I hated history when I was in high school. We had to memorize stupid, meaningless dates. Nothing could have been more boring. I didn’t learn a thing.
Now, more than half a century later, I like some dates. Here’s a game I just played on Zoom with my students.
What year did the American Revolution begin, and when did it end?
My students agreed that it probably began in 1765, the year of the Stamp Act, when Parliament imposed on the American colonists, without their consent, a tax on various forms of printed materials. That’s when the movement for American independence gathered steam.
Now, when did the Revolution end? One student said 1781 and the Battle of Yorktown and General Cornwallis’ surrender to the Americans. Another opted for the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that officially ended the war. One student went for 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified, George Washington was inaugurated and our constitutional republic began. Another student weighed in with 1791 and the ratification of the Bill of Rights. She argued that our First Amendment rights and our Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial and due process are more precious and important than the rest of the Constitution.
Well, we discussed this a little more and then two students proposed the year 1801. Why? That year, Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the new Democratic Republican Party, defeated the incumbent, Federalist John Adams. It was the first time that a candidate from an opposition party won and the first time that there was a peaceful transfer of power from one party to the opposition. Alexander Hamilton, one of the top Federalists, had feared that Jefferson and his radical Republicans would destroy the republic, and at one point he contacted the governor of New York, John Jay, and unsuccessfully tried to change the slate of electors in that state.
The problem was that although Jefferson defeated Adams and although Adams accepted his defeat (and didn’t claim that it was a rigged election), Jefferson and his shady running-mate Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College. For a few months after the election, the Federalists considered all sorts of ploys to elect Burr instead of Jefferson because they correctly thought that they could make a deal with Burr and have him in their pocket. But finally the Federalists swallowed hard and decided to respect the results of the election (though Adams skipped town the morning of Jefferson’s inauguration).
One Massachusetts Federalist, Fisher Ames, offered good advice: The party out of power, he said, should be the loyal opposition. It should not assail the new administration with invective, but must be a “watchman who never flinches” and “speak with the voice of the good and the wise.”
My students agreed that 1801 marked the culmination of the Revolution. The acceptance of the legitimacy of opposition and citizens’ right to organize and oppose those who govern are the hallmark of an open, healthy democracy. And when we looked around the world today, at countries like the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Syria — we saw how rare that is becoming.
Of course, my students knew we were playing a game and that there is no real end to the American Revolution. It’s an ongoing, never-ending quest for more freedom, more justice and a more perfect union.
But today, Jan. 6, some hare-brained Republicans and goose-stepping Trump loyalists in Congress are making a final stab at blocking the peaceful transfer of power, denying the legitimacy of the election and the legitimacy of the opposition party. They will fail in their efforts to sabotage the constitutional rules and norms of American democracy, and Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20. But let’s play the dating game and remember the importance of 1801.