Skip to main content


Teaching the Nation's History

By Pauline Maier | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

As part of We the People, an initiative to foster the study of American history and culture, NEH held a forum in April on historical approaches to America's founding. In keynote speech, professor Pauline Maier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology outlined some of the issues. This article is adapted from her remarks.

In the past few decades, historical research has shifted by and large from political to social and then cultural history. Some of the most dramatic additions to historical knowledge have come in the history of slavery, including the slave trade, in African American history; in women's history; and in the study of Native Americans.

Three significant disjunctions characterize the intellectual landscape with reference to early American history and, to some extent, American history in general.

The first is between colonial and revolutionary history. At the Organization of American Historians' meeting in Boston last March, someone commented that the two fields seem entirely unconnected. The truth is that has been the case for a long time.

When I began teaching in the late 1960s, my course on colonial America--really British colonial America--focused in good part on the 'new social history,' particularly the demographic studies of communities first in New England, then the Chesapeake. In 1972, Alfred Crosby's Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 appeared, awakening widespread consciousness of the demographic catastrophe among Native Americans that followed their first encounters with Europeans, and of the possible connections between New World foods and population growth in other parts of the world. Already some fine studies were available on the origins of American slavery; others studied that institution from a cross-cultural perspective. To be sure, I discussed other topics such as religion and the structure of politics and political institutions in British North America.

Even so, when I later taught the American Revolution, the traditional successor course to Colonial America, the difference was like night and day. The old Progressive interpretation of the Revolution, which stressed social conflict and elite manipulation of the masses, lay in tatters. Scholars were taking the ideas of the Revolution seriously, tracing their origins and revealing their impact on the evolution of political institutions. To be sure, any course on the Revolution has to include a discussion of pre-revolutionary American society and of the Revolution's social impact. I cannot, for example, imagine teaching the Revolution without citing Jack Greene's Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture, and particularly his emphasis on the 'extraordinarily large number of families of independent middling status' in the British North American colonies. They were, he wrote, 'proportionately substantially more numerous than in any other contemporary Western society.'

Still, by and large the study of colonial America was social; of the Revolution, political and ideological.

Three-plus decades later, colonial American history remains strikingly different from the study of the American Revolution, but for different reasons. Historians of early America are now more than ever anxious to avoid earlier emphases on the British settlers of North America, the teleology implicit in studying only those colonies that would later become the United States, and what Harvard's Joyce Chaplin referred to in the March 2003 Journal of American History as 'that persistent myth, American exceptionalism.' The most prominent participants in the American Revolution were white men of European descent who founded the American Republic believing that accomplishment marked a break from the patterns of European history and so was by nature exceptionalist. It is no surprise then that, as Chaplin notes, many particularly noteworthy examples of recent post-colonial scholarship focus on the 'early national' rather than the revolutionary period. David Waldstreicher's study of public celebrations, Joanne Freeman's book on honor in the politics of the 1790s, and Jill Lepore's A Is for American are examples.

What is colonial history today? There is no one answer. Alan Taylor's American Colonies suggests one conception of the field. The book discusses the Spanish, French, Dutch, and Swedish North American colonies, along with those of Britain and the Russian colonization of Alaska. Taylor also devotes considerable space to Native American societies that do not qualify as colonies, but were deeply affected by the arrival of Europeans and--for the Plains Indians in particular--the Spanish 'repatriation' of the horse to its North American homeland. Taylor's book does not end, like traditional colonial history, in 1763 or 1776, but extends into the nineteenth century, when an 'imperial' United States took over the Hispanic West. Clearly the book does not avoid the sin of teleology: the only reason to study Alaska is that it would eventually become part of the United States. But then the book was written as part of the Penguin History of the United States.

The American Revolution does not have a prominent place in Taylor's book. Consider the opening sentences of its final paragraph:

. . . the dominant colonial power on the Pacific rim became the United States, the hypercommercial nation founded by the Americans who won their independence from the British by revolution and war in the years 1775-83. Far from ending with the American Revolution, colonialism persisted in North America, but from a new base on the Atlantic seaboard.

