Vast Early America


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Karin Wulf

Vast Early America for 2019

Vast Early America is a phrase I coined in 2016 to use as a hashtag, but #VastEarlyAmerica isn’t of my making, of course. This way of understanding an expansive early America is the work of decades of scholarship. To my mind, it’s an urgently needed perspective on the foundational American history.

I spoke quite a bit about Vast Early America this year, in webinars, at conferences, in public forums. I also wrote a couple of pieces about Vast Early America, and wanted to gather and reference them in one place.

In January I published a piece, “Vast Early America,” for the National Endowment for the Humanities Magazine, Humanities.

American history courses usually begin with the peopling of the Americas, then move on to European colonization and the crisis of the British colonies. Tethered to the East Coast, historical attention turns west again as the United States expands its territorial claims in the nineteenth century. But a more expansive view of early America—what I and other scholars have taken to calling “vast early America”—would help us better understand the colonial and early national periods as well as the full sweep of American history….

Some recent critiques of early-American scholarship note that increased attention to diverse people (women, enslaved African Americans, Native Americans) and places (California, the Caribbean, West Africa, Atlantic port cities) takes us outside the framework that marches us from Colonial (British) America to the Revolution to the early United States. According to this complaint, the broader view of early America renders us less able to speak to the nature and origins of our nation. The argument for the traditional version of early America is that the basic laws and governance of the United States are rooted in an Anglo-American tradition, which is occluded by attention to the longer histories of places and people less closely connected to that tradition or that only “became” part of the American polity later on.

I could not disagree more. I would even go so far as to say that an American national history that does not see the depth and breadth of Native America across its historical landscape, that does not see slavery lying at the bedrock of the American experience, that overlooks the centuries-long significance of Mexican-American heritage cannot appreciate the great democratic ambitions the United States has articulated, defended, and pursued for almost two and a half centuries.

Go back to 1757. As the musical Hamilton asks, How did “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” from a “forgotten spot in the Caribbean, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
Hamilton’s story is an early American story about the economy of Caribbean sugar and slavery and about the nexus of indigenous, African, English, French, Spanish, and other people across the huge expanse of early America from which he emerged. Yes, he was well read in political philos-ophy, and he went on to wield his skills to remarkable effect. And a well-developed, and still growing, political history of Anglo America will always be an essential part of American history. But it is only a part.

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.

“Vast Early America,” HumanitiesWinter 2019, Volume 40, Number 1

In March I had the fun and the great privilege of chairing a session on Vast Early America at the Organization of American Historians meeting, with a fantastic panel of Christian Crouch, Ronald Johnson, and Michael Witgen. The audience was large, and ready to talk. I wrote about the session for the Omohundro Institute’s blog, “Must Early American be Vast?” I’ve included in that post some links to other work referencing “Vast Early America.” And, continuing the theme of how and why Vast Early America is not only resonant but really vital, I wrote about the conversations at the session on national history.

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.

“Must Early America be Vast?” Common Sense Blog, May 2, 2019

Last year I wrote about teaching a graduate seminar on Vast Early America, and I’m scheduled to teach that seminar again in the coming year. That, and much more in the coming year, will surely provide more opportunities to speak and write about the what and why of Vast Early America. Stay tuned.

Frayed Fourth: A Roundup for 2019

It’s a bit of a gray day here in the mid-Atlantic, probably not the best weather for fireworks. July 4th writing, though, is no respecter of weather, flourishing regardless. Or maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe in fact July 4th writing is flourishing because of the storms.

Writing about July 4th writing is an annual opportunity to meditate on national meaning and memory, a task that I first I thought was being made harder by what has felt like an intensity of recent writing (not to say that the previous 240+ years were not intense) about the essence of American ideals and practice. What could be said for the 4th that hasn’t been said in op-eds and elsewhere, at a pretty constant pace? So I briefly started to survey the Washington Post for the weeks before July 4th in the last several decades to see if the volume of writing about constitutional issues has actually been increasing. But I gave that up. For me, in this case the specific historical accounting doesn’t matter. Whatever we think has gone before, there was never a time to be a citizen on the sidelines. Many may feel that there is a newly urgent need to act on behalf of American ideals, but as a historian I should know better; this urgency is real, but it is not new.

