Tuesday, May 09, 2006

 

Nineteenth-century American history

Lately I've been working on planning the courses I'll be teaching in the fall. One of them -- a survey of United States history in the nineteenth century -- has been fun to think about because the periodization of the course is slightly different from the usual U. S. survey.

The bookends for a typical survey course tend to be the Revolution or the colonization of North America, on the one hand, and the Civil War or Reconstruction on the other. You start circa 1600 or circa 1776 and end in 1865 or 1877. That periodization, needless to say, helps select the kinds of themes that come to the fore: the entrenchment and eventual abolition of slavery, the simultaneous growth of nationalism and sectionalism, the transformation of the United States from an agrarian republic into a modern industrial nation, to name only a few. But what themes might come to the fore in a course that confines itself to the nineteenth century? What happens to a nineteenth-century course if you try to span the Civil War Era instead of stopping or beginning with it?

That's the question I've been puzzling over for the past several days, and asking it has been fruitful and fun. Mostly I've been thinking about what the "bookends" for the nineteenth century proper would be if we were to suspend the normal impulse to start with the Revolution and end with the Civil War. Then I've been thinking about how the major themes of a survey course might change if these unconventional bookends were substituted for the usual suspects. Here are the two most intriguing sets of bookends I've come up with:
With these bookends in mind, I've been sketching out a course that would focus on two related themes: (1) the expansion and growth of the American nation-state, and (2) struggles over the expansion and contraction of the national community.

These themes are, of course, intimately related to one another: expansion into the West provoked political debates about whether Native Americans could be assimilated into the nation, and the aggressive expansionism that underwrote the Mexican-American War set in motion the fateful debates about slavery and the political status of African Americans that would result in Civil War. Moreover, it was often the expansion of the territorial nation-state (frequently through military conflicts like the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War) that raised questions for white Americans about whether new populations of people (Mexicans, Filipinos, and Chinese, for instance) could or should be included in the nation. I've been thinking about books to assign that might spotlight the intersections between these two themes, and I've come up with at least four possibilities. (If I choose this particular quartet of books, they would also help bring out a third theme for the course: the relationship between politics and culture.)

Of course, there are major themes in nineteenth-century history not directly addressed by the two narrative foci that I'm thinking of. But many of them can be usefully folded into these larger themes. It's impossible to consider the continental expansion of the United States without considering industrialization and the cultural and political debates they unleashed about urbanization, immigration, and labor. (Consider, for example, the complex relationship between "Free Soil" ideology and "Free Labor" ideology in the antebellum period. And it's also worth noting that industrialization helped mark off the distance between Jeffersonian ideas about expansion and the imperialism of Mahan and Roosevelt at the end of the century: whereas Jefferson saw the Louisiana Purchase as a golden opportunity for the expansion of an agrarian republic, end-of-the-century expansionists had steel and steam-power on the brain.) At the same time, it's impossible to consider industrialization apart from debates about who would be included within the national community. (Consider, for example, the dense relationship between anti-labor views and nativist xenophobia, particularly in the wake of the Haymarket riots, or the roots of the democratizing Populist movement in the social and political dislocations caused by industrialization.)

So I think the major themes that would need to be covered in a nineteenth century course can be dealt with under the rubric of themes I'm describing. The interesting thing about pushing these themes forward is the way it would encourage students (and myself) to think about whether the Civil War was a full-stop caesura in the rhythms of nineteenth-century America. The War was, of course, the major event of the century; the course would not contest that. But it's also worth exploring the things that the War did not permanently change or only changed momentarily (like the political disempowerment of African Americans in the South), the processes that the War accelerated instead of arresting (like industrialization in the North), and the unintended consequences of the War's emancipatory effects (like the mantle of legitimacy it gave to late-nineteenth-century imperialists convinced that American civilization would be a blessing to the benighted world).

Choosing 1800 and 1900 as the rough endpoints for the course is, of course, somewhat arbitrary. Thinking in terms of centuries at all is arbitrary. (I could interpret "century" more loosely and make the course's subject the "long" nineteenth century, from the Revolution to World War I, but that would require my being able to change the 10-week fall quarter into the "long" fall quarter.) But I don't mind students seeing that the periodization of history is open to question, that all historical narratives have to start and stop somewhere even though the processes they narrate spill over the boundaries of the story. (This is a point I've tried to stress before in this first-day exercise.) Ideally, the course could encourage a conversation about whether my "endpoints" are the right ones for the stories we'll be discussing, about what subjects get left out of a narrative organized in this way, and about whether the nineteenth century coheres as a historical period or instead should be carved up into smaller analytical chunks like the early national period, the antebellum period, the postbellum period, and the turn of the century.

Obviously, though, my thoughts about the course are still embryonic (particularly regarding the possible readings) and any feedback would be welcome.


Collective Improvisation:
Well, it probably doesn't cover enough turf to serve as a reading and I'm not sure it will be out in time, but you could assign:

This

If you felt like it. My personal opinion is that it's pretty good.

