Guest Post: Reporting from the Edges of Exceptionalism: Early American History in Oceania in 2016

Today’s post is by Taylor Spence, a Lecturer in Monash University’s School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies and a Research Fellow with the Monash Indigenous Centre. Agricultural History will publish Dr. Spence’s next article, “The Canada Thistle: The Pestilence of North American Colonialisms and the Emergence of an Exceptionalist Identity, 1783-1839” (vol. 90, no.3), this fall. He lives in Melbourne and Brooklyn.

Small_picture_of_Rhys_with_book_1983As a local representative of American Empire in Melbourne, Australia, and fifteen years after Michael McGerr and Ian Tyrrell’s spirited exchange in the pages of the American Historical Review, in which they wrestled with the potential gains and losses of a transnational American history, I thought it was time, in the spirit of Alistair Cooke, to send a “Letter to America,” checking in on the topic of American Exceptionalism and the viability of the transnational historical project in Oceania.[1] Reporting from the front lines of the outward-pression of the exceptionalist frontier, I can report that it has only partially been successful: you in the U.S. have much more work to do if you hope to bring Australians to worship at the altar of Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln. Perhaps a touring company of Hamilton would be in order? But if, in all seriousness, the continued popularity of American history courses at my Australian university and a similar lack of popularity for Australian history courses attests to the successful mystification of a certain segment of the population, the clear-eyed work of Oceanic Early Americanists demonstrates that the U.S. metanarrative is but grist for the mill. For decades, now, these scholars have produced an unabating stream of masterful transnational studies, which are methodically eroding the exceptionalist juggernaut.

Here in Melbourne, Trevor Burnard continues his rich and remarkably prolific investigations of what might be considered the Creole World in his recent book, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820. Two previous studies have developed our understandings of the social, cultural, and intellectual lineages undergirding this world, one which stretched from the Caribbean to Maryland. Burnard has persuasively demonstrated how this entrenched group was both fundamental to the running of the British Empire and formed a potential nucleus of a new American political identity. He has also edited a compendious Critical Concepts in Slavery, which I have found enormously useful for teaching. Burnard’s work exemplifies two of the hallmarks of Oceanic Early American history: the inclination to move across borders in order to reveal alternative paradigms of power and politics other than the imperial or national framework, and the deft handling of sources from both the bottom-up and the top-down, which amount to nothing less than an ethnography of power. Tim Verhoeven exhibits a similar set of impressive skills in a recent — highly praised — history of trans-Atlantic Anti-Catholicism. David Goodman has done the same in a comparative study of the Victorian and California gold rushes. And Clare Corbould, besides editing Oceania’s own Australasian Journal of American Studies, has co-produced our field’s first, innovative contribution to the field of Memory Studies, Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War, which, as its title suggests, prequelizes recent seminal contributions to that field focused on the Civil War. This title, an exemplar really of all of these works (listed at the end of this article), functions simultaneously as an Early American history and as an exceptionalist critique.

While we who here labor on Early America from the edges of exceptionalism owe an enormous debt to Professor Tyrrell for developing a trenchant critique of this mindset (see his website with a host of articles on the subject,, a group of remarkable historians working in Melbourne in the late 1960s in actuality laid the groundwork for a final assault on the citadel. They did this not by political dialectics but by creating and then bequeathing to us a powerful new method for “historying” — gerund used with intention.[2] Variously called ethnographic, dramaturgical, narrative, and cultural history, this method emphasizes the experiential and sensual aspects of the past, and uses what one reviewer calls “informed intuition” to interpret evidence.[3] Rhys Isaac (The Transformation of Virginia), Inga Clendinnen, Greg Dening, and Donna Merwick (her recent Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across just won the Hendricks Award from the New Netherland Institute), are generally credited with the assemblage of this tool-kit for doing history. And although they each gained attention in different subfields of history, their methods proved especially transformative for Early American histories, for speaking into, what James Epstein has called, “the silence of the colonial frontier.”[4] This is because the Early American archive can be so skewed and silent on the experiences of vast numbers of the people of the past. In essence the Melbourne School set the standard for reading both along and against the archival grain (to gloss Ann Laura Stoler).[5] Unbeknownst to me I regularly engaged with a local representative of the Melbourne School during my graduate studies at Yale, my teacher and friend John Demos, whose creative innovations with evidence-interpretation made him at first an outlier and then a dean of Early American History.[6] Turns out that he and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich would have been right at home here in Melbourne.[7]