Fragment of the Star-Spangled Banner, 1813. Library Company of Philadelphia. I wrote about the history of the flag’s preservation on the blog in “A Star Spangled Metaphor” http://karinwulf.com/star-spangled-metaphor/

So let’s take a look at what’s out there for July 4th.

The big national papers are reliable publishers of July 4th writing, and often from historians. The Washington Post editorial staff has a piece up about George Washington as an inspiring leader, but they’ve also published a longer piece from Rick Atkinson, adapted from his new book The British are Coming about the fate of empires (and republics?) that’s worth a close reading. The New York Times editorial board seems less sanguine that the Post; their July 4th “taking stock” focuses on the cruel crisis of the southern border, but also notes some of the humane responses to it, concluding that “versions of … American contradictions have persisted for a very long time, but they seem particularly acute on this national birthday. The question to Americans, as ever, is whether they can summon the spirit to address them.” The Times also published an op-ed from T.H. Breen on the lessons of the revolution; noting that Washington warned against the rise of “political Mountebanks” — demagogues who “miss no opportunity to aim a blow at the Constitution” and “paint highly on one side without bringing into view the arguments which are offered on the other.” Jason Opal writes for the Los Angeles Times about the American Revolution as “a genuine revolution — a period of dramatic and unplanned changes” as such, not really useful for banal prescriptions of national unity. Opal begins with a reference to Richard Nixon’s “Honor America Day” on July 4, 1970 which…did not go well. Opal’s is a nice complement to Kevin Kruse’s 2017 piece for the Washington Post on why partisan claims to the meaning and commemoration of the 4th usually go sideways.

A great genre of July 4th writing is local op-eds. I haven’t found too many this year, alas. I usually check in with the papers in places where I have family: Charlottesville and Williamsburg in Virginia; Annapolis and Baltimore in Maryland; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Seattle, Washington; various cities and towns in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. (I also either subscribe to those papers or get their e-newsletters or both; if you’re a fan of the First Amendment and of the essential role of a free press, I encourage you to do the same.) I’m less interested in the syndicated pieces, so only highlight the articles by their local reporters.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published a list of “books to ..get you into the Fourth of July Spirit.” Interesting that it includes a lot of primary materials, including the Library of America edition of Benjamin Franklin’s writings, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and a book about Billie Holiday. The Charlottesville, Virginia Daily Progress has a piece about the 1919 July 4th celebrations and parade honoring black World War I veterans. A World War II veteran remembers what he values in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. The Baltimore Sun went with a local story from 1776, “Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Only Catholic Signer of the Declaration.” In the Saturday Evening Post, not quite a local publication,Ben Railton looks at Jefferson and Adams on their mutual death day (yes, they both died on July 4, 1826), encouraging Americans to see these founders with “flaws and all.”

One of my favorite local July 4th stories this year comes from the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. This story tells of a missing copy of the July 11, 1776 edition of the Maryland Gazette (a progenitor of the modern paper) which had printed the Declaration of Independence in full. Inexplicably cut out of the bound copy in the Maryland Archives, it was found in the Enoch Pratt Library, returned to the Archives and restitched into the volume! Library nerds will enjoy the details about page numbering.

Presenting the Declaration of Independence is always a straightforward way to honor the holiday. The Daily Progress posted the text under the headline “Independence, Declared and Remembered” with a byline to “Committee of the Continental Congress First Draft by Thomas Jefferson.” NPR has posted their annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. Some may remember that last year when NPR tweeted the text line by line, some people were confused, couldn’t identify it as the DOI, and thought NPR was advocating revolution. It’s probably a good idea to keep reiterating and teaching that text, don’t you think?

