Teaching American History in Brazil

November 24, 2015


Vitor Izeksohn teaches history at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. He received a B.A. in History at Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, an M.A. in Political Science at University Institute of Research from Rio de Janeiro, and Ph.D. in History at the University of New Hampshire. He has served as a visiting scholar at Brown University, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is the author of Slavery and War in the Americas: Race, Citizenship, and State Building in the United States and Brazil, 1861-1870 (Charlottesville, 2014).

What led you to become interested in American history and your field of expertise?

My interest in comparative history and military issues dates back to my early contacts with maps. As a child, I was fascinated by the fact that country borders were drawn across vast continents. As a scholar, my interest moved naturally towards comparing countries. I studied the relationship between Brazil and the United States in the 19th century. Studying slavery and Brazil’s Triple Alliance War made me aware of broad parallels with the United States, as the American Civil War occurred at about the same time. The 1860s were a crucial period for nation-building and state-making in both countries, and periods of war, be they civil or international, always lead to an intensification of political debates.

So I decided that comparative history was a promising field. I began to analyze how mobilizing for war shaped relations between each national state and the populations it subjected to recruitment. When I went to study in the US for the first time, I became interested in ways that American exceptionalism could be contested. My book Slavery and War in the Americas is the results of these reflections.

What challenges do you face studying American history abroad?

First, few books on American History have been translated into Portuguese. Despite the importance of the U.S. as a nation and the huge influence American culture exerts over daily life in Brazil, we do not have access to most of the pivotal secondary works.

Second, American History in Brazil is a subfield of the history of the Western Hemisphere. Normally, it’s taught as an elective, not as a mandatory course. Some universities have Institutes of American Studies that make it easier to disseminate papers and organize meetings. Catholic University even has a Fulbright Chair in American History. That is not the case at my University.

Third, the American Consulate in Rio no longer keeps a Library of American Studies and Literature. Not only were the Cultural Section and the Thomas Jefferson Library removed, but no cultural attaché is posted there anymore. This makes the study of US history and culture more difficult. The current strength of anti-Americanism, mainly due to foreign policies issues, doesn’t help. There is a demand for more courses in American History, but no support from the American Embassy to help us meet this demand.

Finally, obtaining primary sources is still a problem. Certainly the Internet provides access to virtual books and to entire sets of documents from many archives, but information delivery can be slow. Currently, it’s necessary to find support for research trips every two years to keep up with new work in the field, investigate different archives, and maintain a presence in this active area of scholarship.

Does living outside of the U.S. lend you a perspective on American history that is perhaps different from historians who live and work in the U.S.? In what ways?

My approach to American History is framed by my main interests: state-building, citizenship, and race relations. I grew up during Brazil’s military dictatorship; consequently these three issues have shaped my own concerns and hopes for a better future. Comparative analysis provides a different perspective, which can sometimes overcome the problems that afflict single-nation studies of collective action and bureaucratic organization. This powerful tool helps us understand the history of societies as intertwined channels of influence operating on the vast experience of human diversity. It is relevant because it reveals configurations that otherwise go unnoticed.

In my own work, comparing national trajectories has disclosed differences and similarities, as well as the specificity inherent in each case. My comparison of the Paraguayan War and the Civil War responded to a new research agenda established by historians interested in connecting American challenges to similar processes and conflicts taking place in other regions. By connecting warfare and emancipation in the two largest countries of the Western hemisphere, my work placed the American Civil War in the larger context of the long and troublesome processes of national unification and slave emancipation. Moreover, comparing the events of the Civil War with a centralized monarchy helped refine our understanding of American republicanism in wartime, the meaning of its political appeal, the ways in which civic culture operated, and the delicate balance between democratic ideals and the realities of state-led warfare.

How do you approach teaching American history in your country? What are the most challenging topics in American history for you to address to students in your country?

To captivate both undergraduate and graduate students, and encourage them to invest in the field, it’s necessary to address their interests: slavery, abolition, counterculture, and civil rights. Many students have little concrete knowledge about these themes because accurate sources of cultural information about the U.S. are lacking in Brazil.

For undergraduates, I usually teach an introductory course that surveys early American History from the Constitutional Period to Reconstruction. The theme is the way that state and society shaped each other during each period and the socio-political processes involved. For graduates, I teach about Southern slavery from the 1820s to the 1860s. These students have a better command of English and can make use of English sources on the Internet. Recently Ph.D. students have had the opportunity to continue their studies at institutions such as Georgetown and Princeton.

Students tend to be challenged by vote expansion under the Jacksonian Democracy and the Second Party System, Religion and Reform in the 19th century; Civil War and Reconstruction, Settlement and land issues; Indian removal; Territorial Expansion, and The Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt’s Corollary (big stick).These themes really mobilize students. The War against Mexico and its relationship to “slave power” especially attracts a lot of interest. Students can see the dilemmas and debates surrounding intervention in Latin America and its repercussions in US sectional conflicts.

Normally students leave my course with a better understanding of the basic issues, and they look for ways to compare them to similar issues in Brazilian history. How deep they go with this is an interesting question that deserves further investigation.

Are there patterns in the ways your students react to American history? What kinds of core assumptions do you encounter among your students? 

Normally, my students are curious about, and sometimes surprised by, a field they know nothing about. The role of political “compromises” during the antebellum period is particularly challenging because students usually assume that internal US politics are more monolithic and economically oriented. Political history is challenging because it opens windows on diverse and simultaneously competing interests. My students also react to the fact that religion was pivotal in the development of anti-slavery criticism because abolitionism is Brazil was more secularist and State-centered.