Perspectives on American History
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Perspectives on American HistoryAuthor(s): Jack P. GreeneSource: Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 91, No. 2 (June 1995), pp. 179-188Published by: Trustees of Indiana UniversityStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27791831 .Accessed: 25/06/2014 07:52
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Perspectives on American History
Jack P. Greene*
Should the West Indies be included in courses on early Ameri can and United States history? These are the two separate, if relat
ed, questions posed by Alison Games's plea for a reorientation in the teaching of these courses. Similar kinds of questions have been
paramount in a larger and increasingly intense debate within the American historical establishment over what ought to constitute
"American"; that is (following our traditional and parochial defini tion of that term), pre-United States and United States history. This debate has arisen out of two sources. First is the worldwide movement among professional historians over the past generation toward a broader approach to the past, an approach that considers both genders, all ages, all social and ethnic groups, all regions, and all forms of human experience. Second is the related and increas
ingly powerful emphasis upon the cultural diversity of the popula tions and regions of the United States. Among historians of the United States, these two developments have together generated a
widespread conviction that Americans need a more inclusive national history that takes such diversity into account. What is
principally at issue at the moment is what form this history should take.
The position that seems to be emerging as the dominant one is that American history ought to be the history of all the peoples who have occupied the geographical area that became the United States. These include not just the Europeans and their descendants who settled the thirteen English colonies on the eastern seaboard, but also the many native groups of Amerindians on the North American continent and Hawaiians in Hawaii who had long occu
pied their areas before the Europeans arrived. Such an approach also includes the large numbers of Africans and their descendants, the vast majority of whom before 1865 worked as legally voiceless
slaves; as well as other Europeans and their descendants?the
Spanish in Florida, New Mexico, Texas, and California; the French in the St. Lawrence and Mississippi river valleys; the Dutch and Swedes in the Hudson and Delaware river valleys, and the Rus
* Jack P. Greene is professor of humanities, The Johns Hopkins University, Bal
INDIANA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY, XC (June, 1995). ? 1995, Trustees of Indiana University.
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180 Indiana Magazine of History
sians on the west coast?who initially occupied or settled areas that
eventually would be incorporated into the English seaboard colonies or the United States; and the vast numbers of Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans who have immigrated to the United States during the last two centuries.
There is much to be said on behalf of this national state per spective. In particular, in contrast to older approaches, it focuses attention upon not just the English but the British, European, African, Amerindian, and Asian roots of American culture. The broader perspective requires historians at last to try to analyze sys
tematically the complex process by which American culture became the product of an intricate and still continuing process of negotia tion among groups from related European cultures and from radi
cally different non-western cultures. For those historians who are
mainly interested in the question of how we have gotten to where we are, and who are principally concerned with understanding the national experience or with creating a national past, this perspec tive may be sufficient. For those historians who resist the concep tion of history as the history of national states and cultures or who
regard themselves as students of other entities, however, the national state perspective appears to be limiting, anachronistic, and only slightly less parochial than the history it is replacing.
Historians of Amerindians provide one important example. The
history of aboriginal America, America before the intensive pene tration of Europeans and Africans, simply cannot be contained within contemporary national boundaries. Like medieval and early modern Europe and Africa in the same period, aboriginal America consisted of a large number and an enormously complex array of
shifting political and cultural entities that, in contrast to Europe and Africa, were spread over not one but two huge continents and
many adjacent islands. Each of these entities occupied a particular area with cultural orientations and forms of economic, social, and
political organizations that were, at least to some extent, peculiar to it.
The histories of those who always lived entirely within the boundaries of a single contemporary national state presumably can be told within the parameters of the national history of that state, but the histories of those many groups who were so inconsiderate of later geopolitical developments as to occupy areas on both sides of a
subsequent boundary between states cannot. Though the histories of such groups are indivisible, the national state perspective can, if it remains true to the logic that underlies it, exclude from the histo
ry of a state any segments of those groups that remained in or fled to areas that never became part ofthat state.
If such artificial and anachronistic divisions of the histories of
particular Amerindian groups make no sense from the perspective
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Perspectives on American History 181
of Amerindian historians, the focus, characteristic of the national state perspective, on only those Amerindians who lived within the boundaries of those states greatly inhibits understanding of the richness and diversity of Amerindian cultures. To mention only one
of the most striking examples, many different types of Amerindian societies existed within the area that became the United States, from relatively sedentary agricultural or marine societies to nomadic hunting and gathering societies with various forms and levels of political organization appropriate to the ways they sus
tained themselves. But there were no complex and sophisticated imperial states of the sort that existed in central Mexico and the
Andes. Obviously, a comprehension of the full variety and range of the history of aboriginal America requires its practitioners to
ignore modern national boundaries and to look comparatively at societies throughout the Americas.
