First-Year Studies: Inventing America: Cultural Encounters and American Identity, 1607-1877


“The past is a foreign country,” T. H. Hartley once declared, and perhaps the past of one’s own country is doubly so. The present, after all, always seems inevitable. Surely the United States of 2013 is but the flowering of the seeds planted so many centuries ago. This course seeks to challenge this assertion, as we consider not only how Americans in the period between 1607 and 1877 differed from us but also how much they differed from one another. How did the early and diverse European colonists themselves deal with unfamiliar cultures at a time when the very concept of newness was alien to them? We must not forget that Columbus believed that he had simply discovered a new route to India. As different as they were from each other, neither the Native Americans who lived in North America, nor the Europeans who colonized that region, nor the Africans whom the colonists imported as slaves had any intention of establishing a new nation. Consequently, in examining American history from the early 17th century to the Civil War, the question should be not why did the United States divide during the Civil War but, rather, why were Americans able to unify as a nation at all? In our consideration of this question, we will focus on two interrelated themes: how these different cultures interacted with and affected one another and how Americans defined their identity. Who was considered American, and what did it mean to be an American? What was the relationship between American identity and other forms of social identity such as gender, class, race, and culture? We will address these questions by examining major political, social, cultural, and intellectual developments in American history from the colonial period to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Specific topics to be studied will include the European colonization of North America, relations between European settlers and Native Americans, the relationship between the colonies and Britain, the causes and effects of the American Revolution, the shift to a capitalist economy and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the character and development of slavery, and the causes and consequences of the Civil War. We will use both primary and secondary sources, but the course will place particular emphasis on primary documents as part of an effort to view history from the perspectives of historical actors themselves.