Whither the 18th Century?

American ColoniesTeaching 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.

I should preface my remarks by explaining that my approach to the survey collapses the 18th century as much as anyone else’s. I divide my syllabus into three five-week sections—one each on colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum/Civil War America.  Five weeks on colonial America does not leave much space for the 18th century once you’ve considered the establishment of European empires, the founding of Jamestown and New England, Native American society and warfare with settlers, and the development of slavery. And all too often, that means that developments in the 18th century are approached in a more general or theoretical sense than those in the 17th century, before students are unceremoniously placed at the gates of the Imperial Crisis.

(Side note: Some may question the length of time I spend on the Revolution and Early Republic—my approach is to say that non-majors will probably come across references to founding myths and revolutionary tales more frequently in their non-academic lives, and so I’d like to give them some of the tools to think about these references more critically. Additionally, my approach is not entirely dissimilar, in terms of class time on any particular time period, to the standard division of discussion topics in popular textbooks).

To give an example of this, I’d look at Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. It’s an excellent book, and one that I get my survey students to read to guide them through the first of my three units. The 18th century doesn’t appear until page 275, and three of the chapters are on French America, the Great Plains, and the Pacific. Another is on “the Atlantic.” Comparatively speaking, the chapters on the 17th century have a much clearer geographical focus. I can’t quite shake the feeling that  presenting the 18th century experience in such different, broader terms than those used for settling colonies in the 17th is too dramatic a shift to be giving students in what is likely only the first month of a much broader course.

A similar story unfolds in many textbooks that are explicitly geared to survey students. I looked through four different recent editions of college textbooks, and they all broadly dealt with the 18th century in the same way. The 18th century was dealt with in one or two chapters that largely dealt with social or cultural history, and there was almost a sense that little political change took place at all in those years. Where a political narrative was mentioned, it emphasized a story of imperial war, and normally as a prelude to the Seven Years’ War.

All of this is broadly reflective of my own approach to the survey (though it won’t surprise regular readers of the blog that I do spend particular time talking about the development of colonial government in the 18th century). There does seem to be something lost from this approach though—that the cost of broadening the historical scope of the survey is that the first steps through American history introduce a dazzling array of characters without considering what systems held them together in sufficient detail.

This is a post designed to raise questions more than to provide answers. After all, I don’t want my students to be ignorant of the violence colonists directed against Native Americans, nor the horrors of the slave system, nor the ways in which European and imperial politics shaped the decisions taken by the North American colonies. I certainly don’t want to essentialize the colonial experience to the 13 colonies that later declared independence from Great Britain. This is not a call for a return to a triumphalist or celebratory history.

I do wonder, though, if the breadth of information covered in US survey textbook chapters on the 18th century ends up leading to students falling back on the traditional narratives of the Revolution. That the desire to broaden the horizons of colonial history end up confusing students so that by the time they can latch on to a familiar story of British tyranny and the quest for liberty, they’re willing and ready to lap it up uncritically.  Is there a way of providing greater structure to the 18th century that accounts for the breadth—geographical and thematic—of recent scholarship, while still providing for a sense of chronological development?

20 responses

  1. Great as always Ken. The logic behind your post pushed me to abandon a coverage approach altogether. This is possible in part because we don’t have a true ‘survey’ at AU. In lieu of coverage I am doing 13 case studies and having the students put together a small reading list to ask and answer a general question about the period. Far from perfect, lots of gaps, but I think better than trying to do justice to everything.

    • Thanks, Gautham – I agree that yours is almost certainly a preferable approach – my only concern with adopting it myself is that at my institution we do get a few teacher ed students in the survey course. The sense I get, looking through textbooks, is that academics in the field want to give people an introduction to a range of approaches to history. But I wonder if the survey, rather than a methods course, is the best place to do that – the multiple purposes of a true survey course demand there’s a certain amount of narrative structure that would be less appropriate for other courses.

  2. The under grad survey course I will be teaching this coming Winter is supposed to cover the pre-Columbian period, the initial European incursions, the precolonial period, the American Revolution,the post colonial era including the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the Mexican American War and the Civil War. The school uses the trimester system so each class is 10 weeks in duration. I am therefore going to experiment with Gautham’s case study approach. My school has a business and vocationally oriented curriculum and the students are used to this. Wondering if I can get some comments about a case I plan to call the “The Management and Control of an Offshore Enterprise” In this case I would ask the students to imagine that they are the rulers/CEOs of a European-based kingdom/corporation with overseas branch offices. Problem: These branches are thousands of miles distant and communication is difficult and some of the managers and employees have grown use to running things their own way. Question: How do I and King/CEO get them to follow company policy and keep them in the fold? Anyway does anyone think this analogy would work for the discussions on the governance of Britain’s colonies in America? How can I move the discussion from a contrived matter to an actual history lesson? etc.

  3. Great post, Ken. I’m in the midst of preparing my class on colonial America next semester, and still working out how I’m going to do it. I’m planning on organizing it around the three themes of accommodation, violence, and networks, and am hoping that these themes do indeed provide more structure to the eighteenth century by connecting the iterations of those themes in the eighteenth century with those in the seventeenth and sixteenth. I am lucky, though, in that it’s just a colonial America survey, and I don’t need to take it past the Revolution, so I’ve got a bit more time to spend on each period.

