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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 02, 2019

Must Early America Be Vast?

#VastEarlyAmerica 15 min read

by Karin Wulf

Spoiler:  I think yes.

But it’s complicated.  You may have seen this meme about historians, with “it’s complicated” mocked as the weak battle cry of our profession.  I would argue that there is ample demonstration, from contemporary politics to technology, that an appreciation of complexity is newly resurgent.  And so it is with vigor, rather than chagrin that I celebrate the complexity of our vast field of study.

“Vast Early America” began as #VastEarlyAmerica, a social media hashtag shorthand for the chronologically, conceptually, geographically, and methodologically capacious early American scholarship that has characterized the last decades.  It is still that hashtag, but along the way it has also become a framework for discussing the challenges and opportunities of that capaciousness, and for me very much a point of entry into discussions about the vital civic and inclusive purpose of our study.  It has been gratifying to see “Vast Early America” cited in essays and forums, as well as assigned.

It has long been clear that perspectives on “early America,” vast or not, are as various and complex as the place and period itself.  I suspect there will be more than a few more conference sessions and other forums to consider whether and how to get vast, be vast, stay vast.  At the 2019 Organization of American Historians meeting in Philadelphia, I was joined on a roundtable to consider the question—must early America be vast?— by Omohundro Institute (OI) Council members Christian Crouch of Bard College and Michael Witgen of the University of Michigan, as well as Ronald Angelo Johnson of Texas State University.  We emailed and met ahead of the session to share our ideas, and we offered short introductory comments to facilitate conversation with a very engaged and very full room of historians.  There were more than two dozen issues and questions posed by the audience, and as the conversation continued it was clear that we (still) have a lot to talk about.  Bethel Saler of Haverford College led a “chat room” after the session—a new format where the panel participants and others (ultimately there were ten of us) could gather to continue the discussion.

The roundtable panelists offered opening thoughts about social media, conceptual geographies, and teaching, with the intention of encouraging conversation along these multiple vectors.  Christian Crouch began by noting that a hashtag such as #VastEarlyAmerica is in itself an inviting, inclusive practice.  Using the hashtag, early career scholars, senior scholars, any field, all disciplines, and interested members of the public can highlight connections they see or relevant issues or work they want to associate with it.  On the syllabus for his graduate seminar at George Mason University, Randolph Scully encourages students to check out the ways the hashtag is being used on Twitter.  It’s interesting to see how individuals and organizations are using it to bring attention to events and publications as well as ask questions.  Crouch also argued that the modifier “vast” suggests expansive connections among people, places, and histories more generally—and noted that she has used “Vast East Africa” to invoke its continental, Indian Ocean and other contexts.

Michael Witgen talked about the ways that the concept of “Vast Early America” helps to underscore the layered and complex histories that traditional colonial-to-national narratives of American history may obscure.  From his own scholarship on Michigan, he described the demographic revolution of the early nineteenth century that narratives of “removal” could not capture.  From 1805, with approximately 40-50,000 Native Americans and 5,000 white settlers, to 1840 when there were 280,000 white settlers and land cessions through more than a dozen treaties, Michigan’s native people experienced within decades what happened in east coast places over much longer periods.  By insisting on the centrality of native history to early America, and the centrality of dispossession rather than removal, vast early America makes contemporary claims and conflicts about land more legible as a regular rather than new feature in American history.

Ron Johnson shared experiences from his survey class in American history.  With a multi-dimensionally diverse student population, he observed that “Vast Early America gives us a language to communicate with one another” about the present through historical subjects.  He offered examples of books and scholars whose work he uses to share ideas and information about the complexity of the past, and to address the complexity of the present.  Among the many he mentioned were Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Rachel Hope Cleves’s Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America, Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery:  The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, and Erica Dunbar’s Never Caught:  The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.  And he noted the importance of seeing the intense, ongoing connectedness of the Caribbean with continental North America.

