Learning Resources

Historians Must Contextualize the Election for Voters


Key Vocabulary

Contextualize - the act of placing events in a proper context (the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed during a certain time and place)

Pundit - a person who offers their opinion/commentary to the mass media on topics where they are considered to be experts

Rebuke - to express harsh criticism or disapproval

Unprecedented -never done or existed before


Historian Joanne Freeman describes the early years of our nation and the founding generation in an essay published in the Washington Post as part of the #HistoriansGuidetoElection2020.

“In fact our country was founded on the very idea that the past has much to tell the present. The founding generation grounded its politics and ultimately our Constitution on that idea.” 

“The founding generation was feeling its way through the nation’s founding one decision at a time. ‘We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us,’ Madison noted in 1790. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania captured that same feeling in his diary. “The Whole World is a shell,” he wrote, “and we tread on hollow ground every step.”’

To examine the thinking of the founding generation, use the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) with your classmates. The teacher will introduce the Question Focus, (or QFocus), and the rules for the exchange as posted below. 

The process may begin again once students conclude the first discussion with a second QFocus, using either Senator William Maclay’s or Delegate Patrick Henry’s quote. Your teacher may divide the class in half (or initially in thirds), and each group may explore a separate quote at the same time.

Once all students have examined one or more quotes, take time to explore the original primary source texts from which each quote was taken, following the student developed action plan.

Your teacher may ask you to record your answers on an exit ticket. 


Historians have one of the most interesting jobs—they study and interpret the past. Some teach at colleges or universities, others work in museums and historical societies. They write history books about a variety of topics: a particular time period, specific people or groups of people, and places where historic events happened both near and far. Historians study and fact-find, then share that information with the public to help us make sense of our world.

"The founding generation was feeling its way through the nation’s founding one decision at a time. 'We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us,' Madison noted in 1790. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania captured that same feeling in his diary. 'The Whole World is a shell,' he wrote, 'and we tread on hollow ground every step.' "


You will notice the stack of cards to the right of the excerpt. There are also icons including a light bulb, map pin, and clock next to the article which symbolizes different types of connections you can make using bunkhistory.org to learn more about history and current events. Take a few minutes to explore the cards and icons. You will notice that each icon leads you to a new stack of cards. To learn more about these, read How Connections Work.

Next, create a Bunk Collection using Joanne Freeman’s excerpt. You can begin to build your collection using the blue Add to Collection button at the top of the excerpt. Your teacher may have you do this next activity in 2-3 smaller collections using only certain parts of the Learning Resource, or they may direct you to build a larger collection over the course of a few days. Collections may not be partially saved, so you will need to keep your browser tab open or discuss the best options with your teacher. 

Follow the directions in the notes sections of this Collection. Add the next 4 excerpts as pictured to your collection.   

You may find them using the Connections in each stack of cards next to the excerpt, or you may search for them by name.

Once you have added the first four, you will select one of the excerpts of your choice connected to the piece by Joanne Freeman. You should now have a total of five excerpts in your collection. Move the one you selected so it appears in the box below the piece by Joanne Freeman. Order all the others using the image below as a guide. 

"Others contend scholars who engage with the public aren’t “serious” about their work, an idea that is thankfully fading — albeit gradually. But in truth, given the unprecedented nature of our crisis, there could be no better time — indeed, no more urgent a time — for historians to engage the public with gusto." 


In the box next to the first excerpt from Joanne Freeman, reflect on the piece and answer the following question: 

  • Do you agree/disagree with Freeman's quote?

Explain your answer in the first text box beside the excerpt.

Next, annotate the excerpt you chose and added from Bunk, which was connected to the one by Joanne Freeman. Discuss these excerpts with a partner. 

  • How are the excerpts similar/different?
  • Does your partner's excerpt make you think differently about the quote?

Your teacher may ask you to record your answers on an exit ticket, submit a portion of the collection, or continue to add and annotate. Remember, you may not save and return to your work in Bunk Collections.


pundit is a person who offers their opinion or commentary to the mass media on topics where they are considered to be experts. Pundits appear on or even host news shows, and often have worked in various careers for the government as elected or appointed officials. Some pundits are hired to express the opinions of one political party over another. The next two excerpts you will read make the case that historians like Joanne Freeman and others featured in the Washington Post’s #HistoriansGuideto2020 series should or should not act in the role of a pundit. Read these excerpts carefully then annotate your thoughts on each.  


Social media has changed the way we communicate and often times the way we learn about breaking news.  It has also become a place for civil and not-so-civil discourse. Twitter provides a platform for anyone to virtually share their opinions with the world, and to put themselves in the role of a pundit, a political commentator, and even an “armchair historian.”  Some historians argue it is not “dignified” for historians to directly interact with the public via social media. They argue it may diminish the respect the public holds for the role of historians in our colleges, universities, museums, and other cultural centers.  Others, often younger historians, embrace social media and are actively engaging with their followers as well as offering both solicited and unsolicited advice. In her excerpt, Historians Must Contextualize the Election for Voters, Historian Joanne Freeman refers to "#Twitterstorians."  Freeman herself tweets under the @jbf1755 account. She frequently adds the Twitterstorians hashtag along with #WordsMatter."

Now it is YOUR turn!

Read this excerpt from Bunk, and create your own Tweet in the final box of your Bunk Collection, commenting on Freeman's excerpt. (Reminder: on Twitter, you may only use 280 characters!)

  • Should historians engage in Twitter chats and long threads with the public on social media?
  • Create an original hashtag to illustrate your point, just for fun! 
  • If you are of age and allowed, share your Tweet with a link to your final collection!

Reminder, you should have a total of 5 excerpts in your collection before you finalize. The original four, plus the one you added and annotated connected to the Freeman excerpt. Proofread your annotations, save your changes and finalize your collection. Be sure to add a title to your collection, add your name, teacher’s name and class period. Share the link with your teacher via email. Depending on your age and your school’s internet policies, your teacher may have your use their email, or they may use the Assignment option instead of a Collection.

Your teacher may ask you to record your answers on an exit ticket or submit your work on the Bunk Collection you created.


Freeman, Joanne. “Historians Must Contextualize the Election for Voters.” Bunk History. Washington Post, February 24, 2020.

"Give me liberty, or give me death!" Patrick Henry delivering his great speech on the rights of the colonies, before the Virginia Assembly, convened at Richmond, March 23rd, concluding with the above sentiment, which became the war cry of the revolution. United States Virginia Williamsburg, ca. 1876. New York: Published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, https://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/giveme.cfm 

“Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791,” accessed February 24, 2020, digitized January 9, 2007. https://books.google.com/books/about/Journal_of_William_Maclay.html?id=kL4lAAAAMAAJ. [Original source: Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791,” author William Maclay, ed. Edgar Stanton Maclay. D.A.Appleton, 1890.]

“To Thomas Jefferson from James Madison, 30 June 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-15-02-0221. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 15, 27 March 1789 – 30 November 1789, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, pp. 224–229.]

Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry . (Philadelphia) 1836, as reproduced in The World's Great Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds., (New York) 1973. Accessed February 24, 2020. https://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/giveme.cfm .

This work by New American History is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at newamericanhistory.org.

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