By nature I’m a skeptic. Many people try to apply labels to complex topics that are not black and white. Search for any article about geopolitics, gun rights or abortion and you’ll find black and white talking points.
True understanding requires nuance. Rarely do things fit into a single bucket.
That is why I’ve decided to take a course called The Skeptic’s Guide to American History by Professor Mark Stoler. My hope is that it paints a more realistic picture of the motivations of our founding fathers. I’d like to come away with a different viewpoint than what the typical American history class provides. I’d like to be challenged on my own perception of American history.
We’ll see what happens.
Table of Contents
- Lecture 1: Religious Toleration in Colonial America
- Lecture 2: Neither American nor Revolutionary
- Lecture 3: The Constitution Did Not Create a Democracy
- Lecture 4: George Washington, Failures and Accomplishments
- Lecture 5: Confusion about Jefferson and Hamilton
Below you’ll find my notes broken up into 24 different lectures. Right now it’s a work in progress. I’ll update this post as I finish each lesson.
Last year I became obsessed with The Great Courses. These lectures have often made it into my rotation of audio books. The Fall and Rise of China has become a regular recommendation.
I’m going to take it a step further and start doing something I’ve never done well—take notes. Not only am I planning to take notes, but I’m going to publish my notes here over the coming weeks.
Why would I do that?
Part of it is so I have some short reference for the ideas in these courses. I’ve found myself trying to reference material from the courses in conversations. Without notes it’s a difficult task.
The other part is so I can send it to friends who ask me about them. I’d like to provide something more concrete than praise or criticism. When someone asks, “How was The Skeptic’s Guide to American History?” I’d like to be able to send them this link.
Perhaps, my notes will help them decide if the course worth listening to.
Lecture 1: Religious Toleration in Colonial America
If you learn one thing from this guide to American history, let it be this—history is not a collection of memorized facts. History does not repeat itself.
Roger Williams was known for his belief in the separation of church and state. However, his motivations were different than history tells. Williams advocated this separation out of fear that the corruption of the state would poison the purity of the Puritan Church.
Williams was banished from Massachusetts Bay for this belief and settled in Rhode Island. He began as a religious absolutest, who gradually shifted to tolerance over time.
Religious tolerance of colonial America was not that as we know it today. It was accepted by the state, but not socially—anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism were especially rampant. Religious tolerance simply meant not killing each other over religion.
WWII may have been the turning point for modern-day religious tolerance. It was the first time large groups of American’s were forced to work alongside ethnic and religious lines. Ironically to fight Hitler, who’s ideas about race and religion were built on years of American and European bigotry.
All army chaplains were instructed to provide rights to every religion.
15 years after WWII ended America had it’s first Catholic president.
The consequences of those who act are often very different than their motivations. This is true throughout history.
Anachronistic thinking distorts the past by projecting contemporary values onto past events.
Consider Thanksgiving, which is closely associated with the Pilgrims. It began as a harvest celebration in Virginia some 14 years before the pilgrims arrived. Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday in the U.S. until 1863—nearly 250 years after the pilgrims arrived.
Lecture 2: Neither American nor Revolutionary
English colonists did not view themselves as Americans or even as undertaking a revolution prior to 1776. They asserted themselves as loyal British subjects merely defending their rights as Englishmen.
Many colonists did not support independence from England—even after 1776.
The English colonists could not have defeated the British militarily without help from other countries—most notably the hated and feared absolute monarchy of France.
In 1763 the English colonists did not see themselves as Americans. They were part of the liberty-loving British empire that was celebrating a stunning victory over the French in the French and Indian War. Britain had eliminated the powerful French from the North American continent.
Unlike the French or Spanish Empire of the time, Britain was not a monarchical tyranny.
Staggering Debts from the French and Indian war forced British parliament to increase revenue. This tax was stuck with the colonists.
The colonists see these new taxes as detrimental to their economies. Furthermore colonists are subjected to trials by admiralty courts with no jury and search without evidence as an infringement of their rights as British citizens.
There had been differences between colonists and Britain for more than 100 years. The British victory in the French and Indian War required restructuring of their empire and new ways to pay off debts. These new policies are what brought those differences to a boiling point.
