By Eliga Gould and Rosemarie Zagarri
Eliga Gould and Rosemarie Zagarri convened the forum “Situating the United States in Vast Early America” in the April 2021 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.
When Martha Howard invited us to write a piece about our recent forum, “Situating the United States in Vast Early America,” saying yes was easy. Deciding where to begin was anything but. The obvious answer was the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in New York in January 2020 and a hallway conversation — back in the days when we had hallway conversations — between Lige and Josh Piker after a roundtable that Holly Brewer had organized for the National History Center with Lige, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Johann Neem, and Karin Wulf. The topic was American exceptionalism, the room was packed — another before times memory — and the discussion vigorous. Inevitably, the question of the relationship between the United States as a nation-state and the burgeoning scholarship that can loosely be collected under the heading of “Vast Early America” arose. Continuing the conversation in the Quarterly seemed like a natural next step.
Josh’s invitation for us to organize a Forum was also a chance to add a new chapter to a friendship that goes back decades, to a series of seminars on the history of British and American political thought led by John Pocock and held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Rosie had recently graduated from Yale, where she studied with Edmund S. Morgan, and was at that time a young assistant professor at West Virginia University. Lige was a grad student at Johns Hopkins, working with Pocock and Jack Greene. Although some of the seminar’s topics seem dated today, many involved questions that have lost none of their urgency: patriotism and national identity, settler colonialism and Indigenous rights, popular sovereignty and constitutional government, male and female citizenship, slavery and antislavery, exceptionalism and its discontents. The only thing that the seminar participants usually agreed on was the importance of whatever the weekly topic was. Everything else, just about, was up for discussion. It made for a bracing introduction to the art of historical debate.
Not surprisingly, the older historiography that we grappled with in Pocock’s seminar tended to focus primarily on internal developments within British North America and the early United States, albeit with significant attention to the transatlantic exchange of culture and ideas between Britain and America. Thinking about the early United States as a bounded place, however, has many limitations: it fails to acknowledge the myriad connections that existed between peoples in different places, both within the country and abroad. It does not recognize the permeability of formal boundaries and the connections and relationships that transcended them. Nor does it give sufficient voice to the diverse peoples inhabiting the North American continent who may or may not reside within American borders or who were excluded or oppressed by the American state. With regard to the Unites States, the nation-state paradigm can also be hard to square with the fact that the early American republic was a federation, or union of states, each with its own approach to the questions of diversity and inclusion that are currently at the forefront of scholarship in the field.
Such scholarship inevitably raises questions about the old carnard—American exceptionalism—and the extent to which America, and more particularly the young United States, was different from, and implicitly superior to, other nation-states that emerged after the American Revolution. As that 2020 AHA panel suggested, many, if not most early Americanists, these days would heartily reject the claim that the US was significantly better than other states in the western world or even farther afield. In fact, if anything, the recent scholarship sometimes falls into what might be called a “negative” form of American exceptionalism; i.e., that the existence of slavery, the denial of equal rights for Black Americans, the expropriation of Indian lands, and the extermination of Native peoples, make the United States uniquely or distinctively unworthy, revealing the yawning gap between the ideals of equal and natural rights articulated during the American Revolution and the abject failure to live up to those principles in subsequent decades. While Johann Neem and Jill Lepore and others have continued to emphasize the importance of the US nation-state, especially for representative government and democracy, many historians today are open in ways that earlier generations were not to the idea that other forms of political organization might have been preferable. Among the beneficiaries of this reassessment have been the British, French, and Spanish empires, whose ability to comprehend diverse subjects within one polity at times surpassed that of the American republic.
As we wrote in our introduction, we are both longtime proponents of broader, more capacious approaches to early American history. The benefits of doing transnational history or history “beyond borders” are, in our view, undeniable. And yet . . . it is impossible to ignore concerns that some important concepts might be getting lost along the way. Even if we accept that benefits usually come with costs and that some tradeoffs are worth making, it seemed to us that it was important to have a discussion about what the tradeoffs in our current moment are—and what interpretive conventions often associated with the nation-state paradigm might be worth keeping.
