Colonial history America

Colonial history was more than merely a field in which academics sought to find solutions to pressing professional problems. Colonial historians were citizens, as well as scholars. They knew more self-consciously than most of their fellow citizens that American nationality could not be entrusted to shared language or religion or to an ancient ethnicity. They were acutely aware that American identity could only come of embracing American foundation myths and its founding texts. As custodians, and indeed as creators, of that cultural inheritance, they understood that the colonial and Revolutionary record represented the vital heart of the tradition they conserved, and indeed invented, so that their countrymen might know themselves. Of course, the identity that colonial historians proffered was always a partisan identity. Through the first half of the twentieth century and beyond, colonial history provided a refuge for old-stock Americans. It was studied and supported as an Anglophilic foil for a pluralism that seemed suddenly all too prevalent. In a nation increasingly contaminated (as the descendants of the earlier invaders believed) by invasion from the wrong parts of Europe, colonial history enabled the children of the earlier immigrants to claim one part one crucial part of the country’s history as uniquely their own. The story of American settlement was an Anglo-Saxon story. (Indeed, the colonists were called settlers, so they could not be confused with the later comers, who were called immigrants.) The values of the founding defined the authentic ideals of the nation. And since those ideals affirmed national unity, differentiation had no real place in the story. In a concerted effort to reconcile recently warring regions and to resist recently arriving newcomers, New England and Virginia were set at the center of the colonial narrative. New England, the one corner of the colonies that was in fact as English as the Yankee gentry fancied, was celebrated as the purest distillation of genuine Americanism, especially in its Boston hearth, where the Brahmins clung rabidly to their anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudices. Residents of polyglot Pennsylvania and New York were excluded almost totally from the tale, and so were the other colonists who did not fit the New England model. After the 1960s, however, new idealizations of America arose. Nostalgic norms of a racially and ethnically homogeneous America ceased to prevail unproblematically. As the elites who craved an English imprimatur were increasingly challenged by others who cast about for more pluralistic ways of understanding our origins as a people, we reached for reconceptualizations of our colonial heritage that could accommodate deeper diversity and more inclusive ideals. Carl Bridenbaugh’s cranky manifesto of the early 1960s marked the transition. In his presidential address to the American Historical Association, Bridenbaugh resented the new generation of early Americanists. They were urban-bred men of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and they were the worse for that environmental deficiency. They could not comprehend the first centuries of American life. They did not share the common culture vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town. Bridenbaugh’s address was widely understood as a diatribe against the increasing presence of Jews in the historical profession, but it was perhaps more prescient than that. Soon enough, Jews would be far from the most militant disturbers of the old order. Within a decade of his rant, Bridenbaugh saw early American studies aflame with brilliant and influential work by women, African Americans, gays and lesbians, pacifists, and Marxists. America changed in the 1960s and so did the study of its history. Historians gave up the preoccupation with elite politics that had defined their profession from the time of its late-nineteenth-century formation. They evolved an increasingly inclusive interest in the everyday affairs of common people. As they did, they found that the discovery of America lay before them. Before the ’60s, historians had been wary, or dismissive, of the universalizing endeavors of the social sciences. Their discipline was predicated upon particularity and suspicious of sweeping generalities. It scorned broad propositions about social life and gloried in intricately specified accounts of great men and great events that bore on state building. Without any resonant ideas of society or coherent concepts of culture, historians were bound to disdain social history. They could only comprehend it as an antiquarian pursuit, pots and pans history as they colloquially called it, history with the politics left out as Trevelyan said. But sociology’s idea of society was out there, in the air, and so was anthropology’s concept of culture. Slowly, those more systemic, holistic notions seeped into the study of the past. Grudgingly, almost despite themselves, historians absorbed these notions, and, as they did, they changed. Some changed modestly, like Keats’s watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken. Others changed mightily, like Keats’s Cortez, staring for the first time at the Pacific, silent, upon a peak in Darien. Once they understood society and culture as the subject of their study, historians could contemplate a radical redirection of their interests and reorientation of their work. And no American historians could do so more completely or congenially than colonial historians. The turn to the new social history occurred most visibly and sustained itself most vigorously among students of early America. Just as there were both internal and external sources for the preceding century of obsession with colonial history, so there were both internal and external sources for the transformation of the field. Perhaps the most powerful facilitating factor within early American