Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Redefining and Reassesssing the Colonial South

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Redefining and Reassesssing the Colonial South

Article excerpt

THE TITLE OF THIS FORUM INSTANTLY SUGGESTS A DEFINITIONAL PROBLEM, one that Carl Bridenbaugh encountered more than fifty years ago when he began to think about the Fleming Lectures he was asked to present at Louisiana State University in 1951. Bridenbaugh was a colonial historian, and the Fleming Lectures were supposed to focus on the South, but as Bridenbaugh explained in the book that resulted, what was he to do? "In 1776 there was no South; there never had been a South. It was not even a geographical expression...." (1) But many historians, perhaps not worrying too much about the problem, have treated the topic in a decidedly anachronistic manner. Conceiving of the South in its most iconic form as the land of plantations and slavery in the region of the Chesapeake and Lowcountry, scholars perhaps for reasons of pedagogic efficiency as much as anything else have tended to project this convenient geographical and social definition back in time, resulting in a colonial South that emphasizes the English-settled eastern seaboard almost exclusively and in which one seeks the origins of features dominant in 1830 or 1860.

But the history of this period has recently become much more complicated as scholars have freed themselves from the teleological tendency of an older historiography. This breaking forth from the straitjacket fashioned by later formulations of the region has been especially important in enlarging the geographical range of discussion. Exciting new scholarship has shown that the southeastern mainland colonies have to be placed in the context of not only England and Africa but also France, Spain, and especially the Caribbean, and many aspects of European--Native American relationships only make sense when analysis sweeps westward past even present-day Texas into New Mexico and beyond. To understand the important actors and events in this region and time requires at least a partially global context. Most of the basic institutions that emerged across this broad expanse had roots in various European nations, but these institutions not only borrowed from each other but also reacted to and sometimes reflected practices among enslaved Africans and Native Americans, with the result being synthetic institutions only understood in their particular setting. Once the southern portion of the North American mainland was placed in a broader world, new analytical, comparative perspectives emerged. …

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