This semester I’m taking a course on early America and the Atlantic. A lot of our reading deals with expanding the physical boundaries of what we think of as “early America,” incorporating insights from scholars working on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the connections between the Americas, Europe, and Africa.
Last week we spent some time discussing temporal boundaries along with physical ones. When exactly was early America? If we’re using a chronological term to describe an area of study, shouldn’t there be a better notion of what constitutes the period under discussion?
Columbus seems like a logical starting point, but coming up with an end date is a lot trickier, and your choice of a terminus will reveal a lot about your historical priorities. If you decide to cut things off at 1776, 1783, or 1789, you’re privileging politics over markers of culture, religion, and other factors that remained much more constant after those dates. You’re also more or less saying that U.S. history is the only early American history that really matters.
What if we set our end point at the date when Latin America became independent? That privileges politics, too. And there’s a sense in which a cutoff point in the early 1800s makes even less sense than 1783 or 1789. In many ways, the social, technological, and economic atmosphere of the 1820s looks more similar to the mid-nineteenth century than it does to the late eighteenth.
We could arbitrarily pick a nice, round year, like 1800, but the fact that it’s a nice, round number is just about the only thing it’s got going for it.
Does the question of early America’s chronological boundaries matter? I think it does, because the way we create these containers for particular fields of study inevitably shapes the questions we ask about the past and the places we go to find answers. On a more practical level, it also determines who goes to which conferences, who gets hired for particular positions, and so on. These chronological boundaries might be artificial, but their effects on the way we conceptualize the past are very real indeed.