Among canonical texts for July 4th, few compete with the Declaration of Independence. But the words of the great nineteenth-century abolitionist, activist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass come close. The National Museum of African American History and Culture website offers some context for Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” A writer in the Post Gazette reflected on Psalm 137, at the center of Douglass’s speech. Another piece of helpful context is historian Martha Jones’s piece in 2017, recounting the words of Baltimorean William Watkins who, two decades before Douglass, “penned his own bitter reflections on the “Anniversary of American Independence.”

Just as a lot of editorials are raising the question of how the holiday is politicized in recent years, some long form pieces are looking at the history of politics and the 4th. In The Atlantic David Waldstreicher notes that “the Fourth of July has Always Been Political.” He writes about celebrations in the early republic, a subject of his first book, arguing that “just as they blamed the British and their Native and African allies while drawing on British traditions, they used the Fourth of July to praise and criticize their governments and one another, in the process struggling over who, and what, was truly American.” Also in The Atlantic Ibram Kendi bookends an essay on the relationship of power and freedom with John Adams. Writing to his wife in the spring of 1776, Adams was bemused to be that “ told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where.” Kendi’s point is that struggle for power, a struggle between those who have it, and those who do not, is an essential aspect of the revolutionary legacy. Each of these historians raise questions about how the revolution is taught, which is the subject of an essay in Politico about whether “Americans are Falling out of Love with their Landmarks.” Looking at falling visitor rates (falling from the 1980s, it’s important to note) at places like Colonial Williamsburg, the authors end with some questions about whether we need a richer, fuller more diverse American story. Why, yes. YES WE DO.

Museums around Washington DC and elsewhere have scheduled special events and exhibits for the holiday. The National Archives hosts an outdoor reading ceremony this morning, and then is open from noon to 4. Their website also lists activities at various presidential libraries (because those libraries are managed by the National Archives and Records Adminstration, though famously the Obama Library will not be, not really a digression because our records are a critical aspect of our ability to know what we commemorate on July 4th and a new model of access to those records is important). The Smithsonian National Museum of American History points to its aging but still excellent online exhibit about the Star Spangled banner and current exhibition information. The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia hosts a new exhibit of rare 13 star flags. The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, is, for the first time, open for July 4th.

Libraries and archives are observing the holiday with blogs and exhibits, too. The Library of Congress website is highlighting images from the microfilmed versions Jefferson’s drafts of the Declaration of Independence. The Massachusetts Historical Society has a post up about Abigail Adams’s writings, “We Should Have Learned Women,” part of their exhibit on “Abigail Adams: Independence and Ideals.” The American Antiquarian Society has posted an illustrated inventory of her letters in their collections.

I can’t end without mentioning a terrific episode of Ben Franklin’s World on “Celebrating the Fourth.” Make sure you don’t miss the bonus audio about Liberty Poles! And Emily Sneff’s blog post to accompany the podcast on noisy celebrations. For dogs and others with sensitivities, the sounds of independence can be overwhelming, but we learn here about the bells, cannons, music and other audio that has marked July 4th. Every year Liz Covart and the team at the Omohundro Institute work extra hard on these July 4th episodes, and I think it shows.

As I read so much July 4th writing, I came back, as I often do, to thinking about not only the texts of independence, but the material and visual record of commemoration and reflection. I’m taken with the stories of the Star-Spangled banner, in part because of the long history of pieces cut and pulled and passed around, making private relics of what we consider collectively owned. I also read again about Faith Ringgold’s long engagement with the flag, in the People’s Flag Show of July 4th 1970 (as Nixon was hosting his “Honor America Day” at the Lincoln Memorial) and in subsequent work. But of all these, I find her “Flag Story Quilt” most apt today. It’s evocative, gorgeous, painful.

I’m sure I’ve missed lots of good reflection, and I’ll keep adding to this throughout the week. My previous posts on July 4th are here, here, and here.  Wishing you and yours the July 4th you need, be it noisy or quiet.


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