Over the last fifty years the writing of North American colonial history has undergone a great transformation. During the nineteenth century and a substantial part of the twentieth there was not much doubt about its scope or its purpose. Essentially the colonial period was seen as a prelude—a prelude to the achievement of independence by the thirteen mainland colonies from British imperial domination, and to the creation of the God-blessed nation that was to become a model and an inspiration to the peoples of the world. The challenge facing historians of this period was to trace the origins and early manifestations of those elements—political and religious liberty, individual self-fulfillment, innovation and enterprise—that grounded the new nation on a set of fundamental principles, and to explore the processes that would enable the United States to win its rendezvous with destiny.
The resulting story, as told to generations of Americans, was relatively simple and straightforward. Its origins were located in England, the England of Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation, and the seventeenth-century struggle to save liberty from the grasp of arbitrary power. It was thus an essentially English story, which was then carried across the Atlantic by English emigrants, and was in due course replayed on the soil of America, and primarily of New England. Naturally it acquired new elements along the way. In particular, Frederick Jackson Turner added a fresh dimension to the origins of American individualism with his arguments for the impact of the frontier experience on American society.
The story, however, continued to be shaped by three defining elements. It was Anglocentric, in the sense that it placed the weight of its emphasis on the contribution of British settlers, with some assistance from continental Europeans, primarily those of Teutonic origin, who were granted a kind of honorary Anglo status. It was teleological, in the sense that everything in the story built up to a logical conclusion in the winning of independence. And it was exceptionalist, in the sense that it was a story like no other about a nation that itself was like no other. As William Findley wrote, even before the eighteenth century was over, Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and in some respects distinct from that of other nations.”1
Over the past few decades all three pillars supporting the structure of colonial history have come to look increasingly insecure, partly as a consequence of changes in the discipline of history, but also because of the enormous political, social, and cultural changes that have transformed the world itself. As far as teleology is concerned, the Whig approach to history, with its retrospective selection of those features of the past that are held to explain a distinctive, and equally selective, interpretation of the present, has fallen out of…
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