Historians writing from a national perspective may use the work of Amerindian historians to encourage an appreciation of those societies that have resided in the area of the United States and to provide the descendants of those Amerindian groups who survived their encounters with Europeans a sense of their place in and continuing relevance to the national experience of the country. These are laudable goals in themselves that enable historians to rewrite the history of the country from the point of view of the con
quered as well as the conquerors, to conceive of it not only in the traditional sense of how the West was won but also (in the catchy course title used by Amy Turner Bushneil for her course in Amerindian history) of how the East was lost. Quite apart from its
relationship to the history of the United States, however, Amerindi an history has an integrity?and a perspective?of its own, one that demands consideration of Amerindian groups in relation to each other as well as to the European and African invaders who began to intrude upon their world in the late fifteenth century. Amerindian
history can best be written from not a national but a continental or,
preferably, hemispheric perspective.
Similar kinds of observations can be made about the pre national state histories of the activities of European settlers and their descendants in the Americas. During the three-and-a-half centuries following Columbus's initial encounter with America in
1492, several emerging European national states, principally Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and France, managed to establish, initially almost always through the activities of indi vidual nationals with little state investment, their political and cul tural hegemony over almost the whole of the Americas. Even in the
many places where Europeans and their descendants never pre dominated numerically, this hegemony was always, in important but varying degrees, manifest in the reconfiguration of American
182 Indiana Magazine of History
social landscapes along European lines and the emergence of Euro
pean-style polities replete with European legal systems and institu tions.
Both separately and as a whole the histories of the several
European Americas can be, like the history of aboriginal America, thoroughly understood only in terms of contemporary frames of ref erence and comparison. In the case of colonial English or (after the union of Scotland and England in 1707) British America, the con
temporary frame of reference included more than the thirteen colonies that the English established along the North American coast and that subsequently formed the United States. By the
1760s, on the eve of the American Revolution, colonial British America was a vast entity that stretched from Barbados in the east ern Caribbean to Hudson Bay in the north, from the western Atlantic colony of Bermuda in the east to the eastern bank of the
Mississippi river in the west. At the time of the Declaration of Inde
pendence in 1776, colonial British America consisted of thirty-one colonies: the thirteen revolting colonies; eleven colonies in the West Indies (Barbados, Antigua, St. Christopher, Montserrat, Nevis, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Tobago, St. Vincent, Grenada, and
Dominica); two Atlantic island colonies (Bermuda and the
Bahamas); two colonies on the southeastern coast of North America (East and West Florida); and three colonies to the North of New
England (Nova Scotia, Canada, and St. John, now Prince Edward Island). In addition colonial British America included several long established social entities that were in the process of becoming colonies: permanent fishing settlements in Newfoundland; fur
trading posts in Hudson Bay and in the Great Lakes and Ohio and
Mississippi river basins; and log-cutting settlements in Belize on the coast of Central America. In turn British America was part of an even larger British imperial world that included not just the home kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Wales but the kingdom colony of Ireland, slave trading factories on the West African coast, and spice-trading enclaves in India.
Historians have found it convenient to construct the history of colonial British America in terms of several distinctive regions, each composed of two or more colonies and defined by the nature of the ecological zones they occupied, the kinds of socioeconomic activ ities the inhabitants developed to sustain themselves, and the sociocultural landscapes and demographic regimes they established in pursuit of those activities. Each of these regions?the Chesa
peake, New England, the West Indies, the Middle Colonies, the Lower South, and the Atlantic island colonies?was peculiar. Each
region drew large numbers of immigrants from Britain, but only in New England did English people constitute an overwhelming majority of the population. People of African descent, present in sig nificant numbers throughout colonial British America, were a
Perspectives on American History 183
majority in the Atlantic islands and a vast majority in the West Indies and the coastal areas of the Lower South. Staple agriculture and slave labor were prominent in the economies of most of the colonies from the Chesapeake southward, while mixed farming with family labor predominated in those of the Middle colonies and New England.
