A few years ago I gave a “state of the field” lecture on early American history to a group of college professors and high school teachers attending the week-long AP U.S. History grading session at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. This summer I did a similar lecture, sponsored by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History, to a group of secondary teachers from Bledsoe County, Tennessee.
If I ever give this lecture again, it will be much richer thanks to an article in December 2008 issue of the Journal of American History (which I received today). Chris Grasso and Karin Wulf, editors at the William and Mary Quarterly and members of the history faculty at the College of William and Mary, have written “Nothing Says ‘Democracy’ Like a Visit from the Queen: Reflections on Empire and Nation in Early American Histories.” This article should be on the reading list of every graduate student in early American history.
Grasso and Wulf use the May 2007 visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Jamestown as their starting point to critique the nationalist and presentist impulse that is still very much a part of the way the general public thinks about colonial America. Their essay reminded me that there is still a very large gap between the kind of early American history that the public wants (one connected to a national narrative) and the kind of early American history that scholars are writing, which tends to focus on empire, the Atlantic World, interdisciplinary analysis, and the west (meaning the trans-Mississippi). The best synthetic overview of this new literature (which, surprisingly, Grasso and Wulf do not mention in their essay) remains Alan Taylor’s American Colonies.
Grasso and Wulf conclude the essay by reminding scholars that theoretical concepts such as “Atlantic World” need to be grounded in particular contexts. They write:
Conceptual spaces such as the Atlantic or the North American continent throw into relief both the power and the fragility of political structures such as empires and nations. Putting those structures into play as subjects of our inquiry, not simply as default frameworks of analysis, continues the field’s tradition of attention to these subjects, but with a twenty-first century sensibility about the significance of culture and greater geographical, even global, contexts. We continue to reach for ways to connect the traces of rich and complex experience on the ground in places like Jamestown to accounts of broad structures and transformations that can be discerned only retrospectively.
On this point the authors quote Atlantic historian Ian Steele: “No one ever worked, prayed, fought, or died for an early modern multinational Atlantic.”
My own biography of Philip Vickers Fithian, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, is pretty traditional fare. Fithian was a white male Presbyterian from the British colony of New Jersey–not very exciting from the perspective of current scholarship. But I did try to take Fithian’s diaries and life and connect them to a larger Atlantic world of religion, morals, and the Enlightenment.
What I also tried to do in The Way of Improvement Leads Home is raise some of the real life tensions that eighteenth-century people faced as they tried to be part of a so-called Atlantic World or “Republic of Letters.” Fithian always tried to balance his Atlanticist or cosmopolitan instincts with his deep affection for home (place) and the burgeoning nation. As Steele notes, the Atlantic World is a fine theoretical framework, but it does not completely explain Fithian and other rising young men like him in revolutionary America. As I suggest, Fithian was willing to die for his homeland, and by that I mean the people of Cohansey–the local south Jersey community in which he was born and raised. He was also willing to die for the abstract intellectual ideas (republicanism) of the Atlantic world, but only as those ideas were embedded in a particular view of what Philip Freneau, his classmate at Princeton, called the “Rising Glory of America.”
Future historiographers will look back on the recent flood of literature on the “Atlantic World” and explain it in terms of early American historians trying to connect their scholarship to a changing world defined by globalization and cosmopolitanism. But we need to be careful that we don’t fall into a presentist trap similar to the one that Grasso and Wulf lament about the nationalization and democratization of public history at Jamestown. In other words, many early Americanists possessed loyalties to place, home, community, and nation that often clashed with some of these global ideas. The Atlantic World is useful, but it does not explain everything.