Tyrrell highlighted the necessity of revising historical methods in his AHR piece, emphasizing region, borderlands, the environment, and systems theory as key modalities of a new transnational history. But in fact the Melbourne School’s legacy was to make possible a much more trenchant attack on exceptionalist histories worldwide by reimagining what was meant by the archive, what it meant to be an historian, and what it meant to make history. By teaching us how to identify new types of sources, deploy story-telling powerfully to open up spaces of possibility in the past, and draw on theories from anthropology, sociology, and performance studies with which to make strong arguments about the meaning of evidence, Social Historians have been better able to lean into the ideals of our project. In Early American History this opening up of the Pandora’s Box of Historical Possibility has proved far more subversive than any number of op-eds railing against American Exceptionalism.

Over the years the Melbourne School’s method has spread far and wide. Shane White’s most recent book, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire (New York, 2015) is an exemplar of Melbourne-School technique, speaking into a classic Trouillotian lacuna. A groundbreaking earlier work (with Graham White) demonstrates how African-American slaves “co-constructed” the soundscape of their enslavement, uncovering an unrecognized space of agency. Cassandra Pybus traces the global wanderings of escaped slaves as a process of American Revolution, while Kit Candlin brings Afro-Caribbean women more fully into Atlantic-world historiography. Emma Christopher’s astonishing oeuvre on what might be called the “carceral” seascape of Britain’s wind and sail empire, includes the forthcoming work on a Liberian slave factory, The Devils at Hotel Africa, and a film ([8]. My own study of the transnational origins of North American settler-colonial culture, bubbling up, I argue, in an Early American borderland space I call “Cataraqui,” has prospered in this intellectual community and found alliances in multiple directions. Pybus and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart have teased out the Australian epilogue to my study by recounting the stories of the filibusters at the center of my book after their arrest and transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania), while Lisa Ford (“provocatively,” according to Alan Taylor) has provided one leg of the theoretical syllogism supporting my study in tracing the legal origins of how individuals invoked state power in settler colonialisms in Georgia and New South Wales.[9]

But perhaps most revealing of the potential breadth this particular historiographical tradition opens up (as well as demonstrating the erudition and talent of the author) is the fact that Michael A. McDonnell has been able to deliver to the world two path-breaking studies on two completely different aspects of Early American History. Simon P. Newman wrote of McDonnell’s first book, which the author explained was, in some ways, a response to Rhys Isaac’s “clarion call” to break up the monolithic picture historians had drawn about the Old Dominion; “it is hard to underestimate the impact of [this] impressive work on our understanding . . . of late eighteenth-century Virginia.” Joining a swelling chorus of praise, David Treuer of the L.A. Times called McDonnell’s newest study—an ethno-history of the Anishinaabeg titled Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America—a “work of genius” and “astounding.” McDonnell’s blurbs would make even Bernard Bailyn blush.[10]

If the highly esteemed Gordon S. Wood’s recent harrumph in the pages of the Weekly Standard is any indication, there appears to be dissension in the ranks of the Exceptionalist Army. Does the broadening scope of what is meant by Early America in the William and Mary Quarterly reflect the crumbling glory of an American Empire? Or could it be that the methodologically-rigorous good works of Oceanic Early Americanists, and their many mole-compatriots within the Imperium, are finally having an impact on how we understand that territory called the Early American Past? Only time will tell. But with tickets for Hamilton—a Broadway musical which, while it at least acknowledges the transnational origins of the United States may have yet found a new way of resuscitating “Founders Chic”—running at upwards of $1500 USD a seat, I would not bet on this debate ending anytime soon.[11] But isn’t that the point of tilting at the Exceptionalist windmill—to continue to try to see the U.S. national project, if there ever was one such a thing, as it really was and really is?