Notwithstanding these important differences, all of the regions formed part of the large cultural complex that we now call colonial British America. Each colony in this complex was constitutionally connected to Great Britain, and inhabitants of all the colonies were
subjects of the British crown. In form and substance the political institutions of each colony were British, and the vast majority of the free governing population?members of families who were not slaves and whose male members were entitled to participate in
political life and enjoyed the benefit of existing laws?was British, with strong claims to a British identity as people who lived in liber
ty under a parliamentary government of laws to which the free inhabitants had given their consent. Proud to be the heirs of British
political traditions, they debated public issues in terms of British
political ideologies, made and enforced laws in a British style, and lived under a legal system that, whatever peculiarities had devel
oped in response to local conditions, was distinctively British. Like Britons in the home islands, they were overwhelmingly Protestant in religion.
Reinforcing these powerful political and cultural ties were
equally strong economic links. Most colonies looked to Britain as a
major market?often the only overseas market?for their products and as the principal source for the goods and skills they needed to
build societies in the New World. Within this expanded British
world, trade goods, information, correspondence, and people flowed
freely and extensively back and forth across the Atlantic and
through the intercolonial trading and communications networks that increasingly bound the colonies to each other as well as to Britain.
Of the many parts of the vast cultural complex of colonial British America, the British political and commercial establish ment most valued the plantation colonies in the Chesapeake, the Lower South, and, most especially, the West Indies. Both because of their proximity to Spain's wealthy American empire and because the Caribbean was the scene of the most intense economic and naval competition among the British, French, and Spanish throughout the colonial era, British officials regarded the West Indian colonies as the most strategically significant of the Ameri can colonies. Equally important, in terms of their economic worth to
Britain, the West Indian colonies also enjoyed pride of place. Bar
bados, earliest of the sugar colonies, and Jamaica, largest of the British sugar colonies, were the most valued colonies in the eigh
184 Indiana Magazine of History
teenth century. For the North American colonies, these and other West Indian colonies were the source of sugar and molasses for a
growing distilling industry and a substantial market for fish, ani
mals, cereal, lumber, and some manufactured products. A vigorous
exchange in such products, in slaves, in the free population, and in
information closely linked the continental colonies and the West Indies.
Colonial Spanish America was even more extensive and cultur
ally far richer and more complex than colonial British America. Its
principal centers were in New Spain (now Mexico) and Peru, each of which had long been a viceroyalty with several territorial audien cias under its jurisdiction. Other less important areas were orga nized into captaincy generals. Within these various political entities, Spaniards and their creole (American-born) descendants used Indian or imported African labor in mining, ranching, and
agricultural activities that supported elaborate societies and yield ed extensive riches that were sent to Spain. In one form or another, colonial Spanish America reached from the eastern Caribbean to the Pacific and from the southernmost point of South America north to Florida and New Mexico in the sixteenth century and to
Upper California in the late eighteenth century. Other European powers also presided over similar, if less
extensive, cultural complexes. Colonial French America included the rich sugar colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St.
Domingue and, before 1763, the continental colonies of Acadia, Canada, Illinois, and Louisiana. Colonial Portuguese America was
confined to South America but consisted of several large donatary captaincies or colonies in Brazil. During the seventeenth century, colonial Dutch America was composed of colonies in Brazil, Suri
nam, New Netherlands, and several West Indian islands. By the
mid-eighteenth century, however, it was confined to a few Caribbean settlements, Surinam on the mainland and Cura?ao and several smaller islands.
These several colonial European Americas were in no sense
self-contained worlds. Among adjacent island colonies and along international borders between continental colonies, economic inter action was constant and commercial and religious rivalry common. At these points of interaction?between, for instance, Spanish Florida and British Carolina and Georgia, French Canada and British New England and New York, or Spanish New Granada and
English Jamaica?neighboring political entities directly interacted with one another. Their exchanges revolved around competition for Amerindian goods, souls, and allegiance; struggles over territory; disputes over runaway slaves; and clandestine trading. In these
interactions, the histories of these several colonial European Amer icas came together to form part of a larger story of conflict and com
petition over America.
Perspectives on American History 185
At the same time, however, the histories of such colonies must be understood principally in terms of their relationship not to adja cent colonies belonging to another European America but to the
specific European America of which they formed a part and to which they were, in the deepest cultural sense, intimately tied. To be fully comprehended within its contemporary context the history of any segment of these European Americas thus must be placed within a framework provided by the full range of experiences with in the national cultural complex to which it belonged.
