An unfortunate but recurring feature of U.S. history has been the tendency of political leaders to lie to the American people. The mainstream media have often simply reported these lies with little or no critique, functioning as “stenographers to power,” to borrow from the title of a book by media critic Norman Solomon. This is not to say that everything government leaders tell us is a lie. However, an informed and skeptical public is perhaps the best defense against statements that mask policies that undermine human rights, at home and abroad.
A U.S. history course should seek to nurture this informed skepticism in students. It should encourage them to question the premises of textbooks, newspapers, films, and speeches of political leaders. It should ask them to check assertions against historical evidence.
The speech Andrew Jackson delivered to Congress in December 1830 is a good example of how leaders rely on widespread ignorance to promote their policies. For example, anyone even remotely familiar with the Cherokee people at the time would know that it was ludicrous to characterize them as “a few savage hunters.” Some people surely knew that this was a wildly inaccurate description, but didn’t care because they supported Jackson’s Indian policy. But others almost certainly assumed that, since Jackson is president, he must know best. In instances such as this, people’s critical capacities, or lack of them, have life and death consequences. In my experience, students find it exhilarating to discover that they have the knowledge and ability to critique the pronouncements of a U.S. president.
A deeper look into Andrew Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans is always a powerful moment in the development of students’ questioning of public officials and the words they speak.
We use “Andrew Jackson and the ‘Children of the Forest’” as part of a mock trial. By the end of the trial, the light bulbs going off as students compare words with actions. “What did he mean by ‘civilizing’ the natives?” “What does it mean in the era of expanding democracy that people should have perhaps even less faith in their leaders?”
It sets the stage for a continued focus on people’s history and a framework for how to view the rest of U.S. history, especially in the context of 20th century empire-building.