Acts such as the Stamp Act and Tea Act added new taxes on the colonists and more layers of bureaucracy to manage them. The assemblies from each of the colonies join together in boycotting British goods. This is the first time colonies come together to defy the mother country.
Later taxes—except for the 1 cent tea tax—would be repealed. However, the British government made clear that they had the power create new taxes without consulting the colonists. This would lead to the tea party cry, “No taxation without representation!”
There was a dual-conflict in colonies occurring at the same time as the conflict with Britain. Colonial Assemblies were not democracies at the time. They were made up of property owners and oligarchs. Cries of the lower classes to have representation within the colonial assemblies occur at the same time the property owners are appealing to Britain for representation.
As a whole colonists were split into three groups: Radicals that want independence from Britain. Moderates that wish for Britain to respect their liberties, but stay part of the British Empire. Loyalists that want to stay part of the British Empire—even at the expense of liberty.
The radical colonists were not in charge. Moderates controlled the Continental Congress and most of the assemblies, but they could only hold if Britain can reach agreement. British Parliament does not. Instead of reaching an agreement Britain orders the arrest of Sam Adams and John Handcock. It orders weapons and ammunition to be seized at Concord. The result will be the showdown at Lexington and Concord and the “Shot Heard Around the World.” This event is followed by a Colonial Siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
When the 2nd Continental Congress opens all of this has taken place. The moderates are still in charge—and want to remain loyal to the king—given fair representation. The moderates extend one last offer, the Olive Branch Petition, to the king (not British Parliament). This petition will be rejected and the king orders all ports closed.
As this happens the colonial assemblies have already seized power from the royal governors and become defacto revolutionary governments. This conflict is already underway. Left with no choice—after reaching out to British Parliament and the king—most moderates side with the radicals.
The Declaration of Independence is built on the idea of John Locke’s social contract. The government should not impede on life, liberty or property. It is an indictment against the king—he has broken that contract—independence is the only way the colonies can continue the British tradition of liberty.
The failure of the British constitutional monarchy to protect liberty forces the colonists to seek a new radical form of government—republicanism. Legislators are the ones that are to protect liberty.
The question of home rule leads to the question of who should rule at home? What about the poor? What about slaves? The awnser over time leads to government that is both more representative and more democratic.
Despite the new American ideology of liberty the tyrannical French monarchy is more than willing to assist the colonists to weaken the British. 1778 once the colonists show they can mount successful attacks a formal alliance is made. French armies, navies ammo and firearms are made available.
The American colonists could never have defeated the British without French backing. There were 24,000 French naval and ground forces at Yorktown—twice the number of Americans.
In 1779, Spain joins the war as an ally of France and wreaks havoc on British forces in Florida. The British go to war with the Netherlands and the European league of armed neutrals. French diplomacy keeps Britain isolated and now they are at war against all of Europe.
It is ironic that American independence could not have occurred without the help of tyrannical monarchies. It is also interesting that many Americans went to war over the fight for British ideas of liberty. Many, if not most of the colonists never wanted to separate.
The American revolution was far less American and far less Revolutionary than one would think. Two-thirds of colonists were in favor of staying apart of the British Empire. The colonists could have not won the war without the help of the French. Furthermore, the ideas the colonists were fighting for were for the British ideal of liberty—instilled by John Locke’s social contract.
What is true? The Americans United against a tyrannical king. The European countries United against the most powerful empire in the world and made it possible for a group of rebellious colonists to form a new nation.
Lecture 3: The Constitution Did Not Create a Democracy
The writers of the Constitution did not or could not for see the government we have today—a democratic republic based on two national political parties. Nor could the writers anticipate our economic system or cultural values. However, they did realize it was likely to change and thus introduced an amendment process—a major reason the document has survived so long.
The newly formed United States was originally governed by the 2nd Continental Congress and the articles of the confederation.
The colonists rejected the British concept of balanced government in favor of legislative power. This reflected colonial experiences. Colonial Governors we’re royal appointees that were percieved as tyrannical.
