America in the Historical Imagination: American and European Perceptions of the ‘New World’

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From the earliest European explorations of the Americas, Europeans visualized America alternately as a utopia free of the corruption and materialism that, in their view, characterized their own society or as a savage wilderness that represented the antithesis of their own civilized state. Indeed, John Locke declared, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” pointing to the widespread tendency to portray America as a symbol of both the hopes and fears of humanity. To understand how and why America became such an important symbol in Western culture, this course will examine the image of America from both European and American eyes from the beginnings of European settlement to the 19th century. We will analyze the interdependence of the Old and New Worlds by exploring the following themes: How did Europeans in the 16th century deal with the novelty of the “New World” at a time when the very concept of newness was an alien one? How and when did Americans transform their sense of distinctiveness into a conviction of their special mission and, thereby, lay the basis for the belief in American exceptionalism that has been so important to American identity? Was “manifest destiny”—a doctrine that justified the dispossession and destruction of Native Americans—a departure from or an outgrowth of the Puritan vision of the “City on a Hill,” which made America a model of moral purity and charity? How did Americans reconcile their sense of mission with their attachment to Europe and their desire to emulate European standards of civilization? In other words, conflict and harmony are so inextricably connected in the relationship between Europe and America that we may ask: Is it possible to know which was the point and which the counterpoint?