I spend half a term on events to which he gives half a sentence. To be fair, earlier in the book he devotes another page and a quarter to the Revolution, a fraction of what he devotes to the Plains Indians. There he notes that the Americans' 'empire of liberty' was for whites only and demanded the 'systematic dispossession of native peoples and, until the Civil War . . . the perpetuation of black slavery. . . .' The 'new American empire' also 'provided military assistance to subdue Indians and Hispanics across the continent to the Pacific.' In short, here the Revolution marks only a moment in which a onetime colony became a colonizer. That has little to do with the Revolution as the founding. It is simply a different story, one with little relevance for the one I teach, which focuses on the revolutionary origins of American government.

Scholars who work under the banner of Atlantic history provide a rather different idea of how to study early American history, one that goes beyond North America to study 'the common, comparative, and interactive aspects of the history of the peoples of the Atlantic world,' as Bernard Bailyn once put it. In theory, it involves all four continents that border the Atlantic, and traditionally begins in 1492 and extends through the revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although some scholars are pursuing later periods from an Atlantic perspective. Classic topics include the movement of people, ideas of empire, cultural encounters, the circulation of ideas, and the Atlantic slave trade. That broad perspective appeals to members of 'the current generation of historians,' according to David Armitage, because it avoids the 'constraints' of national history, particularly of a national history dominated by a concern with politics and constitutional development. The appeal is strong for historians of British North America in the period before the Revolution, when the constraints of national history are ahistorical, and distort the perspectives and affiliations of the people they study.

Atlantic historians have the grace to admit that what they're doing is not entirely new: historians have been doing some form of Atlantic history since the late nineteenth century, and that it became notably popular after World War II. Atlantic history often looks strangely familiar because so much work to date has been focused on the British Atlantic world and most often the British world of the North Atlantic. In some ways, earlier generations stretched further: comparisons of the Spanish and British forms of colonial rule and slave systems were already de rigueur when I entered the field thirty-some years ago.

Atlantic history is not intrinsically hostile to political history or even to certain forms of national history so long as it is studied within an Atlantic context. The most novel work in recent years has, however, been outside the political: on trade, migrations both voluntary and coerced, the relationship of colonizers to indigenous peoples, and social structures, with particular reference to class, race, and gender. We know much more, for example, about slavery and the slave trade because of the Atlantic history of the past generation. How--and if--Atlantic history will affect the history of the American Revolution remains to be seen.

That is not to say new work has been without its influence on telling the story of the American Revolution. Historians now give more attention to the war in the West and the impact of the American victory on Indians than was once the case. And Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone, a history of the first two centuries of slavery in North America that was written with an Atlantic perspective, provides a less upbeat version of the Revolution's impact on black Americans than, say, Arthur Zilversmit's The First Emancipation. But in general, as the study of colonial America has become both broader and less political, it has become different in content from the history of the Revolution.

Have the two fields ever been linked? Yes, back when Louis Hartz and others thought the real revolution came when Europeans first set foot on American soil, and the events of the 1760s and 1770s simply ratified that earlier historical reality. We don't believe that any more. British settlers, it seems, wanted nothing more than to approximate the model of British life, and as time went on they did so to an increasing extent, and so actually became more British by the eve of the Revolution than in the first settlements. That makes independence a break with the past, and that requires explanation. I have spent a good part of my scholarly career wrestling with that issue. The point here, however, is that the disjunction of colonial and revolutionary history is a result of new understandings as well as historians' creative re-definitions of colonial America. I don't criticize that disjunction. I simply note it.

My second disjunction can be described more quickly. It lies between scholarly interests and those of the reading public. In recent years, several books on the American founding have become best-sellers. The most conspicuous examples are David McCullough's John Adams and Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers, but many other books have also attracted a wide readership. According to an article by Jeffrey Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal, there are some 550,000 hardback copies in print of Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin, and 75,000 hardback copies of David Fischer's Washington's Crossing, a history of the military campaign of 1776 and early 1777 that came out a few months ago. That doesn't compare to the 1.6 million hardback copies of McCullough's Adams, but, in a day when few academic books sell 5,000 copies, it is impressive.