At this written Constitutions appeared in each state primarily because Americans saw that Britain’s unwritten Constitution failed to protect liberty.
The U.S. central government was initially the Continental Congress, but that was a makeshift solution. It would be replaced by the Articles of the Confederation, which we’re presented to the states in 1777, but not ratified by all states until 1781. The states did not trust any centralized power. The states did not even trust one another. Smaller states were in constant fear of larger states.
Under the Articles of the Confederation each state operated as its own independent republic joined loosely in a confederation. This structure could not be changed without a unanimous agreement. and more resembled the modern United Nations than the current United States. One thing to note is unanimous agreement gave every state veto power.
Despite is unpopularity, much was achieved under the Articles of the Confederation—there was the lowering of property requirements for voting, expansion of education and literacy. Each state adopted a Bill of Rights. The abolition of slavery began in northern states.
There was expansion from the northwest ordinances of 1784, 1785 and 1787. In these ordinances land was given up by the states to the federal government. This land was to be surveyed, divided and sold for $1 an acre. There would initially be self rule and admission to the union when the population reached 60,000. There were guarantees of freedom of worship and trial by jury. Slavery would not be allowed in this territory.
However, problems under the Articles of Confederation were apparent by 1787. The Confederation had no power to tax. This meant there was no way to maintain an armed force and no way to pay off debts.
The inability to maintain an armed force hurt it’s ability to negotiate in international affairs. At one point the national army was down to 80 men. Reliance was placed on untrained and unreliable state militias.
The British did not honor the peace treaty. Britain locked the Americans out of it’s trading empire, while British soldiers refused to leave their northern posts. Furthermore, those soldiers incited Indian violence from those posts against American settlers.
Spain refused to agree to the southern American southern boundary and blocked access to the Mississippi River.
Further a post-war recession drove unhappiness. People demanded relief. The easiest thing was to print paper money, which caused inflation, but make the repayment of debt easier. At the time this was easy to do because there are little or no checks in place.
Creditors and property owners complained that state governments was breaking the social contract. This was democracy run amuck.
By 1786 there is fear of anarchy with Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts. There was only the state militia to stop them.
Liberty was under attack from the tyranny above—European powers as well as from below—mobs of citizens. These events illustrate a weakness at both the state and national level and a need for centralized power.
In 1787 the Constitutional Convention takes place in Philadelphia. 55 men from 12 states attend. Revolutionary radicals such as Patrick Henry, Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson are notably not present. Franklin and Washington attend.
With the exception of Franklin and Washington the men at this convention are mostly young. They are property owners—mostly elitist, conservative Republicans, who fear democracy and mob rule as destructive of liberty.
Their goal is to create a large republic with centralized power that preserves liberty rather than destroys it—this is a serious departure from political thought of the day. It is widely believed that republics can only work in small areas. Large centralized areas has thus far only been ruled by absolute monarchy.
The basic dilemma? How do you create a government strong enough to preserve liberty from tyranny of the mob or the European monarchs without giving it enough power to be tyrannical itself.
The Constitution begins “We the people…” Sovereignty lies with the people, but separates sovereignty from rule through a series of intermediaries—checks and balances. Then further through existing state governments.
The new national government has power, but it does not have a monopoly on power. The states should be capable of checking the power of the national government and vice versa.
The feared outcome of democracy was that people would divide into factions. The theory was that with a republic so large no one faction could take over. No one mob would be able to force their tyranny on the whole of the republic.
The convention was almost wrecked by disputes among the delegates. Large vs small and north vs south. Madison’s Virginia plan called for representation both houses of Congress to be based on population. States like new Jersey would not have it. This led to the great compromise—the House of Representatives would be based on population, while all states would have equal representation in the Senate.
The split between the agrarian south and the commercial north also led to other compromises. There would never be an export tax, there would be no ban on the slave trade for at least 20 years, a 2/3 vote was needed in the Senate for all treaties and for purposes of taxation and representation a slave was to count as 3/5 of a person.
Some delegates feared that the national government had been given too much power. Only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the final document. However thee majority believed that they had formed a large republic capable of protecting liberty. But would their constituents agree?
