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The Very Violent Road to America

Granger Collection
Thomas Paine with a scroll of The Rights of Man, 1792

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 favor. While it lingers on, more frequently in covert than in open form, it has given ground before a contingent view of events that has no use for teleology. Against a determinist reading of the past, whether Whig or Marxist, historians are now more likely to see it as embracing a range of possibilities, and have become more aware of the need to keep their eyes open for the paths not taken.

American exceptionalism, too, has come to look out of joint with the times. To some extent this is a reflection of the ever-widening scope of historical inquiry. The move by many scholars into social, cultural, and gender history during the past few decades has encouraged historians to look at North American colonial history in the wider setting of the history of the Western world as a whole during the early modern period. Witchcraft, after all, was not a phenomenon confined solely to Salem. Comparative history, too, has helped to identify similarities as well as differences, for example in the colonizing process. On examination, the early settlers of Jamestown do not look so very different in their aspirations and methods from the Spanish conquistadores hunting after gold and Indian laborers in Mexico and Peru.

But perhaps most important of all, the world has changed, and, with it, the United States’ sense of itself. National self-confidence, which once took for granted a manifest destiny deriving from a set of exceptional national qualities and characteristics, has taken some hard knocks since the 1960s. If the destiny is less manifest and some of the characteristics are less positive than they once appeared, then perhaps, after all, the United States does not have all the answers.

What, then, of the third supporting column of the traditional structure of American colonial history, its Anglocentric pillar? This, surely, is the one that has crumbled most dramatically. The greatest discovery made by the United States in the twentieth century was the discovery of its own diversity. If E pluribus unum remains, in its widest sense, an abiding aspiration, the country has been brought face to face with the fact that it contains within its borders a multiplicity of ethnicities and ethnic inheritances that the Founding Fathers could never have envisaged. In seeking to secure their own place in the sun, the different ethnic groups of which today’s United States is composed—groups all too easily categorized into Native American, African-American, Hispanic-American—have also sought to claim their share of the past. Historians have responded by attempting to incorporate their stories into the traditional grand narrative and, in doing so, have broken it wide open.

The dramatic development of the history of slavery, in particular, has made a mockery of any narrative confined to a discussion of the achievements of a white settler population. With some 1.5 million Africans—over three times the number of free emigrants—transported to the British American colonies in the eighteenth century, the African contribution to the construction of the British colonial world, and subsequently of the United States, has rightly assumed its proper place in the story. Similarly, the central place of slave labor in the development of the British Caribbean islands, which in the seventeenth century received some 91 percent of the slaves transported to British America, has helped to bring home the deficiences of a mainland-based narrative.

The plantation societies of the West Indies were integral to the shaping and expansion of Britain’s American empire, as contemporaries were well aware. So, also, was that great historian of British colonial America Charles McLean Andrews.2 But Andrews’s approach to imperial history went out of favor in the postwar period. It would be some time before the work of a new generation of historians firmly restored the West Indies to the agenda of North American colonial history. An empire divided in the late eighteenth century, when the mainland colonies and the Caribbean islands went their separate ways, is no justification for a historiography divided.3

If the new colonial history has been extended to embrace the Caribbean, it has also been extended to embrace the North American West. There has, of course, been a long tradition of borderlands history, as the names of Hubert Howe Bancroft and Herbert Eugene Bolton remind us. Bolton, whose The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest was published in 1921,4 worked hard to persuade colonial historians of the importance of incorporating the Spanish borderlands into their view of the past, and of recognizing the extent of the Hispanic contribution to the shaping of the future United States. His views, and those of his followers, however, were Turnerian in their approach to the frontier, and, like Turner, they saw it as a dividing line between civilization and savagery.5

The civil rights movement and the impressive achievements of ethnohistorians in uncovering the past of “the people without history” have combined to discredit this approach.6 Since Francis Jennings launched his assault on historians of “frontier semantics and mythology” in 1975, there has been an enormous increase in the number of studies devoted to Indian societies and to the interaction of Europeans and Native Americans in the colonial period.7 Many of these studies have attempted to see the process of European intrusion and settlement through Indian eyes, and an outstanding contribution along these lines was made by Daniel K. Richter, the author of the book under review, whose Facing East from Indian Country is subtitled “A Native History of Early America.”8 Thanks to the work of Richter and others like him who have set out to break with the traditional Eurocentric narrative, “the people without history” have been given back their voice.

The widened reach of colonial history over the past few decades, however, and the complexity introduced by an awareness of the need to listen to many different voices have led to the realization that the old framework is no longer fit for purpose. In an age of globalization, parochialism is at a discount. One way in which historians of colonial North America have responded to the challenge is to extend their range of vision by looking out from the colonial seaboard, both eastward and westward. To the east, they have discovered, or rediscovered, the Atlantic. To the west they have lifted their eyes to see a continent.

In recent years Atlantic history has become one of the most dynamic of historical subdisciplines. Developed and encouraged in particular by Philip Curtin and Jack P. Greene at Johns Hopkins and by Bernard Bailyn at Harvard, it has sought to show the interconnectedness of the societies—British and European, African and American colonial—that border the Atlantic. In tracing and analyzing the movement of people, commodities, ideas, and cultural practices across and around the Atlantic, which these historians tend to treat largely as a British Atlantic, it has helped to counter any tendency to view the American colonies in isolation. The history of the slave trade and slavery, and of migratory movements and the peopling of America, have been particular beneficiaries of the new Atlantic perspective, but it has also done much to underline the limitations of old-style imperial and nationalist history.9

For all its contribution to the widening of horizons, the practice of Atlantic history has thrown up a number of problems, and one of the most intractable of these has been that of deciding how far it extends geographically. The Indian peoples of the eastern seaboard were early, and tragically, caught up in the turbulence of an Atlantic world in expansion, but how far westward does Atlantic history go? There was clearly a ripple effect as the peoples of the interior were exposed one after another to the presence of settlers moving inland, and of European traders bearing coveted goods. Richter, in his Facing East from Indian Country, takes his western boundary as the Mississippi River, and looks eastward from St. Louis. The land he surveys was indeed Indian country in the eighteenth century, although shrinking Indian country; but westward there stretched a vast continent that was also Indian country, and that hardly seems a serious candidate for inclusion in Atlantic history.

  1. 1

    Cited by Michael Kammen, “The Problem of American Exceptionalism: a Reconsideration,” American Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1 (March 1993), p. 7, from William Findley, History of the Insurrection, in the Four Western Counties of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1796), p. vi. 

  2. 2

    Charles McLean Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History, 4 vols. (Yale University Press, 1934–1938). 

  3. 3

    A point well made by Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy in the preface to his An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). 

  4. 4

    Yale University Press. 

  5. 5

    See David J. Weber, “A New Borderlands Historiography: Constructing and Negotiating the Boundaries of Identity,” in Alta California: Peoples in Motion, Identities in Formation, 1769–1850, edited by Steven W. Hackel (University of California Press, 2010), pp. 215–234, at p. 216. 

  6. 6

    Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (University of California Press, 1982). 

  7. 7

    Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 13. 

  8. 8

    Harvard University Press, 2001. 

  9. 9

    Atlantic history has already produced an extensive literature. For useful surveys of the field, see The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002; second edition, 2009); Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Harvard University Press, 2005); Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan (Oxford University Press, 2009); and The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World: 1450–1850, edited by Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan (Oxford University Press, 2011). 

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