A history of any one of these European Americas that does not include the histories of each of its many component parts is incom
plete. For that reason, a full appreciation of the history of colonial British America cannot fail to include histories of the West Indian colonies. They represent an important part of that history, and not
only because London authorities thought of them as the strategical ly and economically most significant part of the British colonial
world but also, and most importantly, because their experiences were an integral part of the history of that world and represented a
major variation within it. This broad pan-British perspective on colonial British America
is scarcely a new one. During the first half of the century, Charles M. Andrews and Leonard W. Labaree emphasized the unities between those British colonies in America that became part of the United States and those that did not. They wrote about colonial
political and constitutional developments as if the histories of the West Indian and continental colonies in those areas were inter
changeable?as they were.1 In the early 1940s, Max Savelle pub lished an excellent textbook, The Foundations of American Civilization: A History of Colonial America (New York, 1942) that devoted as many chapters?three?to the West Indies as it did to
Virginia.2 During the last decade, general works on the colonial
economy by John J. McCusker and Russell Menard and on colonial constitutional and social development3 have given major attention to the West Indies.
Yet the broader perspective represented by such works and now
advocated by Professor Games has never been the predominant one. Parallel to these works has been a vastly larger corpus of liter
1 See, for instance, Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Background of the Amer ican Revolution (New Haven, Conn., 1924), and Leonard Woods Labaree, Royal Gov ernment in America (New Haven, Conn., 1930).
2 Subsequent revisers of Savelle's text, Robert Middlekauf in 1964 and Darold
D. Wax in 1973, continued Savelle's emphasis. 3 John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America,
1607-1789 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985); Jack P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Con stitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the Unit ed States, 1607-1788 (Athens, Ga., 1986); Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social
Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Cul ture (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988).
186 Indiana Magazine of History
ature, the focus of which was evident in the titles. Thus, in 1922 Evarts B. Greene entitled his colonial history text The Foundations
of American Nationality, and in 1938 Curtis P. Nettels called his The Roots of American Civilization. A perusal of these texts quickly told the reader that the term American did not include West Indi
ans, Bermudians, or Nova Scotians. Indeed, no author of any of the
many "colonial" history texts published since World War II has fol lowed Savelle's example and given more than passing attention to the West Indies.4 When in the early 1980s J. R. Pole and I endeav ored to persuade the other fourteen contributors to Colonial British
America to include the West Indies in their discussions of the prob lems we had assigned them, only two, Richard B. Sheridan and
Richard S. Dunn, devoted significant space to the West Indian
colonies, and only about a third made any mention of them at all.5 A more recent collection included an essay on the West Indies as
part of the "Cultural Margins of the First British Empire."6 Among most historians of the subject, colonial British America
has thus remained largely the history of the minority of British colonies that revolted in 1776. Colonial history is nothing more than the pre-history of the United States. Within this prevailing conception, the history of the West Indies and of other non-revolt
ing colonies is at best peripheral. By taking such an approach, his torians are differentiating between separate parts of the same
history merely because those parts did not wind up?or so far have not wound up?as part of the same national state. In doing so they condemn themselves to produce a history of colonial British Ameri ca that is at once partial, parochial, and anachronistic.
Current efforts to make United States history more inclusive and multicultural by employing an expanded conception of the colo nial past that takes in not only the thirteen British colonies but also the Spanish and French colonies in areas that later became the United States7 enable historians to bring in Spanish Florida, New
Mexico, and California and French Illinois and Louisiana without
challenging the principal traditional criteria for inclusion: whether or not an area eventually became part of the United States. This
4 To cite only four examples from a whole shelf of such texts in my library, Clarence Ver Steeg, The Formative Years, 1607-1763 (New York, 1964); David
Hawke, The Colonial Experience (Indianapolis, 1966); R. C. Simmons, The American Colonies: From Settlement to Independence (New York, 1976); and Richard Middle
ton, Colonial America: A History, 1607-1760 (Cambridge, Mass., 1992). 5 Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., Colonial British America: Essays in the
New History of the Early Modern Era (Baltimore, 1984). Of course, Dunn and Sheri dan have written large books on aspects of the West Indian colonial history.
6 Italics added. Michael Craton, "Reluctant Creoles: The Planters' World in the British West Indies," in Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Strangers with in the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991), 314-62.
7 See James A. Hijiya, "Why the West Is Lost," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., LI (April, 1994), 276-92.
Perspectives on American History 187
approach promises to produce a colonial history that may be less
parochial but is certainly no less anachronistic than one that focused exclusively on the history of the thirteen revolting British colonies.