The document called for state radifying conventions with 9 states required to agree. Intense opposition emerged in every state—mainly from established groups who were afraid of loosing power.
However, the Federalists were better organized and marketed the idea better. The Federalist Papers were written to convince New Yorkers of the benefits of this large republic. Further, the individual state conventions bypassed current state legislators, who had a vested interest in maintaining power.
North Carolina and Rhode island did not agree until 1790 and 1791. However, enough states ratified to grant federal powers in 1789.
The final document in the Federalist papers show the founders as Hobbsian realists who distrusted human nature and sought to stop the excesses of the revolution. They are willing to undertake a radical and unprecedented experiment to protect Lockean liberty.
At this point America is left with more questions. Is this a union of people or states? What is the right balance of state vs national power? How can you have an empire of liberty when that liberty is based on the enslavement of others? Can you maintain liberty while having a nation large enough to maintain order from the tyranny of the mob as well as foriegn powers? Within a few years the writers of this document will split on answers to those questions.
Lecture 4: George Washington, Failures and Accomplishments
George Washington has countless memorials to his name: Washington D.C., the state of Washington, numerous counties and even the portrait on the $1 bill.
Everyone knows the cherry tree myth. Washington was a man so honest that as a boy he could not lie about chopping down a cherry tree. The cherry tree myth was created by Parson Weems in his 18th century biography. This was part of a trend to create an American national identity. Even though it is completely fabricated this myth, along with others, are still partially accepted as fact.
The truth is Washington was not perceived as a great military or political leader by many of his peers.
He had many failures in the War for American Independence. As president he failed in his efforts to prevent national political parties—even becoming a defacto party member himself.
On the other hand Washington’s most important contributions are not particularly well known.
Washington was not a professional soldier. He was a Virginia planter, slave owner and aristocrat selected by the Continental Congress to lead its militia because he was a well-established Virginia figure.
Washington was involved in an incident that lead to a massacre of French soldiers and Indian scouts on a diplomatic mission in modern-day Western Pennsylvania. It was 1754 and the French were building fortifications in the Ohio Valley. Washington was dispatched to defend the Virginian fort at the forks. Washington discovered a French scouting parting and attacked them, thinking they were planning a larger assault.
French ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who lead that scouting party, would be captured and murdered in captivity by one of Washington’s Indian allies. This infuriated the French and lead to a strong armed response, which lead to Washington’s surrender and the start of the French an Indian War. 
In the Revolutionary War much of the fighting took place in Boston. At the time it was unclear if in 1775 Southern colonies would fight on behalf of the Massachusetts. Washington showed up at the 2nd Continental Congress in his Virginia militia uniform said that they would.
Virginia was the most populous and important colony at this time, which included present day Virginia, west Virginia and Kentucky.
Washington did succeed in managing the siege of Boston for the remainder of 1775. It was his order to Henry Knox to bring cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston—300 miles over land in the winter—that made an incredible difference. Because of that order Washington was able to force a British withdrawal in 1776.
Washington suffered several terrible defeats following the British invasion of New York City in the summer of 1776. He lost the battle of Brooklyn Heights, which forced Washington to abandon the entire city. It would become British headquarters for the remainder of the war. Washington would loose subsequent battles at Brooklyn heights and fort Lee in new Jersey. He would be chased all the way across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. By that time Washington’s forces we’re down to about 300 men.
The only thing preventing complete failure was desperate Christmas Day Raid on the Hessian Garrison at Trenton. This was followed by a successful raid on the British Garrison at Princeton.
From 1778 to 1780 Washington lost several key battles in Georgia and the Carolinas including the loss of the key port cities of Savannah and Charleston.
In the entire war Washington only had one major victory following Trenton and Princeton—Yorktown. And it was a decisive victory. American and French land forces combined with the French Navy trapped and forced the surrender of an entire British army under the command of general Cornwallis.
Washington did realize that he did not need to win many battles to be victorious. He needed to maintain the Continental Army he created and capture or destruction until the British tired from attrition.
