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Jan Term course uses presidential scandal as a gateway to historical inquiry

Richard Nixon
January 14, 2014

Watergate, Iran-Contra and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair are but a few of the incidents students will explore in Bryn Upton’s class, “Presidential Scandals.”

Sophomore Katya Spitznagel of Parkton, Md., has always been interested in American history, but she admits she was lured in by the course’s “seductive title.” The Psychology major and her classmates look forward to three weeks dedicated to confronting the secrets and lies of the Oval Office.

They soon discovered their History professor had much more than that in store. For Upton, presidential scandals are an opportunity to challenge students to reexamine what they think they know about history.

“Generally speaking, you’ve been lied to,” he said on the first day of class, explaining how people tell stories to create a past that can be used to explain, justify and legitimate the present.

Not one to shy away from controversy, Upton chose Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Hemmings scandal as the first main topic of the mini-semester. Historians have increasing evidence that Jefferson had sexual relations with Hemmings, one of his slaves, but this is often left out of history books.

Junior Nick Tuori thinks Jefferson’s status as Founding Father encourages people to brush off the unpleasant allegation.

“To understand a lot of these scandals, we need to understand (the Founding Fathers) as men, not these semi-mythological demigods,” said the Social Work major from Eldersburg, Md. “They all had flaws.”

In class, Tuori learned about Jefferson, the man, rather than Jefferson, the myth. Viewing Jefferson, and the affair, as a product of his time and circumstance shed new light on the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.

However, nobody knows how Hemmings felt in the matter. As a slave, there wouldn’t have been any documentation beyond property records. Upton suggests this particular scandal “portrays more about the history of race in America than it does about Jefferson.” It provides insight into contemporary attitudes toward race, too, as there are those trying to prove the affair never even happened.

The Jefferson scandal speaks to one of the course’s main takeaways – that history is constantly being reconstructed, having an impact on both individual and national identity.

Touri learned how the portrayal of history can impact national pride. Focusing on the positives can invoke patriotism, while concentrating on the negatives can be unsatisfying and embarrassing. This could be why national history often puts more emphasis on stories people can be proud of than unsavory tales of the Founding Fathers’ affairs, he explained.

Along with a newfound knowledge of how history works, the undergraduates also learned how to think critically about their sources of information. Looking at scandals from a 360-degree angle has shown the class how reactions to an event can impact the telling of a story.

“Definitely the best armor you can have is knowledge,” said Spitznagel. “Sure you can have your specialties, but you need to understand the world around you.”

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