The Plains of Abraham and Annus Mirabilis

Or, how I came to realize my early America might not be so quintessentially American. Year Fifty-Nine Song

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.

The capital city’s fall on September 18, 1759 was not only a decisive victory for the British Empire, but one of the final acts on the American stage of the Seven Years’ War. Proclaimed by Parkman in his epic Montcalm and Wolfe, and echoed by countless more since, the hoisting of the British flag signaled the perfect climactic end to the centuries-long struggle for North America. It was the most American of events—the culmination of one ancient American conflict, and the catalyst for the modern Anglo-American sweep of the continent.

But is that how contemporaries saw it? Or how we should today?

Both the British colonial and metropolitan prints seem to have depicted the capture of Quebec in different terms. Accounts at the turn of the new year celebrated the conquest of Quebec as one of many British victories of 1759, victories that spanned the globe—from the “Island of Goree in Africa,” Guadaloupe and the Plains of Minden, to Cape Lagos and the East Indies.[1]

The (wonderfully obvious) “Year Fifty-Nine Song,” published in various forms and venues, said much the same:  All the “high deeds of the year FIFTY NINE,” composite conquests “so noble, so great, and so fine,” together ensured that “Britannia, Britannia, once more rules the main.”[2] Private British correspondence and parliamentary decrees echoed still the same refrain of imperial success on a global stage, the turning point of a war across continents.[3] It was the Annus Mirabilis of 1759, the year of wonders.

The Annus Mirabilis, and its political and literary salience, complicates at least the strictest “American” accounts of the Seven Years’ War. But how, exactly, is unclear. Can we understand the Plains of Abraham and the later conquest of Canada without looking on some broader scale—towards events in the Caribbean, Europe, and East Indies? And if we do look outward, through what lens should the fall of Quebec be understood? In a continental context? Imperial? Atlantic? Global? Perhaps our lens depends on what we believe to be important—governmental funding, military coordination, public sentiment, or something else altogether.

Francis Parkman always makes for an easy target, but he is not alone (nor the most culpable) in promoting an American exceptionalist narrative. And while the tide of Seven Years’ War scholarship has turned towards a broader scale—Danley and Speelman’s The Seven Years’ War: Global Views, Baugh’s The Global Seven Years’ War, and Dull’s The French Navy and the Seven Years’ War, among others—these works accomplish something critically important but still different. What if we want to recover not the full course and scale of the war, to tell a truly comprehensively global story, but rather explain one American front of the story as part of this? What if we hope to maintain the centrality of American events, particularly to acknowledge the immense role of indigenous peoples who may not have seen conflict and aims in global terms, but want to do so without abandoning essential forces and threads with ties far beyond North America? Can an American story include not only the continent, and the Atlantic and Europe, but even Africa and Asia?

There’s a bigger question behind this, one that constantly nags at me: What, exactly, does it mean to define ourselves as early Americanists?

If we identify as such, but then look east across the Atlantic, or south towards Latin America, or (like Yertle the Turtle) in an arc around the globe, are we—similar to Armitage’s suggestion for Atlantic history—engaged in something cis-Atlantic, cis-imperial, cis-hemispheric, or cis-global? Moreover, do we have to choose one designation? Or do we, as early Americanists, get to go both ways, to benefit from multiple labels? The field has given an implicit okay to those acting both as early Americanists and Atlanticists. Can we also be early Americanists and imperial historians? What about early Americanists and globalists?

Titles are hard. I mean, look at the top of the page. (My back-up header? “Cis-What?! Early America in an Atlantic-Continental-Hemispheric-Imperial-Global-Comparative-Entangled-Mixedup-Crazy World.) But whatever our discomfort, it seems to me crucial to not only choose one, or a couple, but to defend that choice on methodological grounds.

If we return to the fall of Quebec, and we consider the factors of wartime funding, or military coordination, or public opinion in 1759, it seems nearly impossible to defend a local or regional narrative. And what I once believed to be the safest methodological haven—geography—no longer seems separable from a broader context either. A spatial or geographic story about Quebec is about far more than just Canada, and the St. Lawrence, and the Great Lakes, and New England. It’s also about the Atlantic—across which sailed transports, supply ships, and packet boats—and by the ocean’s extension, Europe.

How, then, do we tell the conquest of Quebec? Do we take one element, idea, object, or network—correspondence, troops, victuals, etc.—and trace it out to its farthest edges and limits, and only then determine our framework? Or do we make a conscious decision beforehand to limit our research, to make a case study, to dissect one thread?

And depending on our previous answer, is early America then for those who make the right dissection or selection, one that more closely fits within traditional American bounds? Is it for those whose stories center in North America but then extend far beyond? Or is early America for those trying to answer questions about what is unique or specific to the continent?

My own project has me right now trying to frantically write up a paper on eighteenth-century Dutch newspapers in Leiden, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. It’s not exactly what most people usually think—my parents currently standing in as the representative sample—when they hear early America. But Dutch periodicals produced a bewildering volume of news on mid-century American events. And, marketed to a French-reading public, they influenced in some way—small or not—the start and course of a war that would determine the European competition for eastern North America. So are they part of an American story? I think so.

I think the determining factor—early America, or not?—should be not where we go, but rather where we begin.

