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Geography shapes America. Its laws, history and, well, pretty much everything

the law of the land

I can not get enough of Flipboard. Seriously.

Flipboard inventor guy, I salute you.

The reason is simple. Find topics, follow topics, learn tons of new things. The unintended consequence, of course, is that you can often fall into a deep, dark, highly entertaining hole of time that you will never get back. I’m willing to pay that price because, like I said, tons of new learning.

Just in the last day, I ran across the incredible Guardian website on the First World War, I learned 60 news ways to use Google Classroom, and found what is apparently the ultimate strawberry shortcake recipe.

So . . . sidebar. Get Flipboard.

You’re welcome.

But while the WWI site, 60 Googley things, and shortcake were all interesting, what really caught my eye over the last few days has been a couple of articles focusing on geography. The first is about a book titled The Law of the Land: A Grand Tour of our Constitutional Republic and the impact of American geography on legal history in the United States.

And, yes, that sounds . . . mmm, not very interesting. But the  interview with the author, Akhil Reed Amar, is not what you expect. You’re going to have to trust me on this. Head overto the National Geographic article and skim through it. I know it’s a busy time of the year but it seems like a perfect way to start tying in past events with contemporary issues. A powerful example is Amar’s reference to the 1860 and 2008 presidential elections:

I can’t help but notice that many of the divisions today between red and blue states correlate sharply with geography. Isn’t it interesting that Barack Obama, a tall skinny lawyer from Illinois, basically won all the states that Lincoln won and lost all the states Lincoln lost? One of the major issues in constitutional law is federalism—whether we want to be one country or a loose confederation of states—and that has been influenced by geography as well.

In the last six presidential elections, the South every time has voted for a different presidential candidate than the North. We’re reverting in some ways to the cleavages and polarizations that have defined much of American history.

Supreme Court decisions, including the Dred Scott, were as much about geography as they were about legal issues.

So you have this disgraceful decision proclaiming that . . . the entire Republican Party platform—no slavery in the territories—is unconstitutional. The Constitution itself says nothing in this direction; it’s a preposterous ruling. So where is the court coming from? Quite literally, they’re coming from the South. Five of the nine justices come from slaveholding states, even though the South accounts for less than a third of population.

At the time of this decision, Supreme Court justices had to ride circuit between different cities. Because transportation is so much more difficult in the South, as a way of equalizing the burden the South has more circuits than its population might warrant. The geography is simply more challenging. This means the South is going to be overrepresented on the Supreme Court. So there you see some simple geographic facts about roads, swamps, rivers, and transportation driving the decision in what was the most important case in the antebellum period.

Today’s court is made up of judges trained in the Northeast. But more recent cases such as Bush v. Gore or Tinker v. Des Moines still develop in local areas before becoming national cases with a wider impact.

The Law of the Land seems very similar to The Republic of Nature, a book also focused on how the environment has shaped and influenced American history. Think how railroads impacted settlement of the West, where cities developed and others didn’t. Think Fugitive Slave Law. Think how battles were fought such as Gettysburg. Crops grown in the South and factories in the North. The idea of federalism and local control.

All can be seen through the lens of geography. All are the types of questions and problems we can give to our kids to mess with. And while both Law of the Land and Republic focus on the US, these same sorts of questions and problems are applicable to the study of other countries and cultures.

Think building construction practices in Japan. Think Switzerland neutrality. Think oil rich Middle East. Colonialism and the idea of the White Man’s Burden. Of development of civilizations.

I ran across a few other Flipboard articles. Spoiler alert – they might have something to do with geography.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. worth sharing !

    May 6, 2015
  2. Very articulate article, I love it.

    May 6, 2015
  3. Ryan #

    Hello Glenn. As a first year Social Studies teacher, I can’t say how awesome and helpful your blog has been for creating engaging lessons for my students. I have yet to come across an online resource with as many USEFUL teaching strategies. Currently, I am teaching a Sociology course. Not as many online resources as other Social Science classes. Think you could point me in the direction of some? Thanks!

    May 6, 2015
    • glennw #


      I’m glad that you’re finding some useful stuff here! I am not a soc guy at all. Let me look around. I’ll also Tweet out a quick request for some help.


      May 7, 2015

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