Studying the Colonial Era America

The day that they declared their independence, there were fewer people in all the thirteen rebellious colonies than there are in the St. Louis metropolitan area today. Sometimes it seems that there are more twenty-first-century students of early Puritanism than there were Puritans in the seventeenth century. In fact, there are more scholars of early America in our own time than there ever were Anglo-Virginians in the time of Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company. In 1650, there were just 50,000 Europeans in the British Mainland colonies, not nearly enough to fill the stadium of a first-rate college football power on a Saturday afternoon in October. In 1700, almost a century after the founding of that first enduring English settlement in the New World in Virginia, there were still only 250,000 colonists. And the best estimates of colonial populations put them at little more than a million almost a fifth of them African American slaves in the middle of the eighteenth century. Taken together, all the men, women, and children who ever lived in any of the provinces that proclaimed the Revolution in 1776 amounted to less than one-tenth of one percent of all the people whose history we now call American. Nonetheless, the history of colonial America engages the interest of academics and their audiences out of all proportion to the paltry number of colonists in whom they are interested. Books about the period proliferate beyond any possibility of keeping up with them, and the best of them claim a lion’s share of the most prestigious prizes conferred on historical writing. The William and Mary Quarterly, the scholarly journal of the field, turns up on every survey of the subject as one of the five most distinguished historical periodicals in the English language. It is not for nothing that Bernard Bailyn wrote recently of a creative ferment in early American studies, unparalleled in any other realm of American historical scholarship and perhaps unique in western historiography. Remarkable as this extravagant disproportion between subject and scholarship is, it may be even more remarkable that there is nothing novel in it. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, colonial and Revolutionary American history actually commanded more attention than it has in the past three or four decades. In the nineteenth century, newly established historical and genealogical societies devoted their best efforts to the colonial era, and local historians scarcely studied anything else. The greatest of the midcentury romantic historians, Francis Parkman and George Bancroft, did much of their best work on the years before the Revolution, and Bancroft barely went beyond them. Although he originally intended to carry his ten-volume history of the United States to his own time he died in 1891 he never got past the eighteenth century. The colonial era was sufficient to his purpose. The maturity of the nation, he concluded, is but a continuation of its youth. The seventeenth century made manifest the germ of our institutions. Canvassing the nation’s leading historical magazines near the end of the nineteenth century, J. Franklin Jameson noted derisively their preoccupation with voyages and discoveries, the Revolution, the Fathers, and the local and antiquarian details of the colonial period. These, he observed, were regarded as the main matters of American history, and he intended to do differently. The first editor of the first journal of the first professional historical association in America, he declared his determination to pursue a much less parochial path. Yet when Jameson’s first issue of the American Historical Review appeared in 1895, three of its five articles took early America for their topic. Over the Review’s first year, more than half of its articles pertained to America in the era of the colonies, the Revolution, and the early republic. Over its first five years, 40 of its 108 articles did the same, despite the explicit dedication of the journal to a vastly more encompassing coverage of Europe and the wider world, as well as of the United States. There were several sources of this extraordinary obsession with the history of early America. Some were internal to the politics and problematics of the historical profession as it emerged in the late nineteenth century. Others were rooted in the demands that society made on historians and those that historians made on themselves. History as a discipline both presupposed and promoted the nation. It took nations as its units of analysis, and it celebrated nations as its assumptive centers of allegiance and identity. History as a discipline in America took for granted that the United States was the nation of nations, divinely appointed to light the world’s way. Though they prided themselves on their scientific skepticism, American historians rarely doubted their country’s manifest destiny. Their task was, rather, to explain it. How had their exemplary nation grown from a few straggling settlements on the Atlantic seaboard? What were the origins of its distinctive democracy and its freedom of religion and enterprise? Many of them were convinced that the answers to such questions would be evident in the country’s colonial past. Easy Make & Learn Projects: Colonial America: 18 Fun … Colonial American Culture Archives – Adam Fletcher Adventures by … 18C American Women: Paintings of 18th-Century American Families

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