More are on the way--a book on Washington by Ellis due out in October, another on 1776 by McCullough which is supposed to appear next year. The appetite of the reading public seems almost insatiable. Most of the authors, however, are professional writers or historians of roughly my generation or--as with Edmund Morgan, the success of whose book on Franklin no doubt took Yale University Press by surprise--a generation older.

Younger historians, by and large, have abandoned the subject. Curiously, they have done that just as the founding became easier to study thanks to modern editions of the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison, as well as the multi-volumed Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution being published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Those volumes make available to readers more documents than any scholar of an earlier generation was likely to read. They are, moreover, arranged chronologically, with letters to as well as from the person whose papers are published, are printed (the difference between print and hand-written manuscripts is major), and have introductions to provide context, footnotes to identify obscure references, and, joy of joys, indices. More documents generally mean new understandings, and more documents that are easier to use gild the lily.

Obviously, professional writers are using these papers, richly repaying the public for those tax dollars the NEH used in subsidizing their publication. So are political scientists and historians in law schools: indeed, I more often find younger scholars who are interested in what I do in political science departments and law schools than in history departments.

Why aren't young historians joining the party? Their lack of interest is, again, part of a general movement against political history and the history of white men. Perhaps they assume incorrectly, as I did before doing research on the Declaration of Independence, that there is nothing new to learn: a young historian began a book review in last January's William and Mary Quarterly by commenting that 'the literature on the founding period is .. . . approaching saturation.' Do they think, as Jack Rakove suggested to me recently, that all the big questions have been answered? Or simply that they have to write their dissertations on more cutting-edge topics if they hope to get a job in this competitive market?

Whatever the reason, the effect is the same. As one audience member noted at the OAH 'state of the field' session, when he teaches the American Revolution he finds himself assigning books that were published thirty years ago. (That's not all bad. I wrote one of those thirty-year-old books, which I hope he's assigning.)

Disjunction three is between historical scholarship and history as taught in secondary school or, more exactly, between history as taught in secondary schools and history as taught in college-level U.S. survey courses. Whether it is in fashion or not, schoolteachers have to cover political history: it is part of the basic knowledge students in the United States need, if only as part of their civic education. A set of interviews by Gary Kornblith and Carol Laser of Oberlin College, published in the 2001 Journal of American History, discovered that teachers of the U.S. Survey, the basic college course on American history, feel the same obligation. That discovery was all the more striking because Kornblith and Laser took the trouble to recruit survey teachers from different generations, with correspondingly different assumptions and scholarly proclivities. Nonetheless, they all seemed to understand the reaction of a young historian who, almost to his surprise, was appalled by a student who had no idea what Reconstruction was.

Of course, neither the best secondary schoolteachers nor teachers of the U.S. Survey want to teach the same thing over and over; they need to integrate new learning into their courses. Sometimes that's easy, as, for example, with demographic history or black history, which extend and enrich the traditional political narrative. Sometimes it's challenging. And sometimes it's impossible. Hostility toward national histories is fine and good--unless you happen to be teaching the first half of the U.S. Survey in the fall, or are preparing students for the college board examinations.

Redefine the subject, you might say; teach global history instead. Why instead? There's a cost to taking that route: more college graduates with no idea what Reconstruction is, or how the Constitution was written and why. If some historians are prepared to live with that type of historical illiteracy, other Americans are not. Traditional history, as the NEH We the People initiative demonstrates, has powerful advocates.

The ultimate historical question is always 'so what?' What difference does it make that colonial and revolutionary history have gone their separate ways, that popular historians, along with political scientists, legal historians, and some senior historians, have picked up the story of the founding as young historians choose to study other topics, that secondary teachers and college professors teaching the U.S. Survey have to cover topics no longer at the front of historians' scholarly agenda? Not much, you might say.

How enduring are these disjunctions likely to be? I'm a historian, not a prophet--a distinction I often find useful. But in hazarding a guess, we have the advantage of Ellen Fitzpatrick's History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880-1980, a gem of a book that never got the attention it deserved. Fitzpatrick demonstrates--with a wit and a moral consciousness rare in historiography--that social and cultural history, including the history of minorities and women, and even terms such as the new history have been endemic in American historical writing since the late nineteenth century. Always these new initiatives were poised against political history--and yet it survived. The problem is that historians tend to forget their predecessors--thus the irony in her title. In that regard the Atlantic historians seem truly exceptional in acknowledging and building upon the work of earlier generations.

