This semester I’m taking a course called “America and the World since 1865,” which looks at the U.S. from a transnational perspective, its influence on the rest of the globe, and vice versa. For our first meeting, the professor asked us for a very brief reflection on whether our own historical thinking has been contained within national borders, or if we’re used to thinking of history in broader, more international terms.
For the most part, my historical thinking has been confined within national boundaries. As an aspiring early Americanist, my reading and research has generally focused on the U.S. itself. My undergraduate advisor was interested in Peter Kolchin’s comparative work on American slavery and Russian serfdom, and it struck me at that time as a very novel way to approach historical questions, but the U.S. as a sort of discrete unit of study is something I’ve generally taken for granted. The only real exception has been the work I’ve read by colonial American specialists operating from an Atlantic perspective and colonial historians writing about the borderlands between the different European colonial societies. I haven’t really incorporated these insights into thinking about my own research interests, which involve the American Revolution on the frontier. I’m certainly not hostile to a more international approach; I simply haven’t thought much about it.
This neglect has carried over into my teaching. As an adjunct, I’ve tried to incorporate some insights from world history into my U.S. survey courses, but this has been limited to the predictable topics—nineteenth-century imperialism, for example, or America’s role in the World Wars. Of course, American survey courses generally concentrate more on the impact of such overseas involvement on the U.S. itself rather than the results of American foreign involvement on the receiving end, and the survey courses I taught were no exception. This “U.S.-centric” approach to teaching about America’s engagement with the world isn’t really true international history, but at least it helped internationalize my thinking a little; teaching the U.S. and world surveys at the same time prompted me to consider how American imperialism of the late 1800s and early 1900s was similar to the European imperialism of the same period.
The upshot of all this is that borders have bound most of my historical activity up to this point, and I suspect this is true of many Americanists. This course will probably be an eye-opener for me, and I hope it will spur me to think a little more broadly about the forces that have shaped human activity.