Oceanic Early Americanists: A Bibliography

Trevor Burnard, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820 (Chicago, 2015)

———. Slavery: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies: Volume 1 – Origins, Varieties of Enslavement and the Slave Trade (Routledge, 2014)

———. Slavery: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies: Volume 2 – Material Conditions: Work, Demography, Gender and Family (Routledge, 2014)

———. Slavery: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies: Volume 3 – Slave Culture, Religion and Resistance (Routledge, 2014)

———. Slavery: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies: Volume 4 – Revolution, Antislavery and Emancipation (Routledge, 2014)

 ———.Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, 2004)

———.Creole Gentleman: The Maryland Elite, 1691-1776 (Routledge, 2002)

Kit Candlin, The Last Caribbean Frontier, 1795-1815 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Kit Candlin with C. Pybus, Enterprising Women: Gender, Race and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic (Athens, 2015)

Emma Christopher, Slave Ship Sailors and their Captive Cargoes (Cambridge, 2006)

———. A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts after the American Revolution (Oxford, 2011)

Don DeBats, Elites and Masses: Political Structure, Communication and Behavior in Ante-Bellum Georgia (New York, 1990)

———. and P. Bourke, Washington County: Politics and Community in Antebellum America (Baltimore, 1985)

Lisa Ford, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836 (Cambridge, 2010)

David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford, 1994)

Rhys Isaac, Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation (New York, 2005)

Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York, 2015)

———. The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill, 2007)

Michael McDonnell, Clare Corbould, Frances M. Clarke, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage, eds., Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War (Amherst, 2013)

Donna Merwick, Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time (Philadelphia, 2013)

———. The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland (Philadelphia, 2006)

———. Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York (Ithaca, 1999)

———. Boston Priests, 1848-1910: a Study of Social and Intellectual Change (Cambridge, 1973)

Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston, 2006)

Cassandra Pybus and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, American Citizens, British Slaves: Yankee Political Prisoners in an Australian Penal Colony, 1839-1850 (East Lansing, 2002)

Shane White, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire (New York, 2015)

——— (with Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, and Graham White), Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars (Cambridge, 2010)

——— (with Graham White) The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech (Boston, 2005)

———. Stories of Freedom in Black New York (Cambridge, 2002)

——— (with Graham White) Stylin’: African-American Expressive Culture From Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (Ithaca, 1998)

———. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810 (Athens and London, 1991)

Tim Verhoeven, Transatlantic anti-Catholicism: France and the United States in the nineteenth century (New York, 2010)


[1] American Historical Review 96, no. 4, (1991).

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Greg Dening: A Personal Tribute,” Postcolonial Studies 11, no. 2 (2008): 227–28.

[3] Review: J.M. Bumsted, “Possessing Albany, 1630-1710: The Dutch and English Experiences,” The International History Review 13, no. 2 (1991): 356–58.

[4] James Epstein to author, University of Melbourne, October 10, 2015, in reference to Scandal of Colonial Rule: Power and Subversion in the British Atlantic during the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, 2012).

[5] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[6] Kenneth Lockridge, “Remembering Rhys Isaac,” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 16, no. 1 (2012): 17–25.

[7] The “Melbourne School” refers to the city of Melbourne not the University of Melbourne. Melbourne has several major universities including Monash, Melbourne, and Latrobe. Indeed this particular tradition was first associated with Latrobe University, and some still call it the “Latrobe School.”

[8] Walter Johnson’s phrase is “carceral landscape.”

[9] Taylor Spence, The Endless Commons: Dominion, Possession, and Land-Rights in the Borderland of North American Empires, 1783-1848 (Jeffersonian America, University Press of Virginia, 2017): Alan Taylor, Review: Lisa Ford, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836 (Cambridge, 2010), Journal of American History (2010) 97 (3): 794-795.

[10] Simon Peter Newman, “Review: The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, by Michael A. McDonnell,” Journal of American Studies 42, no. 2 (2008): 373–74; David Treuer, “Review: ‘Tragic Encounters’ and ‘Masters of Empire’ Offer Fresh Takes on Native American History – LA Times,” Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2015,; Michael A. McDonnell, “Introduction For the Symposium: Rhys Isaac’s Virginia,” Australasian Journal of American Studies 24, no. 1 (July 2005): 59.

[11] Lyra D. Monteiro, “Race-Conscious and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manual Miranda’s Hamilton,” The Public Historian 38, no. 1 (2016): 89-99.


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