This new colonial history violently wrenches the histories of these non-British colonies out of their contemporary contexts as
parts of colonial Spanish or French America and shoehorns them into an uneasy association with colonies with which during the colonial era they either (as was the case with Florida, Louisiana, and Illinois) had small common heritage and a mostly antagonistic relationship or (as in the case of New Mexico, Texas, and Califor
nia) had no relationship at all. The cultural, economic, and admin istrative ties of Spanish New Mexico, Texas, and California ran not east to the British colonies but south to New Spain. Those of Span ish Florida ran not north to the British colonies but east to Spain, south to Spanish Caribbean settlements, and southwest to New
Spain. Those of Illinois ran northeast to French Canada or south to
Louisiana, and those of Louisiana ran north to Illinois or east
through the French Caribbean colonies to France. A serious history of these outposts of Spanish and French colonies cannot stop at the future borders of the United States but has to treat them for what
they were during most of their colonial eras: extensions or periph eries of the much larger Spanish and French American worlds that constituted their contemporary frame of reference and to which
they belonged. This is a major enterprise that can best be approached as an
exercise not in national state history but in comparative colonial
history. My own advocacy of such a history goes back a long way: to
my study of colonial Latin American and Brazilian history as a
graduate student, my teaching of comparative colonial history at Western Reserve University in the early 1960s, and my unsuccess
ful efforts, in collaboration with my colleague Charles Gibson, to form an institute for the comparative study of the colonial histories of the Americas in association with the William L. Clements
Library at the University of Michigan in the mid-1960s. My grow
ing conviction that such a history could only be written from a
broad transatlantic perspective that comprehended European and African as well as American developments informed the Atlantic
History and Culture Program that my colleagues and I created at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1970s. For more than a
quarter century, this program has encouraged graduate students to take a broad comparative Atlantic approach to the histories not just of early modern American colonies but of societies and polities throughout the Atlantic world from the fifteenth century to the
present. But this approach is not typical of graduate programs in early,
much less in later, American history, and, for that reason alone, I
188 Indiana Magazine of History
am skeptical that Professor Games will get very far with her pro
posal to substitute a course with a broad Atlantic focus for the pre sent United States survey with its national state perspective. Before that proposal could succeed, historians who teach that sur
vey would have to undergo a massive conversion involving a funda mental reconception of the history American students ought to be
taught. Still imprisoned within a national state conception of the
past, multiculturalists are unlikely to stimulate such a sweeping change.
With regard to the sort of reorientation of colonial history courses Professor Games advocates, I am somewhat more sanguine.
As more historians of early modern British, Spanish, French, Por
tuguese, and Dutch America come to understand that the integrity of their subjects requires them to move beyond a conception of colo nial history as nothing more than a prelude to national history, more colonial history courses may come to resemble those taught by Professor Games and her mentor, Richard Dunn, and by some of my former students and me. Additionally, the William and Mary Quar terly, the principal journal for colonial history in the United States,
may rise farther above the national state and parochial implica tions of its subtitle as "A Magazine of Early American History and
Culture"; textbooks for colonial history courses may become more
inclusive; and more comparative colonial or even early modern Atlantic history courses may appear in college and university cata
logues. Only if and when these developments take place will the West Indian colonies once again hold the central place they occu
pied throughout the long history of colonial British America during the early modern era.
Article Contentsp. p. 180p. 181p. 182p. 183p. 184p. 185p. 186p. 187p. 188
Issue Table of ContentsIndiana Magazine of History, Vol. 91, No. 2 (June 1995), pp. 153-243Front MatterCaroline Dunn: Memorial TributeEditor's Note [pp. 153-153]Caroline Dunn: An Appreciation [pp. 154-157]Caroline Dunn: A Youthful Memory [pp. 158-158]
History without Borders: Teaching American History in an Atlantic Context [pp. 159-178]Perspectives on American History [pp. 179-188]The Origin of the Word "Hoosier": A New Interpretation [pp. 189-196]"Please Send Stamps": The Civil War Letters of William Allen Clark Part II [pp. 197-225]Book ReviewsReview: untitled [pp. 226-228]Review: untitled [pp. 228-229]Review: untitled [pp. 230-231]Review: untitled [pp. 231-233]Review: untitled [pp. 233-234]Review: untitled [pp. 234-235]Review: untitled [pp. 235-236]Review: untitled [pp. 236-238]Review: untitled [pp. 238-238]Review: untitled [pp. 239-240]Review: untitled [pp. 240-241]Review: untitled [pp. 241-242]
Review Notices [pp. 243-243]Back Matter