Resituating U.S. History in a Global Context

I consider the U.S. history survey the most important course that a history department offers. Not only is this course sequence largely responsible for generating credit hours and recruiting majors, but for most students, the survey is the only college-level history that they will encounter.

The American history survey is a department’s one chance to instill historical literacy: to ensure that all graduates are familiar with major historical themes and events; have a basic grasp of the dynamics and contours of cultural, economic, political and social change; are conversant with major historical controversies; and appreciate how history is reconstructed out of partial, ambiguous and often contested historical evidence.

But too often, I fear, college survey courses are little more than a more sophisticated and comprehensive version of the classes in U.S. history that students took in the fifth, eighth and 11th grades.

Redundancy, however, isn’t the only problem. Even worse is the curse of insularity.

All too often, American history is treated in splendid isolation, even though the United States is only one of many societies to undergo a revolution, exploit slave labor, wage a civil war and experience industrialization, urbanization and mass immigration.

Given the extraordinary diversity of our student bodies, not just ethnically or racially, but in their countries of origin, I am convinced that we need to adopt a very different approach to the U.S. history survey, one that situates American history within the broader transnational forces that shaped the modern world.

To do this, we’d do well to reread works of history from half a century ago.

There is a tendency to view historical scholarship through a progressivist lens: to assume that the most recent scholarship supersedes all that came before. That’s a big mistake.

Even though American historians have learned a great deal over the past four decades, in three key respects, I believe we’d do well to recover the lessons taught by a generation of historians who are quickly passing from the scene.

I came of age intellectually at a moment when neo-Marxist jumbo histories by Perry Anderson, Robert Brenner, Andre Gunder Frank, Eric Hobsbawm and Immanuel Wallerstein, among others, were the rage. These works were the very antithesis of the highly specialized studies that predominate today. In their works of the 1970s, scholars including David Brion Davis, Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn sought to integrate American history into that big picture.

At the same time, rigorous works of comparison, by Carl Degler, Eric Foner, George Fredrickson, Eugene Genovese and Peter Kolchin, sought to identify what was distinctive about the U.S. experience. Especially influential were their insights into how American slavery differed from its Caribbean counterparts in terms of plantation size, slave-master interactions, attitudes toward racial intermixture and the nature and significance of U.S. racism.

Yet another key current in the works of American history during the 1970s was the concept of ideology. Rather than using the term as a pejorative, as a rigid, inflexible set of political doctrines, these scholars viewed ideology as the missing link between abstract ideals and principles and social and economic realities. Works by leading historians including Davis, Foner and Gordon Wood took the ideas expressed in various manifestos and declarations seriously, treating these ideas not as free-floating entities or as crude propaganda weapons but as a conceptual lens through which individuals made sense of complex realities and advanced their interests.

These scholars were especially interested in the intricate connections between ascendant liberal ideologies and state structures and material interests, including the role of antislavery in legitimizing wage labor and justifying acts of imperial expansion.

These works offer perspectives that today’s undergraduates would benefit from. What might such a narrative look like? Let me sketch, in highly general terms, a small part of the outline.

A new economic system arose in the early-modern era. Features of this new system included a money economy, expanded long-distance trade, separation of investors and producers, the growth of wage labor, and commodity production for mass markets using various forms of unfree labor.

Unlike modern capitalism, this early system, which Adam Smith called mercantilism, involved governments using various policies to promote economic growth and augment state power to better compete against other countries.

Mercantilism emphasized:

  • Trade: The movement of goods from markets where they were cheap to where they were more expensive.
  • Investment: Banking houses and companies that pooled the capital of individual investors financed a wide range of ventures, including the Jamestown Colony.
  • Exploitation and extraction: Many of the most valuable enterprises involved the greatly expanded use of unfree labor in mining and agricultural commodity production to serve rapidly expanding mass consumer markets.
  • Colonialism: The establishment of colonies, including colonies of conquest, trade and settlement, to provide raw materials and markets played a central role in competition among nation-states.
  • State-directed initiatives sought to promote economic development and increase the exploitation of labor, for example, through construction of workhouses, state-granted monopolies and statutes that specified hours of work.

