This course focuses on the deep roots of “America” as we know it, from the First Nations who flourished across Turtle Island (a Native designation for North America) to the founding of the United States to the Civil War, an epic struggle over the nation’s future.
Contrary to popular lore, historians are not encyclopedias of dates and names—not keepers of dusty lists. Historians do not simply describe 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: How have prominent American myths both advanced and hindered freedom and equality, for which the United States claims to stand? How does your knowledge of early American history help you understand the present?
Part 1: What was life on Turtle Island 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 colonization and manage to retain limited sovereignty—some control over their own fate?
Part 2: How and why did a group of colonies on the eastern edge of North America 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 this American Revolution based on material interests? To what extent was it based on democratic principles? To what extent were these interests and principles fulfilled?
Part 3: Why did the states of the lower and middle South attempt to 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?