studies was also the most obvious. Colonial historians had never had to deal with national politics. They had never operated on the premise prevalent in the study of all subsequent periods, that the proper business of history was the politics of nation building. They could let go of politics, or subsume politics in a more encompassing frame of interpretation, without abandoning the paradigm in which they practiced or any immense body of hard-won knowledge. They simply had less to lose than other American historians. They also had more to gain. Social science after 1945 was, inevitably, embroiled in the Cold War contest between Marxists and liberals. As that contest touched history, it did so in an illuminating dispute over the economic development of the West. Some time, somehow, between, say, 1400 and 1900, Europe became modern. An insular civilization that had previously lagged at least half a dozen others on three or four continents in population, production, and knowledge became, in that half-millennium, the preeminent power on the planet, with the most sophisticated science, innovative technology, and dynamic economy. Marxists attempted to explain the change as a convulsive evolution from feudalism to capitalism. Liberals looked to more incremental evolutionary explanations. But on both accounts, the decisive developments occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and these developments concerned Europe’s overseas expansion. Suddenly, colonial American history was more than a provincial prologue to a provincial revolution. Now, it commanded the crossroads of the most momentous transformation in human history and the most importunate intellectual issues of the modern world. Most of the vibrant controversies in early American history since the ’60s have been controversies that came out of that larger inquest into the vicissitudes of modernity. Students of the colonies had no qualms appropriating gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (corporate) models for their community studies, pre-market and market models for their contretemps over the coming of capitalism, and patriarchal models for their inquiries into gender and family relations. These topics and these models had, of course, a special salience a special theoretical load, often a special polemic implication for scholars of the early modern era. They also had a special accessibility. All of them took (and shifted) shape over long periods of time. Patriarchy persisted (and mutated) for millennia. Witch beliefs flowed (and ebbed) for centuries. Racism rose (and was augmented) as witchcraft fell, and it is with us still. Lived religions and ideologies crystallized (and fractured) across generations. Other American historians do not specialize in such spans. Students of the Jacksonian era, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal confine themselves to a couple of decades, or less. Only colonialists work on a temporal scale commensurate with the larger issues that social history raises. Colonialists produced the first and the most provocative demographies, family histories, and community studies. But early Americanists did not desert the historical ideas they had argued for a century simply because social history made them a better offer. Bridenbaugh’s anti-Semitic screed had an element of truth in it. The profession was changing, even before the upheavals of the ’60s. And those upheavals amplified a gathering alienation from what had come to be called the establishment, releasing forces that we cannot count or contain to this day. The call to write history from the bottom up came first and most famously from Jesse Lemisch, an early Americanist. So did the plea to listen to the inarticulate, those who had left few written records. Others heeded those appeals. In no time, the journals were teeming with studies of artisans and indentured servants, of transient laborers and slaves, of soldiers and camp followers, of wives and widows, of parents and children, of Mennonites and Moravians. Books followed close behind the journal articles, on fishermen and frontier farmers, on free blacks and founding mothers, on debtors and creditors, on criminals and righteous rioters, on pirates and child abusers. More, perhaps, than historians of any other period, historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries set out to recover the rhythms, rhymes, and reasons of everyday experience, among the lowly as much as among the lofty. The study of early America had long been a study of politics, institutions, and wars. After the ’60s, it was impossible to presume the primacy of such subjects and difficult even to assert their importance. Domestic violence came to seem more interesting than the martial kind, and gender politics more significant than the electoral sort. The study of early America had long been a study centered on New England. After the ’60s, it was impossible to treat New England as a template for America, and there was a genuine danger that New England histories would be dismissed as deviant. The Chesapeake became the vital center of early American history, and then perhaps the Middle Atlantic and the West Indies. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, colonialists were working on Africa and Arkansas, the backcountry and the low country, New Orleans and New Netherland. As Daniel Vickers observed, colonial history ran from Bordeaux and Bristol to Barbados and the Bight of Benin. The study of early America had long been a study almost entirely of men. After the ’60s, it was impossible to think solely of men, even in male milieus such as militia companies and taverns. There were gendered meanings in everything. The study of early America also had long been a study overwhelmingly of whites. After the ’60s, it was impossible to think solely of whites, even in colonies largely populated by them. The New World swarmed with blacks, browns, tawnies, and reds, and the very names by which whites knew them held crucial clues to the unriddling of the origins and extent of American racism. The story of early America had long been the story of the expansion of English liberties in the favorable settings of America. After the ’60s, it was impossible to perpetuate that saga of the superiority of the Anglo-Americans who told the story. The paradigmatic tales of the new social history were tales of the encounters and, often, the collisions of the disparate cultures that laid the foundation for the nation’s diversity. Few colonialists who participated in these transitions saw much to lament in the passing of what was once, in Ian Steele’s words, the tidy domain of colonial American history. Indeed, a great many saw much to celebrate. Engaged in what seemed at the time a concerted campaign to recover the richness and complexity of provincial life in its totality, early Americanists researched and wrote with an unrivaled verve and sense of communal purpose. When Jack Greene and J. R. Pole canvassed the state of the art in the mid-1980s, they sensed that the study of the colonies had achieved an integrity over the preceding quarter-century it had never had before. Yet that integrity was not evident in the separate surveys they had commissioned. As they admitted, those surveys suggested a paradoxical result of the remarkable reinvigoration of early American history in the years since the 1960s. Impressive advances had led to a severe case of intellectual indigestion. The new work left the traditional themes of colonial history obsolete, but put nothing in their place. Even in 1984, a signal loss of overall coherence was apparent, noted Greene and Pole. Colonialists were less clear than ever before about precisely what the central themes and the larger questions are in the field as a whole. Worse, Greene and Pole detected no inclination to come to clarity. Worried that the study of early America both flourished and floundered, they had urged their fourteen contributors, senior scholars every one, to write about the general themes that might help to structure studies [of] the field. Not one of the fourteen did. None of those leading academic authorities were able to generalize across the colonies, even when they were explicitly instructed or begged to do so. In the two decades since Greene and Pole noted that the propulsive vitality of colonial studies resisted efforts to articulate any larger logic of the field, a succession of scholars have written ruefully of the same conundrum. So far from seeing the unprecedented integrity that Greene and Pole did, they have seen only disintegration. As ever more expansive and ingenious books and articles appeared, colonial history itself seemed ever more confused and incoherent. The very profusion of publication compounded the confusion. And the very expansiveness and ingenuity of the new work left the boundaries of the field more distended than ever in time, as well as in space. The era of significance to early America increasingly ran backward into the sixteenth century, or even the late Middle Ages, and forward into the mid-nineteenth century. It extended eastward to Europe and Africa and westward to American Indian territory and the Spanish borderlands. It reached outward to phenomena such as riot, ritual, and occult religion, which it had once disdained as realms of the irrational. It reached inward to subjects such as death, desire, and marital discord, which it had once put off limits as spheres of the intimate that were inaccessible to historical investigation. Even aspects of the colonial scene that seemed neglected in 1984 have, on the whole, been addressed extensively since. Greene and Pole thought that the Caribbean colonies, the Atlantic islands, Nova Scotia, women, children, Native Americans, lower-class whites, and the Lower South were all understudied. Newfoundland, Bermuda, and Nova Scotia may still be. But studies of the West Indies and the Lower South are burgeoning. Children and lower-class whites are markedly better understood. Women and gender are now required considerations in colonial studies. And all of that pales beside the explosive growth of Native American studies. American Indians are today, as they never were at any time until now, indispensable to the interpretation of early America. A century ago, when he set the agenda for American historians of his generation and the next, Frederick Jackson Turner consigned the natives of the New World to inconsequence. The conquest of the continent was, he assured his avid readers, an appropriation of virgin soil. The colonists and their westward spreading descendants came to an unexploited wilderness. It was the fact of unoccupied territory in America that [set] the evolution of American and European institutions in contrast. Even when Turner acknowledged that the native peoples were there, he accorded them no role of their own design in the American saga. At the outside, they constituted a common danger that called forth intercolonial conferences and other common measures of defense. They were, inadvertently, the military training school that taught the rugged qualities of the frontiersman. They were, unwittingly, a consolidating agent in our history. Their menace motivated the unifying tendencies that helped prepare America for nationhood. In colonies with no Native American frontier, where there was no specter of native attack, particularism was strongest. As Turner saw it, the native peoples had no significance in the history of the United States beyond being a necessary condition of any explanation of American emergence as one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states. When Greene and Pole took the temperature of colonial study, ninety years after Turner pronounced the significance of the frontier in American history, there was no prospect of a remedy for the repression of native peoples in American