    • Yeah, the biggest problem I’ve found reflecting on my approach is that for my last two ‘units’ on revolutionary and antebellum America, I find the mix quite easy – about 3 weeks outlining the political narrative, intertwined with two weeks talking about social developments. But then again, those units are about 50 years in total and easier to relate as an unfolding narrative. Doing the same for the 17th and 18th century is trickier unless I narrow things down to really only talk about Virginia and New England. And as most people who know me are all too keenly aware, it takes more than that to stop me talking about Pennsylvania…

      • I guess I am much more old-fashioned than some, but I think a survey of colonial America is still best organized for undergraduates geographically. You could begin with Spanish settlement in the Southwest and then move on to Virginia, New England, New Netherland, and the West Indies from the settlement up to the 1680s or so and then pick them up again from 1690 to 1760 and bring in the Carolinas, Georgia, and the Ohio Valley. In the geographic approach, thematic issues can be covered in each and act as threads that run throughout the course rather than as acting as the organizing principle. Because I still think that the main takeaway for undergraduates from a broad survey of the period is the diversity of regional cultures and experiences.

        • Thanks, Michael. I actually am organizing it geographically and chronologically. I’m just at the point in syllabus design where I’m trying to figure out an equal distribution of my three themes, while ensuring that we read a good mix of primary and secondary sources. I’ll probably post a Google Doc of the thing once it’s drafted–comments always welcome!

        • That hits at one of my concerns. For an upper level course on colonial America, I’m completely at ease with diversity and a greater effort being necessary to see coherence. In a course where you’re jumping over so many issues in such a short space of time, having some organizing theme is, if not essential, at least helpful. Maybe finding some way of approaching parallel northern and southern dimensions is the key there.

  4. Great thoughts. We are wrestling with exactly this problem at The American Yawp, a collaboratively built American history textbook (contributors still welcome–see the October 18 post for more information).

    I would like to push you a bit further when explaining what it is that you think is lost in the latest colonial syntheses. What would you like to see developed in greater detail in works like Taylor’s, for example?

    Our current topic list for the 18th century includes marriage and family, maritime trade, Native American resistance and defeat, the expansion and transition of systems of slavery, financial innovation in the Atlantic system, anti-Catholicism and British identity, urbanization, the consumer revolution, immigration patterns, the development of print culture, and then the Seven Years War. What are we missing?

    • I guess it’s not quite the 18th century, or if it is it’s the long 18th century, but what do you have for the Glorious Revolution?

      I’d also suggest that there would be a history of economic and political protest movements that could be introduced, too – the Zenger trial, the land bank controversy in MA, the Parsons Cause in Virginia, Franklin’s Military Association. Perhaps something about Publick Occurrences and press censorship in New England, too. Not sure exactly what umbrella you’d use to encompass all of that, but something like ‘a history of protest’?

    • Ben, no Great Awakening? Personally, I’d at least like to see some kind of religion section that would cover the emergence of “competitive Protestantism” in the 18th-century colonies. And speaking from a political perspective, there is the rise of the colonial assemblies, and the emergence of political factionalism.

      • Yikes. Sorry, indeed we do have a section on the Great Awakening.

        I am persuaded that brief sections on the development of political institutions, and the major political protest movements of the era could use more attention. This has been helpful!

  5. This is a very stimulating post. I feel the need to go and mull over what you’ve written before commenting in more detail, but my initial thought was that Brendan McConville’s book “The King’s Three Faces” might warrant a look if your goal is to complicate the tyranny/liberty narrative that 18th century history seems to perpetuate. I say this because while McConville does conclude with American colonists believing liberty was at stake, he offers a compelling counter-narrative to the idea that these ideas were in constant gestation by suggesting instead monarchy was the unifying cultural feature of colonial America. I’m sure you’ve read it, Ken, but my point is to underline how we perhaps ought to think of the 18th century as a particularly British part-century for the Thirteen up to 1776 (and perhaps even beyond), rather than as American in any identifiable way.

    • Funnily enough, Craig, I do use excerpts from McConville in the course (and I think I’ll probably use the book even more next time I teach my upper-level class on colonial America). The problem is that it’s quite a complicated argument to be introducing in what, essentially, would be less than one week of class time in the survey.

      You’re right that the identification of British identity in the thirteen colonies is something that makes Independence a much trickier story to recount (and makes the lack of recent focus on the Imperial Crisis particularly problematic as a historiographical question, too). And I think it’s that lack of clarity that is probably the key factor in the way the 18th century gets portrayed – a series of excellent works, but not necessarily a sense of direction for the non-specialist.

      One approach I did like, and might consider adopting again in the future, is Hinderaker and Mancall’s AT THE EDGE OF EMPIRE, which is a small book that deftly interweaves colonial and Native American narratives with a focus on backcountry issues. I’d need another book to cover the maturation of more established societies, but it would at least provide something more concrete for students to follow.

  6. The trend toward expanding the scope of this era seems a positive one. We often overlook good stories, like Governor Montiano freeing the slaves in Florida in the 1730’s, or Bernardo de Galvez’s Seige of Pensacola in 1781, which can give a broader sense of what America was beyond our familiar Boston to Yorktown concentration. Needless to say, more information on Indian tribes from their perspective is always welcome. So if we leave out the battle of Brandywine to make room for something else, that’s okay.. imho.

  7. “We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake…”

    “To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. No stock shows a grander historic retrospect— in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor. (It is time to dismiss utterly the illusion-compound, half raw-head-and-bloody-bones and half Mysteries-of-Udolpho, inherited from the English writers of the past two hundred years. It is time to realize— it is certainly true— there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, superstition, &c., in the resume of past Spanish history than in the corresponding resume of Anglo-Norman history. Nay, I think there will not be found so much”….

    “As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?”

    —Walt Whitman. Excerpts taken from his letter to Santa Fe officials on the 333rd anniversary of the founding of Santa Fe, NM August 5 1883

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  9. Taylor’s entry on The American Colonies: A Very Short Introduction is something you can recommend for a brief overview. It’s the best in the series I’ve read so far.

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