Monday, December 13, 2010

Educational Resource: Napoleonic Wars

First, I'll admit it--I hate to be writing about wars.  But if you are teaching your middle schoolers about history, it's a topic that has to be addressed.  And if you are teaching about 19th century wars, a book that I just have to recommend is Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by Donald Sommerville.

At least here in America, there are not lots of great resources about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era.  But personally, I think it is really important to study, especially for Americans.  One thing that I try to convey in teaching about the American Revolution is what a radical idea it was that people were equal and that the common (white) man (unfortunately, sexism was still rampant then and women were not seen as equals...nor were ethnic groups such as Negroes) was capable of ruling himself--or, at least, of choosing the men (again, sexist and racist, but that's how it was) who would set the rules.

So, although it wasn't perfect, the ideas of democracy and equality that drove the American Revolution were a remarkable divergence from how governments had been run since Western Civilization.  And the -- again, pretty much exclusive white men -- who argued about those ideals and tried to formulate them into a working government were also, in my opinion, fairly remarkable.

One way to demonstrate this is to study the French Revolution.  Just as the French philosophers had influenced the American revolutionaries, so the American example inspired similar rebellions on the part of the people of France.  But after their war, the government that was established was either unstable or totalitarian.  The French were able to overthrow the aristocracy, but the government for many years after that was brutal to its perceived enemies, both within and around the country.

I think the greatest lesson for Americans in French history, especially regarding the Napoleonic era, is that EVEN with revolution, democracy was not a foregone conclusion.  First France, then the many nations of South America, declared their independence from European royalty.   But none of these countries were able to establish a lasting democratic government.  However, with the establishment of the US Constitution, the US government has prevailed through conflicts over its territory (the War of 1812, the Mexican war, the wars with the Native Americans), with World Wars and other military action outside its borders, and even the Civil War that set state against state.

So this is a big deal for me.   But if you are interested in your middle schooler learning about these events--American Revolution, French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, American expansionism, and the War against Mexico--I haven't found a better resource than this book.

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