Scholarship on the Revolution between the 1960s and 1980s was so intense that it was perhaps destined to go into a certain eclipse. Once the old answers lose their persuasiveness, or new ways of approaching familiar material come into view, there's no doubt it will become a more active field. There is already evidence that is happening--and, indeed, that political history as a whole is reviving.

Take, for example, Max Edling's A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State, which is a small book--with about 230 pages of basic text--that makes a big argument. Briefly stated, it denies that nationalists advocated a major revision of the country's central government in the late 1780s primarily to check a persistent misuse of power by democratic state legislatures. That interpretation, which has by and large dominated the field since Gordon Wood's Creation of the American Republic appeared in the late 1960s, is founded to a considerable extent on James Madison's pre-convention memo, 'The Vices of the System.' Wood even entitled the relevant part of his book 'Vices of the System.' But Edling says that Madison was not a characteristic nationalist. Most advocates of the Constitution wanted to form a fiscal-military state like those of contemporary Europe. As a result, the creation and ratification of the Constitution should be understood as an event in early modern state formation.

Edling gently attacks historians' fixation over the past few decades with Madison, and takes a major step toward understanding the American Revolution in an Atlantic context. I think that's promising. Is it significant that Edling is a Swede who did his work at the University of Cambridge in England and Uppsala in Sweden? Young scholars in other countries are obviously more interested in the founding years of the American Republic than those in the United States.

There are other possible new approaches to the Revolution, and new ways to make links with other fields and their insights. Economic historians, for example, are now deeply interested in the role of institutions as a determinant of economic development. Douglass C. North's Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, published in 1990, inspired much of that interest. The literature on that topic is comparative, characteristically looking at Latin America and the Caribbean against the United States and Canada. I cannot pretend to have read deeply in that literature, but what I've read suggests that where it refers to the American record for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its empirical foundations are sometimes a tad weak. Surely young historians will soon realize, if they haven't already, that once fashionable references to 'imagined communities' and the 'public sphere' have gone stale, and the time has come for a new departure.

So what am I doing? I'm writing a book on ratification of the federal Constitution. That sounds like an old-fashioned topic, but there is no book in English devoted to telling the dramatic story of ratification. I've been using the Papers of George Washington for the Confederation period and the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. And I've been finding a lot of evidence that runs against established truths.

Thank God for age, or, if you prefer, seniority, and also tenure. They have given me freedom to follow my instincts, which is, I think, how the best historical work is done.

After Maier's lecture, scholars in the audience offered comments.

Herman Belz, professor of history at the University of Maryland:

After speaking about the radical disjunction between the colonial period and the Revolution, you ask, 'What difference does it make?' and you say, 'Simply a different story.' Well, the different story can have different ideological assumptions. Is this a difference without a distinction?

Maier: It was a statement with regard to a particular book [Alan Taylor's]. He's interested in colonization as a process, and imperialism and colonization. So he basically skips the whole question that fascinates me and other historians of the Revolution to go look at what happens after independence in the nineteenth century.

Belz: With all due respect, I want to remove it from you and him and ask whether in this telling of the story there are not normative ideological implications?

Maier: No doubt the different story can have different ideological assumptions. You know, I don't personally teach the westward movement as a rolling atrocity and I don't teach the Revolution as the background of a rolling atrocity. That's a big difference.

Ronald Hoffman, professor of history at the College of William and Mary:

What I sense is a resurgence of interest in the American Revolution as younger scholars try to incorporate and center slavery as a critical part of the story, within the context of the revolutionary contradiction between slavery and freedom. We have been aware of that contradiction for a long time, certainly since Ben Quarles's book, but it has never been fully incorporated into the narrative of the Revolution. It seems to me that while everyone now acknowledges this disjuncture, no one has as yet completely assimilated it and spelled out all of its implications. My sense is that there are quite a few younger scholars who are attempting to grapple with this issue--and to reconceptualize the Revolution and its ideological character within the context of slavery as central to the economy but also to the entire social, legal, and moral structure.