My central research question starts in the North American interior, and answering it takes me far across the Atlantic and into Europe. For others, the question might take them further still, halfway across the globe. It is the questions, not the answers, that makes us Americanists. For the fall of Quebec, the starting point “Why did France surrender Quebec?” or “Why did Britain gain nominal control of eastern North America?,” is not the same as “Why did the British Empire win the Seven Years’ War?”

But what, for you, makes early America? What titles have you tried on, and which have you kept? What is the future of early America in continental, hemispheric, imperial, and global turns? And how far can we stretch from our American origin point before the band snaps, or we just get one messy rubber ball?

[1] “London,” New-York Gazette, January 14, 1760.

[2] “From the Gentleman’s Magazine,” New-Hampshire Gazette, April 11, 1760.

[3] George Lyttleton to William Lyttleton, December 4, 1759, in Memoirs and Correspondence of George, Lord Lyttleton, From 1734 to 1773, 2 vols., ed. Robert Phillimore (London: James Ridgway, 1845), 2:619-620.

5 responses

  1. I really enjoyed reading your piece, and can’t wait to read your future work.

    This is perhaps because I am from Quebec myself, but it strikes me that you never mention the French/Canadian/French-Canadian side of this story… Insofar as you are writing as an Early Americanist, this may not be a problem. But if you really intend to write an Atlantic history, it could be useful to look at documents produced in Quebec at that time.

  2. This was a tremendously stimulating read, so thanks for that Alyssa. My own view of when the phrase “Early American” stretches to breaking point is when it becomes clear one’s project isn’t really saying very much about “America” after all, but rather is discussing the colonial, imperial, continental or global contexts in which events prior to 1774-6 (or even afterwards) took place. As someone who is British, started as a historian of early modern Britain and was later motivated to take up colonial history by my fascination with empire, rather than with American origins, the label “Early American” has always fit me awkwardly in its literal sense. This remains true even as my research takes me to archives in Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. I’m instinctively drawn to imperial or Atlantic (cis-global?) history as labels because they seem to not only better describe what I do but also offer more explanatory value, even as I acknowledge what I write about has much to say about the early histories of places that became part of America.

    That said, I think what you hint at is that there is greater utility to the term “American” than the term “Early.” This is the same sort of dilemma I detect in debates about “Early Modern.” The problem seems chronological rather than categorical, in that we see something intrinsically American about events during the Seven Years War or even earlier, but we ought to hesitate to call them “Early American” because that engenders questions which are the wrong way to approach the subject. Better instead to broaden our understanding of “America” (which it seems to me can easily accommodate Canada in the colonial period without doing a disservice to the national application of the word) to more properly (geographically!) contextualize the events we are analyzing in British, French, Dutch or Spanish Atlantic colonies.

  3. This is a really nice and thoughtful set of reflections. I would not worry so much about your identity/brand/label. Instead, I would define what you think is an interesting project, as you have done, and go from there. The field responds to such definitions, rather than the other way around (that is, I don’t think the definitions of interesting projects proceed from general statements about the boundaries of a field in which the projects fall, at least not usually). I agree entirely that the “field” question is distinct from the “methodology” question. Thankfully not many people seem to be policing the boundaries of who is inside and who outside “early America” today.

  4. I suggest that we remember Quebec rather than Minden or Quiberon Bay, also fought in 1759, because it is physically memorable. Minden was a field like a hundred other fields; Quiberon Bay was at sea, and thus indescript. Quebec had a dramatic setting, like spooky castles in old black and white films. Add to it that Old Quebec remains preserved like a Disney attraction, and we can still look down on the Saint Lawrence River below and picture the rowboats and the line of soldiers slowly climbing through the tree trunks and weeds to reach their goal. Why do we remember Trenton, which had few casualties? Perhaps because we can still cross the Delaware River and stand on the preserved fields on the Pennsylvania side. Why do we remember such a minor event as the Boston “Massacre?” Because we can go there and see the State House exactly as Crispus Attacks saw it. Although the rest of Boston’s cityscape has changed, the city’s crooked streets (unlike New York or Philadelphia’s rigid plan) are a visual reminder of the colonial city’s haphazard nature. We can get lost in central Boston. With Quebec, the cliffs will be there a thousand years from now; the Delaware River will likely still flow a thousand years from now. If we can put ourselves at the scene of an historic event, it becomes more important to our collective memory. imho.

  5. Those are very interesting thoughts, Alyssa, and I find it a very exiting topic. (As a Québécois, my opinions on this matter is certainly biased;-)
    For my part, I do not really understand the necessity of labeling scholars or their fields of research in clearly defined categories. Those categories, as you have clearly showed yourself, are extremely difficult to construct and, eventually, they do not bring that much benefit, after all. On the contrary, they often raise conceptual and methodological problems that are tedious to solve. In choosing or constructing such categories, you impose a framework on your perception even before you started your research.
    As you have pointed out, what really matters is the historical question you seek to answer. This is, as is well known, the starting point of any historical inquiry. The more precise this question is, the more clearly you can define your sources, methodology, and framework. This is, as far as I understand it, the way the French historians of the “nouvelles histoires” have been proceeding since the 1920s. Their topics define their framework and their methodology, not vice versa. Therefore, I strongly agree with you, when you say that the factor determining if an inquiry can be qualified as “early American” or not is the starting point, or in other words, the historical question you are asking and not the type of sources you use.


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