Contrary to popular lore, historians are not encyclopedias of dates and names—not keepers of dusty lists. Historians do not simply record past events but rather try to understand why things turned out the way that they did and also how the past helps us understand the present. Historians interpret a large number of sources from multiple perspectives to create narratives and explanations of the past. To study history is to enter into an ongoing discussion about the past and its meaning. Because historians expand their understanding by asking questions, I have organized this course around several big questions. These questions will doubtless suggest other questions, few of which will have a single, simple answer. Nevertheless, historical interpretations do not boil down to mere “opinion”—they are rooted in evidence and logic—and I will require you to provide support for your interpretations in discussions, writing assignments, and exams.
Overarching Questions: What do historians do? What kinds of sources do historians use to learn about the past, and how do they interpret these sources? How does early American history continue to be significant today? How does your knowledge of early American history help you understand the present?
Part 1: What was Turtle Island (North America) like before the arrival of European colonizers? How and why did the First Nations of eastern North America lose most of their land by the early 19th century? How did First Nations resist domination and manage to retain some sovereignty?
Part 2: How and why did the colonists of the North American mainland gain independence from the British Empire and create forms of representative government at the local, state, and national levels in the late 1700s? To what extent was the American Revolution based on material interests? To what extent was the American Revolution based on republican and democratic principles? To what extent were these principles fulfilled?
Part 3: Why did the states of the lower and middle South secede from the United States in 1860–1861? How and why did the remaining northern and “border” states fight a civil war that ultimately preserved the federal Union while dismantling the institution of slavery? What roles did African Americans themselves play in destroying slavery?
Enrolled students can download the syllabus from D2L.