American colonial history needs to be located squarely within this mercantilist context, an era of frequent great-power conflicts, as increasingly centralized nation-states struggled over trade and colonies. Through the wealth that mercantilist policies generated and the pressures these policies imposed to bring increasing numbers of workers into a wage economy and producers into a commercial economy, mercantilism laid the foundations for more modern forms of capitalism.

But these policies also planted the seeds for their own demise as this early era of globalization provoked popular uprisings and revolutionary movements from the Urals and the Alps to the Alleghenies and the Andes, fueled by new ideas that spread across national boundaries. These powerful ideas, which included the rights of man, the nation, national independence, citizenship and constitutionalism, contributed to mass mobilization and successful revolutions not only in the new United States and France, but in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and in many of Spain’s New World colonies.

I know full well the dangers of oversimplification and overgeneralization, but shouldn’t we explore how the upheavals of the Age of Revolution, inspired by many of the same ideas, followed very different trajectories and resulted in very different outcomes? And shouldn’t we do more to compare and contrast the consequences of the emergent liberal ideologies in various national contexts?

During and after the late-18th- and early-19th-century Age of Revolution, there was a widespread sense that the Western world had entered an Age of Emancipation, when subordinate groups would achieve liberation from archaic forms of unfreedom. The movement to abolish slavery was only one of a number of emancipation movements that included the emancipation of Eastern European serfs, British Catholics, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, and Spanish American Indians and Indianized mestizos alongside calls for the emancipation of women.

By treating these various struggles for emancipation as isolated, independent phenomena, we miss the opportunity to understand the diverse meanings, implications and consequences of liberal ideas in distinct national, economic and political contexts.

The emancipation of peasants, Jews and Indians was part of a broader shift from an older corporate order organized around estates or racial or ethnic castes or other corporate entities to a class society (which would have its own racial and social hierarchies).

Emancipation in Europe and Latin America was intimately tied to efforts to modernize national economies, to stimulate the productivity and efficiency of agriculture, and to rationalize production for global markets. At the same time, many governments in Eastern Europe and Latin America were seeking to integrate subordinate, semiautonomous groups into state fiscal and administration structures in order to increase tax revenue, expand the size of the military and dampen unrest.

In the United States, the revolt against earlier forms of deference, paternalism, patronage and dependency not only resulted in the abolition of slavery or adoption of gradual emancipation schemes in the Northern states, it also witnessed the demise of such paternalistic social relationships as indentured servitude and apprenticeship, the disestablishment of tax-supported churches, and the rise of a herrenvolk democracy that helped fuel the new nation’s expansion and the violent seizure of Indigenous, Spanish and Mexican lands.

Only by adopting a big-picture perspective can our students understand how and why Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa and the United States, roughly simultaneously, displaced their Indigenous populations; how and why various welfare states began to emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even as they took sharply different forms; and how diverse nations responded to the Great Depression of the 1930s and what was distinctive about the U.S. approach.

I am, of course, not alone in calling upon history teachers to resituate the teaching of American history in comparative global contexts. That, of course, was the goal of proponents of Atlantic history. In books like America Compared, Teaching American History in a Global Context and A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History, Carl J. Guarneri and Thomas Bender, in particular, have argued strongly and persuasively in favor of a history that embeds the United States in broader contexts.

Especially at the introductory level, I think a strong case can be made for replacing microscopes with telescopes. The aim not to reject the notion of American exceptionalism, nor simply to show how the United States has always been entangled with the rest of the world, but rather to help students see that the defining issues of American history have counterparts elsewhere, whether these involve the conflicts and struggles that accompanied the consolidation of the nation-state, the transition from slavery to new forms of racial inequality, or the emergence of welfare capitalism.

Much as children define their identities dialectically, so, too, do nations. The only way to truly understand this nation’s distinctiveness is to locate American history within a much broader comparative context and to understand how it fits into the forces and processes that have created the modern world.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Michael Patrick Rutter