By the time of Yorktown in 1781 the British were formally at war with France, Spain and Holland. They were unofficially at war with the remainder of Europe through the league of armed neutrals. The British were diplomatically isolated and at home Britain faced major dissent—the war was incredibly unpopular. It took the loss at Yorktown for British government to realize the war was too expensive economically, politically and militarily to continue.
Although Yorktown occurs in 1781, a formal peace treaty is not signed until 1783. This was a dire period for Washington and the future of America.
During this time Washington squelched one of the most dangerous and bizarre events in US history. The Newburgh Conspiracy was a planned militarily coup that fed off the anger of some American soldiers that had their pay or pensions delayed. The inciting document was a letter believed to be written by Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates—perhaps, incited by the more extremist officers of Washington’s army.
At year’s end Washington would voluntarily relinquish his militarily power as commander of the army. This made him a hero and endeared him to his countryman. In this act he became the embodiment and defender of American liberty and Civic virtue.
He was invited to preside over the constitutional convention in Philadelphia to replace the articles of the confederation. Given his prestige it was obvious he would be elected as the first president.
Washington did have successes as president. The creation of a sound currency to pay off national debts, a crushed Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, and the expansion of the western frontier. He created a treaty with Britain that maintained neutrality, while in 1793 war broke out in Europe. This was despite the fact that America kept it’s war time alliance with France.
In one area Washington failed miserably—a split between his two key advisors, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton was secretary of the treasury and Jefferson was secretary of state. Washington had appointed both men in hope to avoid a split.
Jefferson and Hamilton disagreed on a number of important topics. Jefferson opposed Hamilton’s national Bank and fiscal policy. Hamilton wanted neutrality favoring Britain, Jefferson wanted neutrality favoring France. When it came to the Constitution, Hamilton wanted to interpret it broadly, while Jefferson wanted to interpret it narrowly and respect to the power the federal government had compared to states.
Hamilton’s followers became Federalists while Jefferson’s followers became Democratic Republicans.
Gradually Washington would come to favor Hamilton’s positions.
Washington wrote that he would retire after two terms. This document is known as the Farewell Address. Contrary to popular belief it is not a call for isolationism, but a call to remove emotion from foreign affairs and against future wartime alliances. Further it was a warning against political parties based on geography. He thought European powers would exploit political divides to weaken the country.
This warning was geared strongly towards Jefferson and his Democratic Republican party for their affinity for France. Washington came to see Jefferson as a tool of France and felt that he was too emotionally invested.
The attack on Jefferson is probably unfair, but not unfounded. However, it overshadows the most important point in the Farewell Address—that Washington would leave the presidency voluntarily. This would establish a president for a two-term limit. In doing so he reinforced the Constitution’s emphasis on limiting the power of government offices as a way of preserving republicanism and liberty.
Washington had many failures as a general and a president, but his accomplishments we’re extraordinary. His reputation as the father of the United States is fully warranted, but not for the reasons we are taught.
He created a national army and with that a national conscience. He avoided defeat from the most powerful militarily on earth long enough to win by attrition. He crushed an attempted militarily coup that would have changed American history forever. Most importantly, he twice renounced absolute power when it could have been his—favoring liberty over power.
Lecture 5: Confusion about Jefferson and Hamilton
During the 1790s Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson held very different views about domestic and foreign policy. Today many see Hamilton as conservative and Jefferson as liberal. However the specific issues that they argued over are not relevant to modern political parties. Further, conservative and liberal mean very different things today—this is a classic example of anachronistic thinking.
Washington selected Hamilton and Jefferson for sectional, not ideological balance.
The split between Jefferson and Hamilton occurred over two primary differences—government fiscal policy and neutrality.
Hamilton as the treasury secretary believed the government’s largest issues were fiscal. And that the US needed to establish credit—both at home and abroad. He proposed consolidating all state war debts with national debts and fund both together via a new bond issue. He proposed taxes on imports and some domestically made products as well as an 80 percent private, 20 percent public national bank.
Opposition to Hamilton’s plan initially came from James Madison, not Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson opposed the idea of a national Bank citing that it was not a specifically enumerated power within the Constitution. Hamilton countered that it was constitutional via the Necessary and Proper Clause. Washington sided with Hamilton on this issue.