Maier: I would think that there would be some difficulties of seeing slavery as so critical. If you use Ira Berlin's distinctions of societies with slaves versus slave societies, how integral was it to the society of the north, New England? Is it possible to integrate that story with the story of institutional development and are we willing to abandon that other story?

I can't imagine teaching the Revolution without consideration, obviously, to slavery as an issue and as a determinate to certain social formations, if you will, but even that story, of course, has changed, thanks to Berlin's and other people's works. I used to use the Arthur Zilversmit book, First Emancipation, which gave a rather more upbeat view of the whole thing. Berlin shows us some of the limitations.

This is a critical issue. It's one of those places where the Revolution is an amazing divide. There's very little emancipation sentiment previous to the Revolution. It's largely among Quakers and an isolated person here and there. The Revolution makes this into something akin to a movement. And maybe one of the most important products of the Revolution is this very small community of free blacks who become the most vocal advocates for genuine universal rights. That's an extraordinary political development because it feeds into the subsequent narrative. I don't think we can any longer make sense of the rest of American history up through the Civil War unless we take account of those developments and of the limitations, as Berlin describes with great detail. But I have difficulty conceiving how one could tell the whole story with this at the center.

Hoffman: It seems to me that slavery was the institution that shaped all dimensions of American society--that influenced its morals, its values, the way in which its economy functioned, how people defined themselves in relation to other groups, and the laws. In 1976, when Al Young published his collection of essays on the Revolution--Explorations in the History of American Radicalism--he called a section of the book 'The Outsiders' and included in it Ira's essay on slaves, Fritz Jennings's essay on Indians, and Joan Hoff Wilson's essay on women. I am suggesting that today's younger scholars are trying to get rid of the concept of 'outsiders' and to center these people and the institutions that shaped their lives and then see how this political and social narrative works out. They hope to understand early American society more fully by recognizing the absolutely critical role of slavery, of Native Americans, and of women within the context of the Revolution.

Maier: So the center of the story you hear would be the vision of changes in American society through the Revolution?

Hoffman: If you take, for example, Andrew O'Shaughnessy's book on the Caribbean and compare his treatment of slavery in relationship to the political evolution of those societies on the eve of the Revolution with studies of the North American mainland colonies during their confrontation with England, you can readily see the difference between a perspective that acknowledges the centrality of slavery as a foundational basis of the society being considered and perspectives that do not.

I always begin my courses on the Revolution by talking about the Ethiopian regiment and Dunmore's offer of freedom to slaves and how the British picked up on that idea and used it--perhaps genuinely, perhaps only tactically--as a way of mobilizing support against the rebellious forces arrayed against them--and, consequently, how Washington and the Continental Congress had to struggle with the challenge posed by the enemy's juxtaposition of slavery and freedom.

All I'm saying, in response to your talk, is that I think one of the newest developments that's occurring among younger scholars is an effort to grasp the reality of the institution of slavery in relationship to the ideals that were part of the founding--an effort that leads to totally different perspectives on the Revolution than those that have prevailed throughout our respective careers. From the vantage point of the Omohundro Institute of Early American Culture, where we see many of the dissertations that are in progress or newly completed, this seems to be one of the directions in which the younger generation of scholars is moving. I agree with you that there is renewed interest in the Revolution, and I think that interest manifests itself in an effort to comprehend and incorporate all dimensions of that seminal event.

Maier: Yes. I think, actually, the implications of O'Shaughnessy's book have not been completely teased out. It raises all kinds of new questions about what happened in the continental North America.

Robert K. Faulkner, professor of political science at Boston College:

I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that it was an experiment that might not have worked. The French Republic, which also came out of that culture of liberalism, has had six republics, various restorations, and just collapsed before Hitler. What is it that made this experiment work?

That's a great political question, which is of interest exactly to students, to citizens, to everyone, and gives the drama to this country. And, of course, it hasn't worked in various ways. But one has to give an account of how rights, which are so important, and equal rights made outsiders into insiders. It doesn't do anybody a service to insist that they're insiders or that they're central, if, in fact, they were excluded, it seems to me. The word 'democracy' doesn't do justice to, in fact, the complication of our arrangement.