When I replied “No” to Kinzey’s question, and to Colin’s follow-up, I was pretty sure of my answer.
I was wrong. The resulting historical adventure began with a lively class discussion, continued through an independent study, and eventually resulted in an article that undergraduates Kinzey McLaren-Czerr, Colin Spicer and I wrote together.
That journey began in spring, 2018, in HIST 4220, “The American Revolution.” The students had been assigned a classic article arguing that, conceptually, at least some delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered white women as being represented in the government that the document framed. Early in class, Kinzey’s hand shot up. She asked whether actually counting white women for the purposes of apportionment, that is, to decide how many congressional districts each state would be allotted, made a practical difference. I immediately answered very clearly to the negative. From my decades of reading about the American Revolution, I knew that neither late-18th-century Americans nor previous historians had considered this an issue. But Colin followed up.
The question turned out to be a great one. I scribbled on the board students’ reporting of the results of the 1790 U.S. Census, which they found online. Colin and Kinzey turned out to be correct. If the Constitution had only called for the counting of white men, then adding white women and children would have been of minor consequence. But because the Constitution also infamously called for the counting of three-fifths of all enslaved people, it turned out that the inclusion of white women and children made a big difference in determining the comparative size of state Congressional delegations. Had an undergraduate class had discovered something that two centuries of historians had missed?
I emailed Jan Lewis, the author of that article, as well as several other authorities in the field. They agreed that what we had found was a mystery. Kinzey, Colin, and I soon decided to an independent study this past year (2018-2019) to investigate. We met weekly, discussing what we had read, trying and discarding theories and interpretations, divvying up what documents to consult next, and contributing to and editing our shared bibliography and common draft. Our article has just appeared in the Journal of the American Revolution, an online publication that straddles the academic-popular history divide.
To express all we discovered would take more space than a blog post. To name a few things: Colin and Kinzey learned about the hard work that goes into researching and writing an academic article, and all the students in HIST 4220 learned that every day presents the possibility of exploring new historical terrain, even for a subject such as the American Revolution that is among the most studied of historical processes.
What did I find, beyond illumination? That, once again, the surprises that can happen in a history classroom make for an irreplaceable educational experience for students and faculty alike.