The split on foreign affairs did not occur until 1793 when the French revolution became radical. The revolution put the newly formed Republic of France at war with Britain, Spain and every major monarchy in Europe.
Washington agreed to the Jay Treaty with England, which avoided war. However, it granted the British neutral rights. This treaty lead to an uproar and was the catalyst for the formation of two political parties: The Federalists under Hamilton and the Democratic Republicans under Jefferson and Madison.
In the presidential election of 1796 the Federalist John Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson. At the time the person with the second most votes would become Vice President—in this case Jefferson. In 1804 the introduction of the 12th Amendment would change this.
During Adams’ Presidency, tensions between parties grew dramatically.
The Federalists in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which violated civil liberties and was primarily directed against the Democratic Republicans. It more than doubled the residency length requirement for citizenship, allowed the president to imprison or deport anyone considered dangerous, and restricted speech critical of the government.
In retaliation Jefferson and Madison responded with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which nullified these laws and others that would infringe upon civil rights.
The core of party disagreements come down to state vs national power—a disagreement that continues today. Interestingly the roles have reversed. The aristocrat Hamilton arguing for more national power within the Democratic Jefferson arguing for less. This changes in the 1930s.
To further complicate things, Jefferson would expand the power of the executive branch during his Presidency starting in 1801. As would many of his successors who would campaign against executive power.
Hamilton’s domestic vision relied on taxes from imports and available British credit for American economic development.
Jefferson did not believe the US needed British trade or credit to prosper. Moerso he feared dependency on Britain. Jefferson wanted to use the French position as a counter weight. And felt that was the only way to preserve American independence from both European powers.
Despite his reputation Jefferson was not a democrat that believed in majority rule—he was a republican that feared mob rule. Furthermore Jefferson was a property owner that believed in property qualifications for voting. A person must have a stake in society to participate in government. That is hardly a democratic by today’s standards.
Jefferson’s vision for America was decentralized—one of independent and self-sufficient land-owners voting in their own interests. Hamilton, on the other hand, believes centralized power was necessary to defend liberty from internal and external threats.
In the election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr receive an equal number of votes and are tied for the presidency. At that time a tie would go to the house where the Federalists are in the majority. There is a feeling among the Federalists that they can work with Burr. They have come to believe their own propaganda about Jefferson being the devil. Hamilton disagrees—he understands, although disagrees with Jefferson. Hamilton believes that Burr is a lying scoundrel and convinces the Federalists to vote for Jefferson.
Burr decides to alter his political career by running for New York State Governor after he realizes that he is going to be a one-term Vice President. There is no way Jefferson will run with him in the 1804 election. This plan to run for governor is ruined after Hamilton again denounces him. This leads to the famous Burr vs. Hamilton duel.
Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States, kills Alexander Hamilton and is indicted for murder in New Jersey and New York.
Following the duel Burr, along with revolutionary war general James Wilkinson, attempts to carve out a new empire in the American Southwest.
This plot is discovered by then president Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson violates his civil liberties. He attempts to have Burr arrested and judged guilty before substantial evidence can be brought to court. This fails as Chief Justice John Marshall, steps in. Burr is set free.
The killing of Hamilton does not destroy the Federalist party, but it does leave them isolated and leaderless.
The Democratic Republicans begin to gain ground as Jefferson and James Madison attract moderate Federalists. They do this by agreeing with some Federalist concepts including protective tariffs and the chartering of a second national bank in 1816. They also agree to the expansion of executive power and national territory.
The remaining Federalists isolate themselves further by opposing the War of 1812. After years of pushing for centralized power, they hypocritically call for states rights and threaten succession from the Union. This eventually leads to the party’s disgrace and collapse.
In the election of 1820 Democratic Republican candidate James Monroe runs un-opposed. The nation enters an error of one-party rule.
Sometimes my notes don’t entirely make sense. In that case, I’ll look for alternative sources that help piece together the story.
History.com Staff, 1754: Lieutenant Colonel George Washington begins the Seven Years’ War, 2009
Library of Congress Web Guides, Alien and Sedition Acts, 2017