An Adventure into a Vast Sea of the American Experience
A Summary and Sampling of My Comprehensive Exam Books in Early American History
The study of Early American history covers a huge time span, roughly 1492 to 1865. Even these dates are highly fluid with the inclusion of the rich Native American and Mesoamerican narratives, as well as the lasting social and political implications of the American Civil War. Within this period, four continents violently collide, placing millions of people into direct contact when previously none existed. Nations came into being where previously none existed. There are several schools of study at work rather than a single trajectory that miraculously led to the United States. The result is a dynamic story that is virtually impossible to contain within a single category of “Early America.” Within the study of maritime history broadly, and Atlantic history in particular, there is a developing discussion among historians of the role that America—and eventually the United States– played in the larger transatlantic picture of the early modern world. As such, the books in this list consider lenses and themes that are intended to alter the view of traditional American history and to challenge an exceptionalist narrative of the United States.
For summaries of other books on Early America and beyond, also consult http://www.cameronblevins.org/posts/u-s-history-book-summaries/
Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Belknap Press, 2014).
Categories: environment, Atlantic history, fishing culture
Place: American North East, Northern Atlantic
The Atlantic Ocean has shaped western history, but humans have also shaped the sea. Bolster uses the ocean as the main historical actor in a three hundred year narrative of the relationship between New England fishermen and the sea. Bolster, using an extensive understanding of marine biology, charts the decline of the “eternal sea” by showing the downturn of fish stocks and its effect on the fishing traditions in the northwest Atlantic. He introduces the concept of “shifting baseline syndrome” as the mechanism by which each generation of fishermen understood changes in the sea over time, suggesting that “each generation imagined that what they saw on the sea was normal, and that subsequent declines were aberrant.” This interdisciplinary approach helps historians understand how relations between humans and the sea were a constant historical transformation and not a recent phenomenon.
J.H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (Yale University Press, 2006).
Categories: empire, colonial, comparative history, Atlantic history
Place: Spanish and British America
This extensive synthesis compares the imperial enterprises of Britain and Spain. Elliott argues that we can better explore how the Americas developed over 300 years by considering the respective experiences of the British and Spanish as the products of their own landscape. The story that emerges elucidates the Spanish empire as a strictly hierarchical, well managed, and very Catholic empire. Catholic missions pushed as north and west through Mexico, to present-day Santa Fe and California. The British, however, nearly one hundred years late to a landed empire New World, took a more proprietary and hands-off approach by chartering joint stock companies. This discussion helps to challenge the west to east narrative of American expansion and a British-Centric view.
Susan Scott Parish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
Categories: Atlantic history, environment, cultural, intellectual, social, science, Enlightenment
Place: British America
The arrival of new American objects in Enlightenment Europe challenged preexisting European understandings of natural philosophy. Parish charts the information networks that allowed for European thinkers to access novel materials and ideas from the Americas. This helped to form new European modes of understanding the natural world. These information networks, while spearheaded by letters written by white Euro-American elites, were fuelled by women, Native Americans and African slaves. Their access to and understanding of nature helped to form cosmologies and epistemologies between the old world and the new.
Richard Price, Alabi’s World (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).
Categories: slavery, ethnohistory, Atlantic world
Place: Dutch Suriname
Price explores the society of the Saramarkas, ex-slaves that found refuge and created their own nation in the jungles of South America in the early eighteenth century. The leader of the Saramarkas, Alabi, serves as the focus of the study around which the world of the south Atlantic unfolded. Price’s approach is unique, and serves as a meditation on his career as a historian. He uses four different voices to explicate the story; his own as the historian, those of Moravian missionaries, which were the first white visitors to the Saramarka community, Dutch colonial officials, and finally the Saramarka themselves. This convergence of voices illustrates the true collision of cultures that occurred in the Atlantic world.
T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Subjects: American Revolution, British Empire, economics, culture
Place: British North America
The American participation in the British world of goods helped the popular mobilization of Americans against the British in the Revolution. Breen reinterprets the coming of the American Revolution as a collective imagination, a consumer revolution that began in the 1750s. He illustrates how Americans used goods to express personal political beliefs, and a shared experience as consumers. As the American Revolution began, the use or rejection of goods as an expression of discontentment became widespread, as seen with tea, paper and other British-imported materials. This politically empowered women and the poor to participate in the Revolution. Breen focuses on the personal experience of self-fashioning, which offered Americans a vision of expanded free trade beyond the British Empire.
