Tuesday, December 10, 2013

18th-Century Colonial History in the American Survey

I was recently talking with a colleague about how the second half of the United States survey course grows larger every year.  Where do you stop?  I know some teachers of this course who are lucky to make it into the 1990s.  There are two ways of dealing with this issue.  First, divide the U.S. survey into three courses.  Second, adopt an "uncoverage" approach to the material.

Many who teach the second half of the survey are envious of those of us who teach the first half.  But we are faced with struggles of our own.  For example, what do we do with "colonial America?"  If we want to be true to the most recent developments in the historiography of colonial America then we should be spending considerable time on New Spain, New France, the Caribbean etc... in addition to the 13 British colonies.  This, of course, makes it more difficult for students to grasp the American Revolution and, as Ken Owen argues in a recent post at The Junto, it often means that we spend very little time on 18th-century colonial America.

Like Owen, I divide the first half of the U.S. survey into three units--colonial America (to 1763), the American Revolution (1763-1815), and the early republic/Civil War (1815-1865).  In the colonial section I spend most of my time on the seventeenth century, but I am still trying to figure out to how to do something more substantial with New France and New Spain.  There is not enough time.  

I spend three classes on 18th-century colonial America.  I do a lecture on the American Enlightenment, a discussion of Franklin's Autobiography, and a lecture called "From Colonial Provincials" that is driven largely by the Anglicization thesis.  I used to do an entire lecture on the First Great Awakening, but now I fold that into the "From Colonials to Provincials" lecture.  This lecture is a sort of a catch-all that includes some discussion of consumerism, mercantilism, Protestantism, and the French and Indian War.

Here is a taste of Owen's piece:

...A similar story unfolds in many textbooks that are explicitly geared to survey students. I looked through four different recent editions of college textbooks, and they all broadly dealt with the 18th century in the same way. The 18th century was dealt with in one or two chapters that largely dealt with social or cultural history, and there was almost a sense that little political change took place at all in those years. Where a political narrative was mentioned, it emphasized a story of imperial war, and normally as a prelude to the Seven Years’ War.

All of this is broadly reflective of my own approach to the survey (though it won’t surprise regular readers of the blog that I do spend particular time talking about the development of colonial government in the 18th century). There does seem to be something lost from this approach though—that the cost of broadening the historical scope of the survey is that the first steps through American history introduce a dazzling array of characters without considering what systems held them together in sufficient detail.

This is a post designed to raise questions more than to provide answers. After all, I don’t want my students to be ignorant of the violence colonists directed against Native Americans, nor the horrors of the slave system, nor the ways in which European and imperial politics shaped the decisions taken by the North American colonies. I certainly don’t want to essentialize the colonial experience to the 13 colonies that later declared independence from Great Britain. This is not a call for a return to a triumphalist or celebratory history.

How do you handle the 18th century colonial experience (pre-Revolution) in your U.S. survey course?