Teaching the first half of the American history survey has become a more complicated job over the last few decades. The reason is quite simple—the purview of early American historians has broadened significantly in the same period. A narrative from Jamestown to Independence to Civil War is now a narrative that begins with (or even before) the Columbian Exchange. A geographical focus that formerly considered the “thirteen colonies” almost in isolation now extends northwards to Canada, westwards to the Mississippi, southwards to the Caribbean, and across the ocean to Europe and Africa. A predominantly white, male, Protestant cast of characters has welcomed women, people of color, Native Americans, and others to its merry band.
All of this is a good thing. But it runs up against a critical problem—the amount of time in a semester has not extended at all. To take account of newer historical approaches therefore requires critical editing of syllabi and a rethinking of approaches. That means there will be, for want of a better term, “winners” and “losers” in terms of the material covered in the survey course. My contention is that the 18th century is the main loser from these changes—and I wonder, at times, what the implication is for our students’ understanding of key currents of American history. Continue reading
When did you realize Christopher Columbus was a jerk?
I’m not sure if I actually received the “traditional,” Samuel Eliot Morrison and Daniel Boorstin-inflected education on Columbus during my child and young adulthood. I remember that my high school history course (c. the early 2000s) sped through Columbus and discussed a bit about his bad human rights record. My excellent college-level history courses, of course, provided the standard exploration, found in virtually every modern textbook of repute, of the Columbian Exchange unleashed by early European exploration and conquests in the Americas. I imbibed, during my childhood, the general story about Columbus in American culture—that “he sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and “discovered” America—but, if there were any lies my teachers told me, it certainly wasn’t about the earliest encounters between Native Americans and Europeans in the Caribbean.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States changed my life.
My personal copy of the 2003 edition of A People History of the United States. Also featured: my cat Marshall.
I grew up in very historically minded family. My recollections of my boyhood and tween years are filled with sweaty summer memories of traipsing with my mother and sister through every Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield between the mid-Atlantic and Upper South—from Gettysburg to Yorktown. We regularly took the Orange Line into Washington to go to the National Museum of American History. The History Channel, when we had cable, was a regular fixture on our television. All of this history education was very traditional—all Presidents, bloodshed, and American Exceptionalism. My understanding of American history only became more traditional once I entered a conservative Catholic high school.
Or, how I came to realize my early America might not be so quintessentially American.
According to my calendar—everyone has alerts set to eighteenth-century military actions, right?—today is the 254th anniversary of the French surrender of Quebec. Forget Constitution Day, this is the hottest event of your week.
Readers of early American history blogs will undoubtedly have come across the recent kerfuffle regarding the divide between academic and public historians of the American Revolution, which stemmed from a series of posts by Peter Feinman assessing the conference. Much of the debate has centered around this post, in which Feinman chided academic historians for their failure to answer the question: “Was the American Revolution a good thing?” Roy Rogers posted an excellent response to this here last week; J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 had other reflections on Monday (and is continuing to address the topic in other posts).
Few issues trouble historians of all stripes more than the disconnect between “popular” and “academic” history. Somewhere in the mists of the recent past the Age of Hofstadter gave way to, at best, the Age of McCulloch and, at worst, the Age of Barton. The waning influence of professional historians in the public sphere particularly troubles the historical blogosphere. The popular-academic history disconnect is something addressed a lot here at The Junto, including with a podcast.
I am, as I said on the JuntoCast episode, particular dour about the possibility of bridging this gap. Academic historians, public historians, and interested members of the public more often than not talk past each other. How each group defines “good” or “useful” history is often so at cross-purposes that it sounds like one side is speaking English, another French, and another Dothraki. My attention was recently drawn to a series of posts by Peter Feinman at New York History, which deeply entrenched my Eeyore-like-sullenness when it comes to these questions. Continue reading
This post comes to you from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in St Louis. If you’re at the conference, please come and say hello!
The SHEAR Annual Meeting kicked off this year with the Presidential Plenary session, “Missouri: Crossroads of the Early Republic?” Using the conference’s location as a jumping-off point for discussions of the diverse and multifaceted history of the early nineteenth century, four distinguished historians offered reflections as if located in Missouri, looking across the North American continent in different directions. Walter Johnson then concluded the roundtable with the notional title “Looking Forward,” but calling attention to some ways in which the session might profitably be used by historians looking to introduce new themes and stories into their teaching. Continue reading
I’ve been reading, writing, and thinking about Virginia’s colonial Anglican establishment since I entered graduate school (back when the Galactica had just uncovered the fate of Earth and Lehman Brothers was still short-selling subprime mortgages). This work led me to decide to write a dissertation on the religious politics and fate of the colonial establishments in the post-Revolutionary Chesapeake. Beginning the real work on my dissertation, however, has hammered home one important insight: despite all that reading I still don’t have a real sense of what the hell was going with Virginia’s colonial establishment. Continue reading
There’s a nasty undercurrent of triumphalism latent in much analysis of recent events in Egypt. When considering how the “Egyptian Revolution” seems to have gone awry in recent weeks, some commentators have lauded the experience of the American Revolution and proclaimed the importance of civil society. If only Egypt had the mature society America possessed in the 18th century, they seem to say, maybe there wouldn’t be a necessity of military control. It’s as if they read Tocqueville and assumed that he spoke timeless truths about the entirety of American history, rather than really thinking deeply about the process of winning Independence. (Then again, we already knew that about George Will, didn’t we?) Continue reading
Over at Slate last week, our Junto colleague Eric Herschthal reviewed some of the latest popular histories of revolutionary America, including two new studies of the years around 1776 by Richard Beeman and Joseph Ellis. Eric takes a very critical view of the analytical stance of the books–arguing that they are too in thrall to outdated and invalidated historical techniques; focusing too much on elites and ‘leadership’ at the expense of more recent trends in scholarship, such as the new emphasis on those who stayed (or tried to stay) neutral during the Revolutionary War.
Perhaps the most provocative part of the review is this statement:
“If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?”
To me, the answer seems self-evident. Continue reading