment “Founders,” please make sure you articulate the fact that the ideas swirling around both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were contradictory. If you answer the question for Jefferson, you need to acknowledge the Federalists and vice versa. If you answer with any freedom mentioned in these documents, be prepared to explain the history of that idea on this continent and/or in Europe or from Native Americans. One very large and flexible answer is “commerce”; one especially difficult answer is “hypocrisy.” Remember, Virginia and Massachusetts were two very different societies from the beginning, as were the Caribbean and Louisiana.

I expect you to construct the statement in two different ways and write at least four pages, double-spaced, 12-point Times or Times New Roman for each statement, about 1000 words per answer.

What I want is for you to pull on a thread in the history we have studied this quarter and explain how that subject contributed to the identity of the nation in 1800. In addition, you should be prepared to discuss certain aspects of correlation or opposition to the topic you pick. For example, many have suggested the answer with slavery. I think that is a good answer. You must give a short narrative history of slavery, explain why it answers the “founding” part of the question, and include a discussion of race formation. Without discussing race formation, you cannot give an accurate answer to the answer of how slavery was foundational. True, it was an economic system, but the social and political realities of race were solidly integrated into the national character by 1800 as much as the South relied on the economic benefits of a captive workforce. As we have discussed, there are many, many ways to complete the statement. Pick two, describe how each evolved, and explain why they are so important to the concept “America” as to be considered foundational.

An “A” answer would include:

  • An accurate reformulation of the statement “America was founded on the principle of ______________”;
  • A historically accurate answer (for example, “capitalism” is not historically accurate);
  • An accurate timeline (in terms of cause and effect, not an absolute date timeline) of the principle/institution/concept/activity you choose to explain;
  • A cogent explanation of how and why your answer was manifest in the politics, culture, social structure, or even geography of the United States, c. 1804;
  • A successful demonstration that you use a dictionary to look up words you do not know;
  • Evidence of hard work and engagement with the substance of the course;
  • A demonstration of critical and lateral thinking. Outside the box is good too. Just tie it all together in a killer conclusion.

You are NOT required (or permitted) to do any of the following:

  • Completely answer the question. That would be impossible as an undergraduate or in 4 pages.
  • Use any materials extraneous to the class. Use ONLY lecture/discussion notes, PowerPoints (up on Canvas), your textbook, and additional readings either handed out in class or posted on Canvas.
  • Use footnotes or citations. If you quote the Declaration of Independence or the Sermon on the Arabella, simply identify the document and the speaker. For example, “John Winthrop called the new society ‘a cittie upon a hill’ in his sermon on the Arabella.” No notes required.
  • Use the thinking of someone else. I want you to work your way through the answer yourself.
  • Panic. This is doable because you are smart and able.
  • Plagiarize. This is doable because you are fierce and competent.


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Filed under 2016 election, American history, Environment, Higher Education, Ideas, Intellectual History, Pedagogy, Resistance, teaching, Thinking, US Constitution

Letter To the Electoral College

Here is my email to 122 electors. Feel free to copy and share. 

Dear Elector,

My name is Dr. Kate Sampsell-Willmann. I am from Baltimore, but I currently live in a town in Washington State that is suffering from extreme poverty. 

I am a professional historian and teacher. The US, the first democracy after the fall of Rome, is the only democracy in the world with an Electoral College. Its purpose, as stated by Alexander Hamilton, is to protect the Republic from a demagogue who would tear this nation apart, someone who is unschooled in the requirements of the task and who would act to benefit only one sector of this diverse union. 

There are many divisive factions in America, a state of affairs also feared by those who wrote the Constitution. There always will be. Today, we call these lines of difference “culture wars.” Different issues divided us in 1787, but the disagreement was equally harsh. The three branches of government were designed to check and balance one another. With openly political, and worse, patronage, appointments to the Supreme Court, this balance of power may not operate as a check any longer. Viewed in context with the Senate’s refusal, on partisan grounds, to confirm a Justice whom they had previously deemed competent, the checks on power seem poised to fall. If one principle of the Constitution falls, what will guard rest? Need there ever be elections again?

The Electoral College is the last defense to keep the basic design of the US government in tact. This is not a partisan plea; this is a historian’s lament. No one person or group is meant to have complete power in the US. Please, go back and read the Federalist Papers (esp. 68); go back and look at Judge Garner’s approval by this same Senate; ask yourself whether it is plausible that the African American vote was suppressed in swing states, in any state. If any of these gives you pause, then please fulfill your Constitutional role and act as a brake on the forces of prejudice and hatred. In this case, the winner of the popular vote is the best choice for stable and competent government. 

While many protest, their action is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Your decision to attend to the popular vote and your original mandate under the Constitution is our last and only hope to avoid the iceberg. 
Thank you for your time and consideration, I appreciate and respect the role you serve in our electoral process.


Kate Sampsell-Willmann, JD, PhD

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The Correct Word

“The night was sultry.” Throw Momma From The Train

As a writer, a teacher of writing, and a sometimes translator, I spend a lot of my time looking for the right word. English is beautifully protean, so full of nuance that there is often an exact word to express any idea. Even when English can provide no precision, the language will be true to its larcenous past and will  execute a linguistic five-finger discount, usually purloining from German or French. Still, the contemplation of the right word is one of the joys of writing.

Last week, a student stopped a colleague in the hall; they stood with heads bent in silent contemplation. Curious, I asked what concerned them so. They were looking for a word. Now, our students are not native English speakers–for them English might even be their third or fourth language–but English is our medium. The student explained the idea she wanted to convey. We tried direct translation to no avail. I promised to think upon it. A few hours later it hit me: parasite, or even better given the belittling ferocity of the context, leech. Thus are the joys of a large lexicon.

