HIST 2311: Out of Many: U.S. History to 1877
How did Americans become what they are now? Put another way, how did Europeans who gladly crossed the Atlantic Ocean in order to conquer, colonize, proselytize, and trade become a separate people who broke decisively with Europe? How did Africans who had no choice about crossing the ocean become African-Americans? How did the Native people of the hemisphere become “Indians” as they lost what had been theirs entirely? These questions do not apply just to Americanos del Norte. They are just as valid for Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica, Canada, Haiti, and Cuba. They emerge from one of the greatest changes in the history of the world, as Europe exploded upon the entire globe and remade it, for better or for worse. But this course will concern itself with the place that became the United States.
We still have a tall order. We must deal not just with England’s east-coast colonies but with all the areas where Europeans came, with their visions, their ambitions, and their squalor. We must look at “civilization” and the “wilderness.” But that means realizing that for Native People New York City or New Orleans were just as strange as the “Woods” seemed to people who were used to the European landscape, with its fields and towns and castles and roads and fences. We must look at the story of American freedom, which is the proudest heritage of the United States. But we need to realize that from the beginning American Freedom was closely bound up with American slavery. We need to realize that America became a “new world” for everybody involved.
We will explore the enormous burst of energy and creativity that accompanied the emergence of the young United States. We also will ask who paid the price for that great achievement. We need to look at people of all sorts trying to cope with the enormous, vibrant, liberating, confusing, and terrifying reality that was the United States. Finally, we need to ask how the American Republic very nearly failed, when it came apart along its most fundamental fault line. That line divided not only North and South and freedom and slavery. It also divided nationalism and states’ rights, industrial society and agricultural society, and perhaps Yankee and Cavalier.
Already I have posed too many questions to answer, or even to ask, in one short semester. But we can try. I have four big problem areas in mind for the course. The first is contact, as the peoples of three separate parts of the globe collided, adjusted, and remade both themselves. The second is the destruction of Britain’s North American empire and the creation in its place of the United States. The third problem is the intense sustained creativity that I mentioned above, coupled with the destruction and the confusion that always accompany novelty. The final problem is the emergence of slavery as a problem that could not be ignored, the near-emergence of the white South as a republic on its own terms, the failure of the Southern project, and slavery’s destruction.
Dr. Edward Countryman is a University Distinguished Professor at SMU, where he has taught since 1991. He has also taught at Yale, Canterbury (NZ), and Warwick and Cambridge (UK). He earned his BA from Manhattan College and his M.A. and Ph.D. both from Cornell University. He has a lengthy list of publications, both specialist and general, including a book (Americans: A Collision of Histories) that addresses the themes of this course.
Learning Outcomes and Benefits
I taught this course successfully in J-term 2010 and 2011. Although the demands of the J-Term format are intense, the students worked well with me and achieved the desired outcomes:
- I can promise an intense intellectual experience, based on continuous give-and-take, which will prepare students very well for the give-and-take of conference rooms, court rooms, board rooms, and court rooms in their future lives.
- Students will explore the beginnings of a world that became “new” for all involved after the Columbian encounter, the creation of the United States out of the wreckage of British identity and belonging, and the development until its great crisis of 1861-65. They will come to appreciate that American history is just as “layered” as, say, the history of an English countryside where a Roman road, a medieval castle, the industrial revolution, and modernity all have made their imprints upon the landscape. They will see that American history is as complex and, in many ways, tragic, as the history of any people on the earth.
- Students will gain an appreciation of the high creativity that went into the founding and the continuation of the American Republic. They will encounter such notable figures as Columbus, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lincoln on those figures’ own terms.
- Students will see the perspectives of many different sorts of people in American history, including women and men, Natives, Africans, and Europeans, northerners and southerners, country and city folk, easterners and westerners. Different perspectives count. So, ultimately, does shared American identity, which has developed out of encounter and conflict.
- Students will encounter these people in the people’s own ways, through study of the records and fragments that they left behind. They will learn to make their own sense of historical evidence, as opposed to relying on textbook information and a textbook writer’s opinions.
- By the end of the course students will be able to understand historical problems, to form reasoned historical opinions based on evidence, and to articulate those opinions in a persuasive way.