memory. Scarcely a single major center of graduate training in colonial history had a specialist in Native Americans. Today, just twenty years later, there is scarcely one without such a specialist. This massive advent of Native American history represents more than a mere correction of the underemphases that Greene and Pole regretted. It means more than the addition of a few more tiles to the totalizing mosaic of early American history that Greene and Pole urged. It indicates a radical revisioning of that history. It ends the occlusion of the American Indians that Turner inherited and amplified. It ends four centuries of seeing the colonies solely from a European perspective, and it introduces the profoundest fracture of colonial history that we have ever had. As Daniel Richter suggests, we must now attempt to understand that history dialogically, not only looking west across the continent but also facing east from Indian country. As if such postmodern pluralization of perspectives were not enough, another major viewpoint in the scholarship of the past two decades looks implicitly to reinstate the angle of the omniscient narrator. The recent rage for Atlantic history situates colonialists neither in Europe looking west nor in America facing east. It puts them metaphorically in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, observing the passage of people and goods all around. The new Native American history de-centers, demanding self-awareness of our inescapably, irreconcilably partisan postures. The new Atlantic history re-centers, inviting revival of the myth of objectivity, as Bernard Bailyn made plain when he fantasized monitoring Atlantic passages from high above the earth and the water, by means of a satellite with a camera of perfect accuracy. Much of the most enlivening recent work on the colonies on empire, capitalism, consumption, and migration presupposes an Atlantic perspective. But much of it on Native Americans, the backcountry, and the environment carries us farther into the interior of the continent. One approach situates the colonies in the wider world. The other reinforces American exceptionalism. Still other innovative initiatives and persisting concerns slavery, the encounter of cultures, gender, staple economies, war, religion, and family look simultaneously to what was embedded in worlds beyond America and what was unique to America. We go back and forth, from an oceanic to a continental outlook, without ever achieving coherence or even a common point of view. Despite our misgivings, we compound what Ian Steele calls the cacophony of recent approaches to the study of early modern North America. Twenty years ago, Darrett Rutman wrote that colonial life was essentially disorganized. Whether or not he was right about colonial life itself, he was certainly right about writing about colonial life, then and now. So it may well be that the encyclopedia is the genre that best represents our current understanding of colonial history. The encyclopedia does not depend on grand interpretations or general themes. It does not even seek to synthesize the vast outpouring of scholarship in the field. It simply attempts to encompass the sweep of contemporary research and writing. It feasts on the multitudinous fruits of the many orchards that colonial historians cultivate. Consider the first entries in this encyclopedia. Abenaki, Acadia, Acadians, Acapulco, and African Americans flank the Adamses. None of these first eight subjects but John and Samuel Adams not even Abigail Adams would have been in an encyclopedia of early America half a century ago. Also consider the entries under C. Among the first listings are John Cabot and the Calverts, stalwarts of the old narratives of exploration and founding, and, equally, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and California, elements until just yesterday of a history 3,000 miles removed. Later listings include not only the Coercive Acts, Common Sense, and the Continental Congresses, staples of the old political ordering, but also Child Rearing, Clocks and Timekeeping, Clothing, and Corn, vital expressions of the new social view. Under P, entries such as Thomas Paine, William Penn, and the Pilgrims jostle with Pietism, Poverty, Prostitution, and Pueblos. Under S, the Sons of Liberty and the Stamp Act mingle with Servants, Domestic, Slave Rebellions, Sugar, and Syphilis. Under W, George Washington appears with Phillis Wheatley, Roger Williams, Widows and Widowers, and Witchcraft and Witch Trials. And so it goes. This is not your father’s encyclopedia. The syntheses that shaped colonial history in the past set forth unifying myths that served to consolidate American identity and attachment. But the cosmopolitan classes today do not identify as ardently with the nation as their forebears did. Though some remain so moored, others find their most meaningful anchorages in larger or smaller affiliations. They worry about the fate of the planet or seek to be citizens of the world. They prefer regional loyalties to global ones. They pursue identity politics, or they think of themselves primarily in terms of their profession or their work. The encyclopedia may be the one form that can consolidate knowledge that suits these disparate sensibilities. And if it is, we have come an exquisite rounding of the circle. The dream and the dawn of a distinctly modern learning were embodied in the great compendia of the Enlightenment: Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedie, Johnson’s Dictionary, and The Encyclopaedia Britannica. There is a delicious irony if, a quarter of a millennium later, we are back where we began. History of North America – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Drinking in Colonial America: Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus … The Quakers, the Dutch, and the Ladies: Crash Course US History #4 …

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