Posted by Anonymous David Silbey on 5/09/2006 07:48:00 PM : Permalink  

Great post, Caleb. It's a lucky bunch of students that will have you as their professor.

These bookends are fun to think about, aren't they? We all bring our own biases to these questions, of course: for me personally one of the crucial stories of the 19th century (all bound up in the themes you describe) is the story of the market revolution, industrialization, and business. So two more bookends might be Jeffersonian agrarianism at the one end of the century (or maybe Tench Coxe's Report on Manufactures) and the Great Merger Movement of American business at the other.

I'll be teaching the 20th Century US survey next year; any ideas for bookends or themes around that equally arbitrarily measurement of time also appreciated.

Posted by Anonymous Rob MacD on 5/09/2006 08:51:00 PM : Permalink  

David: Thanks for alerting me to your forthcoming book. It does look as though it will appear too late for this course, but I'll certainly look forward to reading it. I've been frustrated by the dearth of short, accessible introductions to the war.

Rob: Thanks for the encouragement and the kind words. I like your "business bookends" a lot and appreciate your reminding me of Tench Coxe. In the syllabus I have sketched out right now, I would spend a day on the market and transportation revolutions, which are (as you point out) bound up with the themes I've outlined. I would emphasize how new market relations both made possible and were made possible by new forms of mobility and movement westward. Talking about the market revolution leads me into spending a few days on the reorganization of work and family life, evangelical revivalism, and antebellum reform.

I like to use the Beecher family as a regular cast of characters to talk about these interlocking changes. Lyman Beecher is a crucial representative of the Second Great Awakening and early temperance reformer. Because of his interest in founding evangelical colleges in the west, the Beechers were part of the great migration of New Englanders to Ohio and the midwest. Catharine Beecher's writings on domestic housekeeping help students locate the origins of the cult of domesticity both in her father's evangelicalism and in the social dislocations of the market revolution. And then, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher take us into the antebellum debates over slavery and show how intersecting cultural forces like evangelicalism, domesticity, and free labor ideology could inspire a certain kind of antislavery impulse.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 5/10/2006 08:11:00 AM : Permalink  

I think Anders Stephanson's Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (strong on pre-20th C, weak on post-19th C, IMHO) might provide a good overviewy-type text for the kind of course you're envisioning (I've used it successfully in some Introduction to American Studies courses I've taught).

Another set of signposts if you want to go more transnational is to start with the Haitian Revolution (pairing Melville's "Benito Cereno"/Douglass's The Heroic Slave or using Delany's Blake; or the Huts of Americas--all via Eric Sundquist's readings in To Wake the Nations--is not a bad way to go) and its impact on both abolitionist and pro-slavery discourse and end with the Philippines side of the Spanish-American War (perhaps via Paul Kramer's work?)--which would allow you to link your two themes nicely. Perhaps excerpts from Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color and Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness could also help you in this respect.

Would love to see your syllabus when it's done! Care to post a draft later?

Posted by Blogger The Constructivist on 5/14/2006 02:41:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the recommendations, C. The Haitian Revolution looms large in the Rothman book I'm considering, and it will certainly loom large in my discussion of the Louisiana Purchase and its aftermath. I'll check out the Stephanson book too.

Paul's a friend and former teacher of mine. I'm considering using his piece on the Philippine exhibits at the St. Louis World's Fair, or maybe the piece on empire that appeared in the Journal of American History a few years ago. If you haven't seen it, Paul's new book is out, and it's sitting in my short stack of things to read.

Thanks for the feedback! I probably will post the syllabi when they are closer to be finished. Right now they just need to be "done" enough for me to submit orders to the bookstore.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 5/15/2006 08:23:00 AM : Permalink  

it's a small world, after all--I got to know Paul when he was a grad student in the building next door to mine!

here's an even tougher question for you than rethinking the 19th C with American undergraduates: how would you teach an Introduction to American Studies course for Japanese undergraduates? that's my summer project--I'm off to Kyushu U. in less than three months--once euphoria over turning in grades wears off I expect to have to get through the usual dread and panic before I come up with anything remotely do-able....

Posted by Blogger The Constructivist on 5/18/2006 01:48:00 PM : Permalink  

Caleb, Jon Kukla's A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the destiny of America (Knopf, 2003) makes many of the connections between transnational and national history I was alluding to earlier, although its organization and style make me doubt its teachability. I learned a lot from it but its place is probably in a reserve reading list rather than an assigned text. What do you think?

Posted by Blogger The Constructivist on 6/05/2006 10:41:00 AM : Permalink  

I haven't read Kukla's book yet; I picked it up to consider it for the course, but also concluded that its length would probably be prohibitive for a 10-week term. Perhaps I'll give it another look, though.

Thanks for the suggestions, and good luck in Japan! I'd love to hear about how it goes.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 6/06/2006 10:12:00 PM : Permalink  

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