“The traditional stay-at-home and mind-your-own-business policy laid down by [George] Washington was wise for a weak and struggling nation…”
–Henry Watterson, newspaper editor, interviewed in The New York Herald, June 22, 1898
Debra Schneider, social studies teacher at Merrill F. West High School, comments on The Debate over the Philippines, 1898 – 1900, one of the many Documentary Source Problems created by Roland Marchand for his U.C. Davis students with modified versions for use in middle and high school class rooms.
I use this primary source investigation to introduce America’s imperialism at the end of the 19th century to my high school juniors in a U.S. history class. In fact, it was this documentary source problem that finally got me to teach this topic; these documents and the teaching methods were better than any others I had seen before then. I use documents from both the middle school and high school lessons, and guide the students with many questions from the middle school lesson.
Though it takes some work for students to make sense of the formal and old-fashioned language, this lesson never fails to intrigue and engage students with the powerful sentiments these documents express. Once we make sense of the documents’ meanings, we practice reading them aloud, to give expression and passion to the words. Students immediately identify the racism: “Can we hope to close the flood-gates of immigration from the hordes of Chinese and the semi-savage races;” the insincerity: “I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them;” how George Washington is being disrespected: “The traditional stay-at-home and mind-your-own-business policy laid down by [George] Washington was wise for a weak and struggling nation;” the pride: “We are taking our proper rank among the nations of the world,” and the abandonment of democratic principles: “You have no right at the cannon’s mouth to impose on an unwilling people your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution and your notions of freedom and notions of what is good.” The knowledge they construct with this lesson creates a good foundation for our study of American interventions for the rest of the 20th century.
As a way to have students “do history” we encourage you to consider using lessons from our collection of Documentary Source Problems. Each one includes background text, one or more investigative or guiding questions, and some activities to help students analyze the document excerpts and form conclusions. Let us know about your favorites!
Debra Schneider is a social studies teacher at Merrill F. West High School in Tracy, California, and a fellow of the U.C .Davis History Project and the Great Valley Writing Project.