The American Historian

The Ocean, the Continent, and the Nation, or, What Used to Be Called Early American History

Jane Kamensky

A couple years back, I attended a meeting of the Board of Editors of the American Historical Review, on which I then served. When the Editor asked us to introduce ourselves and describe our fields, a colleague began by saying, “I study the field that used to be called early American history.” Whether you hear it as rueful, pretentious, or both, this studiedly offhanded remark points to a genuine intellectual problem. Nobody living in any part of the continent that had only recently come to be labeled “America,” or more rarely, “North America,” on European maps in the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries thought of themselves as living in early anyplace. Like the Middle Ages or the Far East or the First World War, the descriptor “early America” conceals an argument built upon a post-hoc fallacy. “Early America” assumes and anticipates the United States—yea, and sometimes breathlessly. For those of us working in my own little corner of space-time, then, the so-called international turn is both obvious and essential: a turn away from teleology and toward a fuller recognition of the contours of life as lived by people in the period we study. If the transnational turn has been generative for the field that used to be called early American history, the reverse is also true. Historians of the post-1898 United States may believe that Americans lived newly globalized lives in the periods they study and, as a corollary, that scholars of what we might now call the long twentieth century heroically set in motion the transnational turn. Those of us who work on what used to be called early America know that our modernist colleagues are only off by half a millennium.

Two parallel and in some ways antagonistic transnational frameworks now dominate North American histories of the pre-national period. The first of these is continental history, an impulse most fully embodied in the work of scholars of the indigenous Americas, including, among many others, Alan Taylor, Kathleen DuVal, Richard White, and Daniel K. Richter.[1] The second is Atlantic history, with roots stretching back to scholars of the Anglo-American “imperial school” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most centrally Charles McLean Andrews and Herbert L. Osgood.[2]= In more recent years, the old wine of the imperial school has been freshly rebottled by the contributions of Bernard Bailyn and his intellectual descendants, its bouquet further enlivened by borrowings from Fernand Braudel and other Mediterraneanists who emphasize the structures of exchange over the longue duree, and deepened by powerful (counter)currents from the black Atlantic via African history and African diaspora studies. The ocean and the continent do not reign unchallenged; there are other pre-national transnational topoi, including hemispheric history of the sort practiced by J. H. Elliott and Jeremy Adelman. As Caroline Winterer has recently and provocatively argued, the republic of letters offers another powerful organizing schema, broader in some ways and narrower in others than the Atlantic world.[3] But for the sake of brevity and clarity, I’m going to confine myself to the ocean and the continent, and the ways that these leading contenders not only vie for the title of what used to be called early America, but also slug it out with each other.

Continental historians recover the complexity and dynamism of what Daniel K. Richter’s recent survey of the topic calls “America’s Ancient Pasts.”[4] Such scholars have long insisted that the Americas were thoroughly peopled long before Columbus, whose heirs (to paraphrase Francis Jennings) created a widow and then claimed they had discovered a virgin.[5] The histories excavated by continental historians are as varied as the peoples and places they study, but their master narrative—a master narrative suspicious of master narratives—tends to focus on indigenous persistence and adaptation in the face of conquest. Continental historians remind us that the “Americans” of 1776 spoke hundreds of non-European languages and that the great bulk of the continent was then and would long remain “Indian Country.”[6] Continental historians often focus on the negotiations of native peoples with multiple empires: not just English and Dutch but Aztec, Iroquois, Spanish, French, and even—in Alan Taylor’s deservedly popular American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001)—Russian. Their unit of study is the peopled continent; they often manage to suspend disbelief about that polyglot continent’s eventual overlap with the territorial and ideological ambitions of the not-yet-United States.

If multi-sided contest is the lingua franca of the continental historians, exchange is the argot of Atlantic histories. Be they cis-, circum-, or trans- (David Armitage’s indelible trio in an article that has launched a thousand general exams), Atlantic histories tend to focus on circulation: the movement of people, commodities, and ideas across, within, and around the ocean’s littoral.[7] Materialism is the gulf stream of Atlantic history; though the approach has spawned and benefitted from intellectual histories as various as Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and Daniel T. Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Political Age (1998), its primary cargoes are the reciprocal traffic in staple crop commodities and the enslaved. Because I have children who will soon embark on the SAT, I will offer an admittedly imperfect analogy. Slavery : Atlantic history :: indigenous dispossession : continental history. These moral problems were, of course, deeply entwined, as Brett Rushforth so powerfully demonstrates in Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (2012). But works that plumb such interconnections remain rare. For the most part, continental and Atlantic histories expose two different ugly imperial underbellies.

