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.
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?