Welcome to 2017, where the past is always urgent. There are times when the present and future seem like all we can handle, but to paraphrase Santayana repeating the past is not the real danger of neglecting history. It is that our understanding or misunderstanding of history is always, explicitly or implicitly, even when it’s out of our direct line of sight, shaping the present and future.
Last year many of us wrote about the significance of “Vast Early America,” a phrase that invokes the capacious and expansive field we study. “Vast Early America” embraces wide and deep histories and, as Josh Piker reminded us, the field has been “getting lost” for a long time. But it’s also true, as many of the scholars that Josh and I cited in those first “Vast Early America” blog posts have evidenced, that a lot of early American scholarship remains tethered to the east coast of North America and a British Atlantic orientation. Claudio Saunt’s extraordinary map in his 2008 William and Mary Quarterly article (“Go West: Mapping Early American Historiography”) revealed a profoundly distorted map of “early America.” If we mapped the population of historical actors in that scholarship, we would find many men and few women, many Europeans and many fewer Africans and Native Americans. We could also identify a pattern of scholars using primarily textual evidence, as opposed to quantitative, aural, oral, or visual sources.
Yet if we mapped the most recent and forthcoming publications of the OI, we would also see a marked trend toward a fuller North America, an expanding French and Iberian Atlantic, and newly energized methodologies. This broader vision matters. I was in the crowds for the opening of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in September to hear President George W. Bush, who signed the original legislation authorizing the museum, noting that “a great nation does not hide its history.” The corollary is that revealing, interpreting, learning about and from that history is vital work.
The Omohundro Institute has an important history of its own. I am not suggesting that we replace the study of early America with a study of ourselves, but rather that we do better at the former by being attentive to the latter. I am proud of what we have achieved but also the ambitious goals we have set as the Board, Council, staff and I have been actively engaged in thinking about the fullest implications of “Vast Early America.” In the coming year you will see more outcomes of this work.