Both the continental and Atlantic histories produce centrifugal narratives: they propel us away from centers (and indeed call the notion of centers into question). They produce stories that are kaleidoscopic, fluid, and layered: histories that favor processes over events, and peoples over individuals. They offer few clear turning points and even fewer heroes.

For every one of these reasons, undergraduates hate them.

Whenever I teach the first half of the U.S. history survey—the introduction to the field that used to be called early American history—a sigh of relief inevitably accompanies the arrival of 1763. The beginning of the road to revolution, the focus on the Sainted Thirteen rather than a motley collection of twenty-six British colonies, let alone those hard-to-pronounce Spanish and French and Mohawk possessions in the messy middle where the dragons live: so comforting! By late October students relax, sensing that soon Abigail and John with make their homey appearance, followed by presidential election cycles, those quadrennial poles that hold up the seamless cloth of time and thus make it so much easier to study for finals. The familiar American nation arises from continental and Atlantic pre-histories in the way that land emerges from the dark and formless void in Genesis.

The survey student’s relief would be easy to mock if it did not point to important intellectual questions. Just how does the sub- or supra- or non-national space of North America for millennia before the eighteenth century meet the United States? How might the continental and Atlantic lenses help us to reframe what used to be called the American Revolution? When we’re teaching introductory courses in American history and we happen upon 1776, does facing east from Indian country, or west from London, or north from Sainte Domingue, or all three at once, allow us to make the much vaunted destiny of the United States less seemingly manifest in the eyes of our students and our readers? This to me seems a pressing task, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the urgent need to rescue the age of revolutions not just from national but from nationalist frameworks.

The fruits of the continental and Atlantic impulses mean that we can no longer reasonably portray the American Revolution as a dyadic struggle between Britain and a falsely monolithic “America.” Continental historians insist that we recast the wars of revolution as polygonal contests among empires, including native nations—a war in the model we have lately come to embrace for the Seven Years War. Such histories require us to understand the American war not only as the freedom struggle of a group of settler colonists against their imperial masters, but also as a violent and in some cases decisive setback in native battles for territorial sovereignty. Atlantic historians, for their part, have begun to recover the imperatives of Britain’s blue water empire and its European rivals, especially the French. Seen from the prospect of the Atlantic, the American war joins a struggle for European hegemony, for African American personal liberation, and for British imperial coherence, an interconnected series of conflicts that stretched from Bengal and Batavia to Gibraltar, and from Senegambia to Jamaica, as well as from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. The continental and Atlantic impulses also demand that we teach and write a revolution that was diasporic, both within and beyond the contested borders of the United States.

Historians of America in the world have long focused on the diplomatic contours of the American Revolution: the effort of the founders of the United States to form and then to function as a nation among nations.[8] But we stand now at the threshold of a different kind of transnational embedding, in which the fabled American “founding”—and perhaps the nation itself—takes a back seat to stories of empire, diaspora, dispossession, and civil war. An American Revolution refracted through the ocean and stretched by the continent emphasizes continuities between the colonial past and the national future. It inaugurates a less whiggish history of a more contingent nation. And it makes the field that used to be called early American history absolutely essential to understanding what followed—less because the Glorious Cause of the United States was waiting, patiently, in the wings the whole time, ready to burst upon the stage, promising liberty to all comers, than because, like Godot, it may never really have showed up at all.


JANE KAMENSKY is Mary Ann Lippitt Professor of American History at Brown University. The author of several books on the history and culture of what used to be called early America, she is currently completing a biography of the painter John Singleton Copley, Copley: A Life in Color (forthcoming). She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.


[1]Two handy introductions to the claims and methods of continental history are found in Alan Taylor’s tertiary syntheses. See Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling on North America (2001); and, more recently and synoptically, Alan Taylor, Colonial America: A Very Short Introduction(2013).

[2] Charles McLean Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History (1934); Herbert L. Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (1904).

[3] Caroline Winterer, “Where Is America in the Republic of Letters?,” Modern Intellectual History, 9 (Nov. 2012), 597–623.

[4] Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts(2011).

[5] Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975), especially chapter 2.

[6] Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001); Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (2006).

[7] David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (2002), 11–27.

[8]Thomas Bender, A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006). Much of Bender’s now classic account of the revolutionary and early national period builds on the older work of Jonathan R. Dull. See Jonathan R. Dull, A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution (1985).