First Things Matter

I am a highschool teacher, assigned to spend my days teaching United States History to 11th graders.
In this line of work I am regularly entertained and inspired by the things my students say, and by the questions that they ask.
One of the challenges of my job is, of course, to keep my students interested in the subject of history.
Unlike science or math, or even music or sports they have a hard time understanding how history is relevant and important in their lives.
What’s in it for them, they wonder.
Why do I need to know this stuff?
Isn’t it all just memorizing names, dates and places?

But, I tell them, first things matter.
Recent events have helped make my job a lot easier. These questions have become easier to answer. The election of our current president, Donald Trump, may have been traumatic for many Americans, but it actually helps me do my job a little bit better.

It’s ironic, because I have to be honest and admit that the election of Donald Trump was a deeply surprising outcome for me as well.

While I can’t bring my personal biases into my teaching as facts, I do need to connect the present to the past for my students.

Modeling for them how the events of the current day are relevant and connected to the subject of history answers that constant question, “why should I know this stuff.”

Donald Trump helps me make history relevant to my students, and that leads them to make their own judgements about the past as well as the present.

Let me explain. Recently I was leading my students through the third chapter of our textbook, covering the Age of Andrew Jackson.

This two term president who served from 1828-1836 was a transformative time in our country’s history.

The Age of Jackson, also known as the Era of The Common Man, saw the United States embrace a concept of Manifest Destiny, believing that God wanted the United States to extend for the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

On the surface this is uninspiring to my 11th graders.

Ho-hum they react, this is just more boring stuff I don’t need to know.

When we learn about how Andrew Jackson forced the Five Civilized Tribes of the American South to leave their homes, their farms and their businesses behind and march at the point of a gun from Georgia to Oklahoma, an event known as the Trail of Tears, my students are a little more interested, even if it is only because of the drama and injustice of the story.

Still, at the end, it is still stuff they really don’t need to know and which has no real value for them.

Occasionally one will ask about why Jackson was allowed to do something so violent to Native Americans?

Great question, I respond.

I ask in response how a law abiding, English speaking, tax paying group of Christian churchgoing Americans of non-white ancestry might be forced by threat of violence to leave behind their homes, farms, businesses and property.

Seen this way the Trail of Tears starts to take on an even darker character. These “tribes” seem more like modern day neighbors.

The illusion of something alien being removed is replaced with something personal and knowable being taken away.  

Still, this is long past.

It’s not now.

It’s not, therefore, relevant.

I explain, when answering that student, that the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, The Muskogee Creek and the Seminole went to court to fight. They didn’t resort to violence to defend their homes.

They fought instead all the way to the Supreme Court.

They fought, and they won.


In Worcester v. Georgia and again the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia the Supreme Court ruled that the United States did not have the legal right to seize the property of the Five Civilized Tribes.

The Supreme Court ruled that the United States could not legally remove these law abiding, tax paying Christian, English speaking Americans from their property.

This creates more conflict in  the minds of my students, but still doesn’t make this story important.

At this point it is just interesting, unjust and perhaps entertaining in a dramatic way.

I go on answering the question of why Jackson was able to do this to explain that in response to the Supreme Court, President Andrew Jackson was reported to have responded, “(Supreme Court Chief Justice) John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.

This means, I explain, that the president ignored the Supreme Court and carried out the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes anyway.

How can this be, they ask.

What about impeachment?

Why wasn’t Jackson impeached when he so blatantly and obviously broke the law?

This is the turning point.

This is when I bring the lesson of history up to the present and make it relevant. From this point the lesson is more about the now as well as the past.

In order to understand why Jackson was allowed to do this we cannot look to the Constitution.

We have to look at ourselves.

The law, I say, is only the law if we demand that the law be enforced.

If a president breaks the law the power to impeach the president exists, but it must be used. It isn’t automatic.

Why wasn’t Jackson impeached? Because the Congress didn’t impeach him.

The people didn’t call upon their representatives to uphold the system of checks and balances. The system was allowed to fail, rather than work as intended. For us, I say, we must be engaged citizens.

We cannot sit back, watch TV or play games and allow the powerful to take away our Constitution. We, in order to be patriots, must be vigilant against the injustice that Jackson was able to get away with.

At this point I may have convinced some of the students that history matters, but usually it is not a majority, and never a totality of the students.

Calls for patriotism may be interesting and emotional, but the importance of the Jackson presidency is still unproven to most of them.

Having brought the subject of Andrew Jackson closer to their position in the world, I go deeper into the present.

I say, why should you know about the crimes of Andrew Jackson?

Why is this important beyond the fact that we have honored him with his picture on our twenty dollar bill?

Andrew Jackson is the favorite president of our current president, Donald Trump.

Andrew Jackson is the chosen presidential role model of Donald Trump.
In the Oval Office, Donald Trump has placed a large painting of Andrew Jackson. Trump looks at Jackson every day.

Trump is inspired by the example of this lawless president, I say.

How do I know this is important, beyond the placement of a painting?

Well, I remind my students that first things matter in history.

First things establish importance, they establish priorities. What a person or a nation does first in any situation shows what is important to that person or that nation at the time.

First things also give us an expectation of what is to come. They create traditions and precedents to guide us going forward in time.

First things are important.

One of the first things that Donald Trump did as president was to make a personal pilgrimage to the burial site of Andrew Jackson.

Trumpo did not visit Ronald Reagan’s grave. He didn’t visit Eisenhower’s or FDR’s grave. He chose to travel to the grave of Andrew Jackson to pay his respects, and made sure that the visit was recorded by the press and reported in the news. It was even reported in the fake news. What is interesting is that Trump is not the first president to visit Jackson’s grave, and often these visits reveal unflattering views held by past presidents.

After hanging Jackson’s picture and visiting Jackson’s grave, Donald Trump announced a travel ban on people from predominantly muslim nations.

He increased ICE raids on illegal immigrants inside the united States.

Recently he had applauded an immigration bill in Congress that is reminiscent of the racial immigration policies of the 1920’s.

Like his hero, Andrew Jackson, I explain, he has made racial immigration a central theme of his presidency. Like Andrew Jackson he has been in conflict with the courts, who ruled against both Jackson and soon may rule against Trump.

Why should they care?

Why should my 11th grade students care about Andrew Jackson?

Because what Andrew Jackson did is a guide for what Donald Trump is trying to do. What Donald Trump is trying to do is to repeat the achievements of Andrew Jackson.

The crimes are being repeated, and Donald Trump is betting that the people will not have the will to demand justice this time, as we did not demand justice in 1828 when Jackson marched the five civilized tribes to their death on the Trail of Tears.

And they should care, and we should all care, because the people who were hurt by Jackson are just like you and me.

The Five Civilized Tribes were law abiding, tax paying, English speaking people who wanted nothing more that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When Jackson ripped neighbors from their homes it was a crime we still recount to students.

If Trump is allowed to repeat this crime today, we will be hurt or see those we love, and see those who are just like you and me be hurt again.

The lesson of history will be unlearned.

We will have been doomed to repeat this mistake of history.

First things matter.

Sometimes the first things in history are matters of life and death. And that is important to you and to me and to my students.

This is how to make history matter.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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