This week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.
Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.
Everyone’s thinking more globally these days, historians included. But constructing a historical imagination that encompasses the whole planet isn’t only a project of the twenty-first century. The American Revolution took place in an age of global exploration, commerce, and empire. When people wrote and thought about the new nation’s founding, they didn’t look just to Europe and the classical world for connections and comparisons, but to Asia and South America as well. Writers were eager to show that the context in which they understood American events was a global one. Take for example the career of Manco Capac, founding father of the Inca kingdom of Cuzco. Continue reading →
The Junto is happy to present the second episode of “The JuntoCast,” our new monthly podcast featuring Juntoists discussing issues related to early American history, academia, pedagogy, and public history.
In our second episode, Kenneth Owen, Michael D. Hattem, Roy Rogers, and Eric Herschthal use the recent MCEAS conference, “The American Revolution Reborn,” as a springboard to launch into a discussion on questions of periodization, Atlantic and global contexts, the limits of “republicanism,” and the value of recovering “lived experience.”
If “The American Revolution Reborn” conference proved anything, it’s that the Revolution is in no danger of getting old. So much is still left to be told. Topics that few Revolutionary narratives have fully considered—ambivalence, religious dissent, hindsight connections to Scotland’s union with England in 1707, and future links to the Latin Americas—beg for further research. And those are only the issues that were discussed on the first day.
Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams is the best big book on slavery I have ever encountered. This is not faint praise; there is some about the subject that causes its best historians—Eugene Genovese, Winthrop Jordan, Kenneth Stampp and more—to write in at bullet-stopping length. Johnson’s volume stands out due to his ability to seamlessly place the history of antebellum slavery at the intersection of three of the nineteenth century’s key themes—imperialism, capitalism, and technological development. He does this, as other contributors to this roundtable have noted, at the sweeping level of the very geography of Mississippi River Valley and at the much more intimate level of the lived experience of enslaved laborers. Continue reading →
The promise of a tie between the local and the global—a thread to join the dense fiber of individual life to the vast patterns of human interaction—has long lingered at the edge of the historian’s vision. “The hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours,” wrote Emerson in “History.” “Each new fact in . . . private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done.” Even the less Transcendental among us are lured by a link between the intimate and the infinite: every globalist, no matter how ambitious, must find their ground-level characters and illustrative anecdotes; the best microhistorians train their lenses to reveal not just cell particles but a whole cosmos. Few recent works in early American history, however, are so explicit in their equal pursuit of the local and the global, the hours and the ages, as Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). Continue reading →