These were the underlying assumptions that guided us as we attempted to shape the Forum. Working with Josh, we wrote a brief set of guiding questions to help participants frame their ideas, which we have now expounded on in greater length in the Forum’s introduction. Believing in the value of diverse perspectives, we wanted a mix of scholars at various stages of their careers and of diverse backgrounds, races, and nationalities, to the extent that it was possible. Toward that end, we devised a list and hoped that people would agree to participate. The idea was to have the participants write short, provocative thought-pieces, rather than full-length articles, in hope of generating the kind of lively discussion that characterized that Pocock seminar of long ago. After we helped participants tweak their proposals, we then sat back and waited for the pieces to arrive. To our delight, the range and quality of the articles matched, if not exceeded, our expectations. We are hopeful that the different perspectives expressed in the pieces will generate debate, both among those who are skeptical about the value of the nation-state as a conceptual framework and among those who are resistant to Vast Early America as a field.
It is true, though, that we wish the Forum could have been even more comprehensive. As Josh notes in his remarks on the Forum, we tried to include Indigenous scholars among our participants. Although several of the pieces do discuss the relationship of Indigenous peoples to the American polity, it would have been useful if we had succeeded in obtaining a piece from an individual whose community continues to experience the consequences of the power of the early American state even today. Another important perspective that we wish we could have included was that of women and gender. Although there has been important scholarship on women and citizenship in the early republic, much of the work has tended to focus on domestic politics. Yet we know that Mary Wollstonecraft in England, Olympe de Gouges in France, and many other women produced ideas about women’s rights and status that circulated across national boundaries throughout the Age of Revolutions. Mary Haley, a London whale oil merchant and radical politician (and sister of John Wilkes), who spent nearly a decade in Boston after the Revolutionary War, and other women like her, also played less-known, but significant, roles in business and commerce during the era. Beyond including women themselves, there are questions about the gendering of the state and the way in which universal natural rights were reinterpreted as the rights of white males that require further discussion and elaboration.
Producing this forum was truly a challenge and truly a collaborative enterprise at every stage. At its best, collaborations allows scholars to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and is far better than any individual contributor could produce on their own. At every significant moment during the year-long process, there were many conversations between Josh, Rosie, and Lige. For Lige and Rosie, who have known each other for many years but who have never collaborated before, this process involved developing an effective working relationship. More than in pieces that are individually authored, a collaboration requires mutual respect and trust. It means knowing when to accede to, and when to demur from, the other’s ideas; knowing when to push your collaborator and when to back off; knowing how much to edit the other’s prose and when to leave it as is. Like most scholars, Lige and Rosie both have healthy egos. But in a collaboration, producing a good final product must supersede the individual scholar’s proprietary instincts or temperamental sensibilities. Fortunately, we had wonderful role models in Peter Onuf and Annette-Gordon Reed, who have successfully collaborated on many projects, and who kindly agreed to write the Epilogue for the Forum. Then in the final stages, there is more collaboration. As in any article published in the WMQ, there is an enormous amount of “hidden work” that occurs behind the scenes: in fact-checking the articles, editing the articles, proof-reading the articles, and type-setting the pieces. Josh Piker and Meg Musselwhite, along with the rest of the staff at the WMQ, have honed this process into an art form—albeit a very labor-intensive art form.
For Lige and Rosie, working on this project corresponded precisely to the period when the United States was struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. As we thought about the connectedness of the US to the rest of the world in the past, we were reminded on a daily basis of our connectedness in the present—and the disastrous consequences that occur when nations ignore those connections or flout their responsibilities to the rest of the world. We hope that this Forum will provide a point of departure for students and scholars as they debate the place of the United States in the world for the past, present, and future.
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