“The Anti-Washington”: Using Art as a Historical Tool in World History Class

I believe that a key aspect of “doing” social studies is to give kids the opportunity to not only connect prior knowledge to the content being studied, but also allow them the chance to reevaluate their opinion of historical figures using new knowledge that is presented.  Teaching high school world history normally involves introducing students to a wide range of individuals, concepts and events.  Trying to help students achieve some level of mastery of these concepts can seem daunting, especially if you are not able to tap into that reservoir of knowledge that the kids bring with them into the room.  In teaching the French Revolution and its aftermath I attempt to achieve this by bringing in the single historical figure in which kids are the most familiar: George Washington.  In the process I also give the students a chance to flex their non-text discipline specific literacy muscles by analyzing two pieces of art work that say an awful lot about the subjects of depicted in each.

First, let me add something to my claim that Washington is the figure that students know the most about.  Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that they are very familiar with the myth of George Washington more so than the actual person.  As a society (and as educators) we have done a great job of honoring our founders and subsequent great Presidents.  They appear on money, statues, and holidays where students can spend their time doing anything but learning about the day’s namesake.  A danger of this deification of the founders is that they cease to seem real to us, and we fail to recognize that they were human beings who took risks, had faults, had ambitions and felt every single human emotion that we feel 240 years later.  Humanizing these figures makes their stories so much more compelling, and subsequently much more fun to both teach and learn.  With that said, let’s get back to the point and discuss Napoleon and Washington.

In my years teaching this era of French history I have had much more success once I started framing the Revolution and the rise of Napoleon as a sort of “worst-case scenario” version of the American Revolution.  Of course this is a simplistic analysis of the event, but in the standard Gen-Ed survey course we all teach at the high school level I believe it to be sufficient.  After the usual analysis of the principles of the American and French revolutions and how each progressed and eventually ended, I turn my attention to Napoleon.  

I begin the lesson by asking students to brainstorm all they can remember about George Washington (this is where the topic of “myth versus reality” often comes in.)  At some point it will come up that Washington voluntarily gave up his commission as the commander of the US army.  This is the magic word I’m waiting to hear, and we discuss how historically significant that single event was not only for the United States, but for all of human history.  It goes against nearly every fiber of human nature to devote your life to achieving success, power and influence and to then voluntarily give it up.  I share with my students the quote attributed to King George when he was told of Washington’s plan to relinquish power: “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

At this point I ask the students to engage in revisionist history.  I give all the students 5-10 minutes to write their thoughts on what would have happened had Washington decided to maintain power and declared himself Emperor of America.  The responses usually range from a military coup to kill Washington, a second revolution, or on the opposite end a successful empire that lasts until Washington’s death and the subsequent civil war that would be sure to follow.  After I invite students to share the thesis of their response we move on to Napoleon himself.

I will not bore you with a summary of the brief presentation that follows, but instead will jump straight to the concluding activity.  At this point the students have reviewed Washington and have been exposed to the rise and reign of Napoleon (but not yet his fall.)  For the final activity of the lesson I project the following two paintings for the students to analyze in partners:


Specifically, the students are asked to do a visual inventory of what they notice in each painting.  They are then to write down what they think they are seeing.  After a very brief share out session I inform the students the subject matter of the paintings: George Washington voluntarily resigning his commission as commander of the army and Napoleon crowning himself emperor.  Thus far it has proved to be a valuable visual comparison that helps the students achieve a new found respect for the father of our country and recognizing just how remarkable the American Revolution was in world history.

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