Following up on these comments, questions from the audience centered on definitions (chronological and geographical), heuristics (how does Vast Early America compare to the Atlantic World?), exclusions and inclusions (where are traditional subjects such as the American Revolution, and the early politics and governance of the United States?), and whether and how contemporary relevance is appropriate and useful.  Another important set of questions centered on whether and how “Vast Early America” fits with American history as typically taught (and understood).   There were practical questions, too.  How vast is, well, too vast?  How do we teach this vastness – the capaciousness, complexity, and cacophony of the early America that has emerged in modern scholarship?  And an existential question about how we exercise and measure expertise, in a field with so much breadth and complexity.  Do we risk knowing too little about too much?

Some of these challenges inherent in a “vast” early America have been endemic to the field of early American study since the early twentieth century, and certainly since the founding of the OI.  Gordon Wood’s 2015 remarks in the now defunct political magazine The Weekly Standard captured an essential lament about how the sheer breadth of the field might be construed as a centripetal force, and even invoked the William and Mary Quarterly: “the principal journal in early American history, [which] now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.”

The WMQ Editor Josh Piker did a neat bit of research in previous issues of the journal to show that Wood’s selections were quite selective in that they appeared alongside plenty of essays on subjects that presumably fit more comfortably within a traditional early American ambit.  But he also argued that there are good reasons why the subjects Wood cited should actually encourage the field to “get lost.” Breadth has always been a strength of the field.  In fact, as I pointed out in another post, the broad and deep—we might even call it vast—approach to early America was apparent in a foundational essay by Charles McLean Andrews published in the very first issue of the WMQ published by the OI in 1943.

Another important issue in our OAH session relates to the civic purpose I alluded to above, and the role of “Vast Early America” as part of a national history.  In an essay for the Humanities Magazine, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I wrote that:

Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and other political leaders of the early, eastern United States will continue to stride through the pages of our histories, but they will occupy that space as slaveholders as well as political leaders, and they will share that space with other people and places that will help us understand these founders better. A capacious approach to early America shows us a past that was infinitely complex, dynamic, globally connected, and violent. And it also still shows us—better shows us—the origins of an ambitious, powerful, and democratic nation. In short, we need an early American history, but one that fully grasps the depth, breadth, and complexity—the vastness—of early America. That is both good history and good civics.

If, as the participants on the roundtable and many in the audience seemed to feel, a vaster early America is incredibly important to American national history, how does that national purpose relate to scholarly and decidedly non-national ones?  Or, as a member of the audience put it, if the French Atlantic is surely part of Vast Early America, is it necessarily of interest to Americans?  And what if the answer is no?  If aspects of this historical field are not purposed to the civic interests of contemporary Americans, are they any less important?

Of course not; quite the reverse.  We begin our work as historians—as scholars, we study the past on its own terms.  From that perspective it is quite clear that it isn’t the distortions of a twenty-first century lens that makes early America look vast.  The kinds of work that have brought scholars to see an expansive geography and diverse people as part of a culturally, economically, intimately, politically, connected past has been driven by equally complex scholarly impetus.

Yet there is something inherent in this recognition of an early American past as complex and diverse that speaks to an urgent civic need.  There is nothing simple about even the most traditionally confined early America; the narrative of a British colonial-into-Revolutionary America-cum-United States is itself an exceptionally complex and contingent history.  Setting that history within a wider continental, Atlantic (and beyond)—yes, vast—context can let us better appreciate that complexity and contingency.  And at the same time, perhaps more importantly, it illuminates a fuller and truer early America.

I’m grateful to my colleagues on the roundtable for their deep reflections and their commitment to intellectual exchange, to the audience who engaged so enthusiastically in debate and discussion, to those who followed up in the chat room afterwards, and to others who have emailed or otherwise communicated their interest in exploring further what Vast Early America—or another construction of early America—has meant and could mean.

So.  I think early America must be vast.  What do you think?

Karin Wulf is the executive director of the Omohundro Institute and a professor of History at William & Mary.

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