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Re-envisioning the Origins of the United States


 

Associate Professor of History John Smolenski wants to do away with the idea of American exceptionalism. For Smolenski, the birth of the United States should not be envisioned as the first chapter in an epic tale ending with the U.S. rising as the world’s supreme power. Indeed, its beginnings were far too humble for that kind of framing to make sense.

In a May 22nd talk, Smolenski outlined new research that aims to re-conceptualize the history of the early United States in the eighteenth century. This research serves as the foundation of his two forthcoming books, Rethinking Creolization: Culture and Power in the Atlantic World and The Specter of Peace in Histories of Violence, which investigate how peace and violence interacted to create american culture.

Central to his arguments is the idea that the thirteen colonies must be understood not only in relation to what they eventually became in later centuries, but in relation to what they were at that time. In other words, how would our understanding of U.S. history change if we imagined the thirteen colonies as being insignificant compared to colonies in the Caribbean or Latin America?

Would we, for instance, view the American Revolution differently? If the global impact of the American Revolution paled in comparison to that of the French or Haitian Revolution, how should historians write about it?  How would we write about later events in U.S. history if we knew most people alive in 1776 thought of the American Revolution as a minor event?

Historian’s focus on the rise of the United States as a world power has led to gaps in our understanding of the past. Smolenski notes that this has, in part, been responsible for the secondary role that Indians play in the early history of the United States.

Whereas historians have generally viewed Indians as obstacles or subordinates to be crushed by an irrepressible wave of U.S. expansion, Smolenski sees things differently. He believes that we would learn more about the impact Indians had on the U.S. were we to study peaceful U.S.-Indian interactions rather than violent ones. Only then would we know the extent to which Indian culture influenced the development of an “American” identity in the United States.

Smolenski also suggests that we look at the creation of the American state and of an American identity as two separate and yet related processes. Up to this point, historians of the early United States have contended that the creation of an American identity arrived in the years directly leading up to independence, and that this identity was steeped in Anglo-European values.

But Smolenski contends that an American identity may not have resulted from Anglo influences, but through peaceful interactions between colonists and Indians. These moments of peace were never easily achieved, emerging through persistent negotiation and cultural/racial intermixture. For example, though Indians and English colonists often fought, they also formed communities where they managed to coexist and exchange cultural values.

Through an investigation of these moments, one can broaden the “chronological and thematic reach” of U.S. origin stories, and “puncture ideas of exceptionalism that have taken root.” In doing so, the history of the early U.S. becomes less of an introduction to an exceptional tale ending in global dominance, and more of a smaller-scale story intermingling with broader narratives concerning events occurring in French and Spanish America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

But of course, what we lose in grandiosity, we gain in regard to accuracy.

 

– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

 

 

 

 

 

This page was last updated: June 5, 2017

 

 

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