Yet, this pastime–which makes it me very hard to best at Words With Friends and a whiz with the New York Times Crossword–has a non-vocabulary analog. For me, a photograph has the same potential as the correct word, the potential to transcend mere comprehension in favor of epistemological metastasis. For me, a photograph is kin to the right word. A seamless composition of reflected light can be as complex as Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Stare long enough, and you might see it move.

A small college wishes to commission a work of art to express some very complex and contradictory aspects of one world historical figure. Since my medium is the non-posed photograph made in available light, my art is relatively easy to make. I do not need a studio, artificial light, models, props, or any supplies beyond my camera and my eyes. If I were to apply to that competition, I know that I could make a photograph that would express the correct sentiment; I could find the right word to express an idea precisely. Yet, since there is no fussy material cultural in my process, would the elegance of precision be enough? Will a nearly two dimensional print fill their space with an appropriate (and, one expects, massive ) object.

Hemingway wrote the shortest tragedy in the English language: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Because of its brevity and precision, is it less powerful than Hamlet? The shortest horror story should be compared with the shortest tale of psychological anguish: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Compare: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a lock on the door.” Perhaps brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also the essence of elegance. And skill.

In the years since World War II, Abstract Expressionism has competed with photography for elegance and brevity, especially with  images of the Shoah. Can a  sculpture ever inspire the same level of distress as a photograph of the Einzatzgruppen gleefully completing their loathsome task? Enormity of feeling needs to be met with enormity of scale. Subtlety and efficiency may be too severe and thus insufficiently oppressive to wrap one’s head around the brutal immediacy of a photograph.

I will not submit a proposal for this commission, mostly because most people do not think a photograph can inspire the same sense of gravitas  as a sculpture or installation. I will, however, undertake to make the image as a test for myself. After all, the exercise, like journey’s relationship to destination, is as important as the output. Whether it be the correct word or the precise image, thinking is the cure for the restless spirit.

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One Possible Outline for Reexamining Positive and Negative Liberty

If you're not lead cow, the view never changes.

If you’re not lead cow, the view never changes.

I am in the process of writing a new definition of positive and negative liberty as it applies to the the U.S.

I teach Kant every year. This time I decided to write a paper for my own assignment. Blame the broken foot for such pedantry. Kate

“Virtue never tested is no virtue at all.”
Billy Bragg

Thoughts on Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

According to Kant, enlightenment and competence equate in the individual to the same thing. Following the age of majority, when one examines with inborn reason ideas previously imposed, one becomes competent. This is release from self-incurred tutelage, Kant’s definition of individual enlightenment. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” the philosopher explains that a society can become enlightened when all barriers to individual competence are removed.

Despite the fact that it is human nature to think for oneself, people choose to think as they are told to out of fear and laziness. In essence, they happily accept their status as sheep under the guardianship of a shepherd. The most absurd situation occurs when such a guardian is him- or herself incompetent and unenlightened, simply mimicking the ideas of others. Ritual is passed down from high, and liturgy becomes mere repetition of words, devoid of any real meaning and exciting no passion or faith. Unchallenged faith is not worthy of its name.

Certain social conditions must exist before one can become competent; one cannot and should not dissent in every situation. A society needs rules in order to function. (Even kings are subject to the rules of grammar, e.g.) The enforcement of regulatory rules equitably creates a stable society in which a person has room to question all authority, even the logical basis of said rules. Strong centralized government is required to preserve external freedom so one can concentrate on exercising internal freedom of thought. One thinks only of security if security is not otherwise guaranteed.

Kant thus explains the difference between the use of private and public reason. In one’s daily discharge of duties and engagement in social coexistence, individuals must obey even if obedience conflicts with one’s own opinions. This is private reason. When one is not performing a social, cultural, occupational or other standardized duty and answers to no one, then the individual has a duty to question all authority and speak publicly about objections to doctrine. Obey, but disagree. Such disagreement on one’s own time is public reason. The scholar-teacher is obviously the exception; in her, the source of public and private reason occupies the same space and creates a duty to question all authority. This is called academic freedom.

Public reason presumes an a priori guarantee of freedom of speech maintained by a strong centralized government, what I call positive liberty or state enforced egalitarianism. Weak centralized government with a minimum of enforced rules, what I call negative liberty, fails to protect equitable freedom of speech. Rather, it encourages licentious behavior, the growth of petty dictatorships, and trampling of others’ rights. It is rule by the loudest or the biggest. Taken too far, negative liberty can devolve into anarchy just as positive liberty can devolve into dictatorship.

When addressing “What is Enlightenment?” Kant explains how individuals become enlightened and offers a calculus to determine whether a state is currently in an enlightened age or in an age of enlightenment. An Enlightened Age exists if all external barriers to critical thought are absent and each individual is capable of challenging and digesting for oneself all information on which he or she has previously been fed. It is the death of the intellectual fait accompli.

Kant concludes that that his society had the perfect government in the monarch Frederick for the enlightenment process to proceed. Frederick asked external obedience but not total control over internal thought. No monarch would tolerate consolidation of power in the hands of any other than the ruler’s. Conversely, in a republic, with its permissive growth of petty dictatorships, institutions may evolve that prevent the individual from rejecting tutelage. Kant did not, however, examine the historical likelihood of malevolent monarchs.

In essence, Kant describes a positive liberty society that refuses to foster consolidation of power in the hands of the few but is powerless to proscribe social dictatorship. When such conditions exist, even though their influence wanes, a society can be described only as an Age of Enlightenment, a transitional period moving toward the universal exercise of individual reason.

Kate Sampsell-Willmann

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