Teaching the Nation's History

By Maier, Pauline | Humanities, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Nation's History


Maier, Pauline, Humanities


As part of WE THE PEOPLE, an initiative to foster the study of American history and culture, NEH held a forum in April on historical approaches to America's founding. In a keynote speech, professor Pauline Maier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology outlined some of the issues. This article is adapted from her remarks.

In the past few decades, historical research has shifted by and large from political to social and then cultural history. Some of the most dramatic additions to historical knowledge have come in the history of slavery, including the slave trade, in African American history; in women's history; and in the study of Native Americans.

Three significant disjunctions characterize the intellectual landscape with reference to early American history and, to some extent, American history in general.

The first is between colonial and revolutionary history. At the Organization of American Historians' meeting in Boston last March, someone commented that the two fields seem entirely unconnected. The truth is that has been the case for a long time.

When I began teaching in the late 1960s, my course on colonial America-really British colonial America-focused in good part on the "new social history," particularly the demographic studies of communities first in New England, then the Chesapeake. In 1972, Alfred Crosby's Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 appeared, awakening widespread consciousness of the demographic catastrophe among Native Americans that followed their first encounters with Europeans, and of the possible connections between New World foods and population growth in other parts of the world. Already some fine studies were available on the origins of American slavery; others studied that institution from a cross-cultural perspective. To be sure, I discussed other topics such as religion and the structure of politics and political institutions in British North America.

Even so, when I later taught the American Revolution, the traditional successor course to Colonial America, the difference was like night and day. The old Progressive interpretation of the Revolution, which stressed social conflict and elite manipulation of the masses, lay in tatters. Scholars were taking the ideas of the Revolution seriously, tracing their origins and revealing their impact on the evolution of political institutions. To be sure, any course on the Revolution has to include a discussion of pre-revolutionary American society and of the Revolution's social impact. I cannot, for example, imagine teaching the Revolution without citing Jack Greene's Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture, and particularly his emphasis on the "extraordinarily large number of families of independent middling status" in the British North American colonies. They were, he wrote, "proportionately substantially more numerous than in any other contemporary Western society."

Still, by and large the study of colonial America was social; of the Revolution, political and ideological.

Three-plus decades later, colonial American history remains strikingly different from the study of the American Revolution, but for different reasons. Historians of early America are now more than ever anxious to avoid earlier emphases on the British settlers of North America, the teleology implicit in studying only those colonies that would later become the United States, and what Harvard's Joyce Chaplin referred to in the March 2003 Journal of American History as "that persistent myth, American exceptionalism." The most prominent participants in the American Revolution were white men of European descent who founded the American Republic believing that accomplishment marked a break from the patterns of European history and so was by nature exceptionalist. It is no surprise then that, as Chaplin notes, many particularly noteworthy examples of recent post-colonial scholarship focus on the "early national" rather than the revolutionary period.

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