P.J. Marshall, The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India and America, c. 1750-1783 (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Categories: Empire, global, colonial, revolution, Identity
Place: India and British North America
The American Revolution marked a turning point in the British Empire. Marshall uses the British colonial experiences in North America and India to demonstrate this shift in British colonial policy. The North American Empire represented the “First British Empire,” which was characterized by “benign neglect” of the British metropole towards its Atlantic holdings. India represented the “Second British Empire,” which began following the American Revolution and illustrated a new approach by the British. In India, the British exerted tighter control over the region by harnessing the existing power of the British East India Company as well as Indian elites to maintain political authority. By comparing the colonial experiences of the first and second British empires, Marshall challenges the historical notion that the British Empire was a monolithic, maritime, commercial, Protestant and free entity.
Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation (Yale University Press, 1992).
Categories: Identity, British Empire, nationalism
Place: Great Britain
Following on the theme that the British Empire was maritime, commercial, Protestant and free, Colley, considers the national identity of the British people following the 1707 Act of Union that merged the island’s nations of England and Scotland. After this political decision, how did it affect the general population? What were the British being loyal to and what did they expect in exchange? Much of British identity revolved around what they were not; they were not French, Catholic, nor an absolute monarchy. British political constitutionalism and religious Protestantism united individual Britons, and offered the domestic stability that allowed the British Empire to expand around the world. While much of the book revolves around the experience of the British population on Great Britain, this book raises the discussion of the British in America, who viewed themselves as citizens abroad, and should maintain the same rights and privileges of those on the island of Great Britain. The negation of these privileges by Parliament then contributed to the causes of the American Revolution.
Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Vintage Press, 2012).
Categories: American Revolution, Native Americans, identity, British Empire, African Americans, diaspora
Place: British Empire
This global history of the loyalist diaspora after the American Revolution argues that nearly half of the population of the thirteen colonies did not believe in, nor participate in the Revolution. The creation of the United States left many families with no choice but to abandon their homes and seek shelter in other parts of the British Empire. Loyalists played a key role in the new phase of the Second British Empire, and helped to solidify British presence in India, Australia and Canada. Within this large group of loyalists were Native Americans as well as African Americans who were given their freedom as compensation for their support of the British in the Revolution.
Carla Pestana, Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
Categories: Atlantic world, religion
Place: British North America
Pestana argues that the religious and spiritual life within the British Atlantic world was dynamic, rejecting the notion that it was mostly Protestant. Colonial religion in British North America included collective and individual religious expressions, particularly Native and slave spirituality.
Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Vintage Press, 2015).
Categories: Global, Capitalism, Cotton, Antebellum world, First Industrial Revolution
Place: American South and the world
This global history studies the growth of the industrial world through the commodity of cotton. Beckert traces the rise and fall of the European empire of cotton, global capitalism, imperial expansion, as well as slave labor. Cotton was the material that changed the world and elucidated a constant struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and workers. Beckert argues that the nineteenth century was the point where the world divided into industrial and non-industrial regions based on the ways in which they produced, utilized and/or sold cotton. This global view of nineteenth century capitalism illustrates the movement and connections of worker capital. The modern world originated with cotton.
Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2013).
Categories: slavery, cotton, Antebellum South, Civil War, trade, global
Place: American South, the Mississippi Valley and the world.
Johnson argues that the Mississippi valley was the center of global economic development, rather than a backwater of the United States in the early nineteenth century. The South’s ascendency alongside modern industrial capitalism was deeply connected to the world thanks to the Mississippi River’s connection to the Atlantic world. The South was a capitalist hub of the world cotton economy, and became an empire of slavery. Johnson follows a bale of cotton from the field to final destination, attempting to create a social history of slavery.
Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random House, 2012).
Categories: Civil War, Great Britain, Atlantic history
Place: Great Britain and the United States
While the Civil War divided American families between the North and the South, it similarly affected British families, as their own political, moral and economic wellbeing depended upon the outcome of the war. As a result, British citizens also chose to fight on both sides of the conflict. Because of its extensive scope, Forman wrote this book as a mix of biography and the sum of all British and American experiences. She joins together individual transatlantic stories as they intersected, and creates an extensive narrative of British and American interconnectedness in the nineteenth century. She illustrates transatlantic conflicts over blockades and the boarding of British ships by the United States Navy going to the Confederacy, as well as also considering the impact of the Civil War on the need of British industry Southern cotton. This narrative displays the truly global nature of the American conflict.