“There’s just one question I have to ask,” said the pleasant young man at the US Embassy, reviewing my visa application. “You are aware that we won, right?”
As a Brit teaching early American history in the U.S., I get some version of this question quite a lot. And it’s something I play up to in my own classes, as well. Many of my courses begin with the warning: “If you learn nothing else over the next 15 weeks, you will understand what it is like to be subject to arbitrary British despotism.” When teaching the Boston Massacre, I jest that I’m worried to give too much information, just in case my students get ideas. And in teaching colonial history, I remind my students that the history we cover is as British as it is American.
Of course, I am an enthusiastic cheerleader for the American Revolution. I study the Revolution because I think it’s one of the most remarkable and unlikely achievements in history. Not so much in the triumph over the British Empire; but rather the fact that the end result of the Revolution was a united nation. It still takes me aback that a nation with so many discordant voices could end up ultimately assenting to documents as powerful as the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution.
Nevertheless, there are a few key questions here. What does a Brit have to say about the American Revolution? What can an American student learn from a foreigner teaching him or her “their” history?
Yet I’ve only ever considered my Britishness an advantage when it comes to my teaching (I know, I know, imperial arrogance and all that). As a college professor teaching American history, most of the time I’m engaging in material with which students consider themselves at least partially familiar. Familiar, of course, with the high school story, the public narrative that is all too often wrapped neatly and tidily with a nice little bow; the one academics grouse about all the time. The challenge of college courses is getting students to realize the contingency and the discord that attended the process of creating a new nation. Getting anyone to think about a familiar subject in a new way is tricky—even more so when it is a key part of national and personal identity.
Confronted with a British professor, though, students expect me to have a different take on their country’s past. I don’t share the educational heritage of those in my class. When I was in secondary school, the eighteenth-century revolutions I learned about were Industrial and French. The American Revolution never featured in my curriculum. And, in any case, someone from Britain is naturally going to think differently about a narrative that portrays the freest country in the eighteenth century world as tyrants and despots, right?
Joking aside, this makes me able to take a more detached perspective on founding principles. If I’m critical of the sloppy use of the term “liberty,” it’s not because I’m some America-hating granola-munching hippy (after all, I’d have made some very strange life choices if I were), but because I think it’s a concept that needs to be more clearly articulated. In other words, I can get away with being more subversive of national founding stories, because I’m not considered to be part of the story in the first place. And that creates an interesting dialectic which forces reconsideration of exceptionalist narratives, even in a class that is decidedly focused on United States history.
Creating that dialectic is why I think there is such an advantage in a Brit teaching American history. One of my happiest moments in teaching was when a student said, “Before your lectures, I hadn’t understood why Britain acted the way it did during the Revolution.” I don’t even take an especially sympathetic view of British actions in the Revolution! What is true, though, is that I look at the Revolution through a different lens (even if still tinted red, white, and blue). That, in and of itself, opens up different conversations and approaches to the Revolutionary era.
So yes, I am aware that Britain lost the Revolutionary War. But in approaching the Revolution as a critical yet appreciative outside observer, I hope I’m able to help my students see their past in a more detailed, nuanced, and ultimately more productive way.