Nullifiers! The lot of them!
The problem with putting together discussion assignments for my students is that I feel academically obligated to give them enough evidence to argue either side of the issue. This is how you train historians, after all – you set them loose on the evidence and let them make and defend their own interpretations.
There are several layers to this training.
The first one is to get them out of the notion that there is a Right Answer to any but the most basic questions in history. There are Right Answers when it comes to the evidence – you either have your facts or you don’t, and if you tell me that the Civil War happened in 1350, well, you’re wrong. The interesting questions are all interpretation, though – the sort of “who cares?” and “how does that relate to anything?” questions that everyone asks but not many people actually answer. Those don’t have Right Answers.
This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equally valid. People who say that are just trying to sell you something. Interpretations are Better or Worse, depending on how much evidence they explain. If my answer explains more evidence than yours, then mine is Better and you ought to change your mind. And vice verse.
At the level of the introductory college survey course, mostly what I’m trying to do is to get my students to understand that real history is about making interpretations and backing them up with evidence.
Have a thesis – state your position. Don’t worry about agreeing with what you think I think, because my job is to disagree with whatever you say. You might as well tell me what you actually believe to be the case, because that’s easier to support.
Give me some evidence so that when I say, “I don’t believe you,” you’ve got something to come back at me with. Interpretations without evidence are called “fiction.” There’s nothing wrong with fiction, except that it’s not history. You can make a good living writing fiction – if you do it well enough, they will call you a novelist. Or a pundit. But not a historian.
Then tell me how that evidence actually supports your point. Evidence does not speak for itself and if you don’t tell me what it says than I can safely assume that it says nothing and you’re just padding the essay until it reaches minimum length. I can make the connections if you'd like, but I don't work cheap and I get paid in points. Keep that in mind come grading time.
That’s enough to work on, at this level.
What I don’t really push them on until they get to more upper level classes is the part where you, as a historian, have to prove that your interpretation is Better than mine. That yours explains more evidence than mine. That you can beat back my counterarguments. Again, I'll argue whatever they don't, so which side they're on doesn't matter so much as whether they can stand up to crossfire. It’s hard enough getting them to make the arguments in the first place, though. They can take the next step in the next course.
But there are times when I really wish I could just say, “Stop! Down that path perdition lies! That answer is not the Best! In fact, it kind of Sucks!”
Thus bringing me back to Nullification.
Nullification, for those of you not up on your John C. Calhoun, is the hallucinatory notion that any state in the US has the right to declare a federal law null and void on its own territory simply by wishing it so. It gets more complicated than that, of course, and if you really want to delve into Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majorities well you go right ahead. Be sure to take a bottle of good whiskey with you, because you’ll need it.
The bottom line on Nullification, though, is that it is utter nonsense.
You can start with the fact that the supremacy clause of the Constitution clearly states this, right up front. You can move on to the fact that the Constitution was written explicitly to deny the kind of “states’ rights” bilgewater that had made the Articles of Confederation such a travesty of inefficiency and waste. You can proceed to the fact that there already exists, in the Constitution, a mechanism for protesting federal laws – several of them, in fact, once you take into account the idea of the entire federal judiciary and the notion of actually winning a few elections and passing new and presumably more favorable laws.
You do still see Nullification being bandied about as if it were an actual idea that sane people would consider – mostly on the right-wing extremes these days, which are awfully hard to tell apart from the right-wing in general – but the bottom line is that this is a discredited and pernicious idea, one that is but a half-hearted version of secession and thus constitutes treason when seriously attempted.
But as a teacher, and as someone who is trying to get students to make and defend their own interpretations, I just have to let them find out for themselves.
So last week they read Calhoun, or at least they were supposed to. They read the various promulgations that came out of South Carolina in 1832 defending this indefensible notion. They also read Daniel Webster’s evisceration of this nonsense, and Andrew Jackson’s brutal takedown of Calhoun’s theory as well.
The Best interpretation seemed obvious to me.
And yet so many of them sided with Calhoun.
If they had a clear thesis, if they backed it up with evidence, if they explained how that evidence supported their point, really what could I do at this level but give them credit and weep for the future of the republic.
But next year, when they take the upper level version? Then I argue back, whatever their initial position may be. And we will see where that goes.
If we do this right, if both the students and the teachers play the game the way it is supposed to be played, we’ll make historians out of them yet.