Friday, February 25, 2011

Looking for American History


“… not all of colonial America was English.”

Matt Yglesias has recently taken to publishing excerpts from Alan Taylor’s American Colonies:  The Settling of North America.  I don’t know if he is currently reading it for the first time or he simply found his old edition on a bookshelf and decided to use excerpts in his blog.  If you haven’t read it, and you are interested in American history, you should pick up a copy. It is well worth your time.

Alan Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1996 book William Cooper’s Town:  Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. I’ve never had the opportunity to read that history of the father of James Fennimore Cooper and I did not notice when it won the Pulitzer Prize. Alan Taylor was not on my radar the day I was wandering through the history section of Barnes and Noble, looking for a history of North America that wasn’t exclusively an English history.

For reasons too complicated to explain, back around 2003 I found myself needing to learn more about the history of the British West Indies, the German migration to Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s and the colonization of Canada by the French.  I wasn’t sure exactly how much I needed to know and, while  I was prepared to start checking books out of the library, I wasn’t sure where to start.  What I needed was the view from 20,000 feet, a general history of North America that covered all of these geographic areas.  Then I could decide exactly where I would zoom in on. 

My local library branch didn’t have one on its shelves that fit my needs.  The available books were almost completely centered on the 13 colonies, throwing in mentions of Spanish conquistadors and Marquette/Joliet’s exploration of the Mississippi.  There was almost nothing about the West Indies. 

Of course I had access to the entire library system through the card catalog.  But perusing a card catalog is just not the same as paging through actual books to see if they meet your needs.  So I headed to Barnes and Noble sure that it was a waste of time but fully intending to console myself by buying a new novel while I was there.

I wandered through the history section and finally picked up a paperback copy of Alan Taylor’s 2001 book, American Colonies.  I skimmed the introduction:

By long convention, “American history” began in the east in the English colonies and spread slowly westward, reaching only the Appalachian Mountains by the end of the colonial period. According to this view, the “seeds” of the United States first appeared with the English colonists in 1607 in Jamestown in Virginia, followed in 1620 by “the Pilgrims” at Plymouth in New England.  Earlier Spanish and contemporary French settlements were fundamentally irrelevant except as enemies, as “foreign” challenges that brought out the best in the English as they made themselves into Americans. What we now call “the West” did not become part of American history until the United States invaded it during the early nineteenth century.  Alaska and Hawaii made no appearance in national history until the end of that century.

I thought that pretty much summed up history as I had learned it.  But, said Taylor, “the traditional story of American uplift excludes too many people.” 

As I thumbed through the book I realized that it was exactly what I needed.  He said:

Striking a balance between the emerging power of British America and the enduring diversity of the colonial peoples requires bending (but not breaking) the geographic boundaries suggested by the United States today.  Hispanic Mexico, the British West Indies, and French Canada receive more detailed coverage than is customary in a “colonial American history” (which has meant the history of the proto-United States). All three were powerful nodes of colonization that affected the colonists and Indians living between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.  The internal cultures, societies, and economies of the Spanish, French, and Dutch colonies also warrant attention lest they again appear only in wars, reduced to bellicose foils to British protagonists.  Such internal description also affords the comparative perspective needed to see the distinctive nature of British colonial society that made a colonial revolution for independence and republicanism possible first on the Atlantic seaboard.

I bought it on the spot. I read it.  And I regularly go back to it when I need an overview of a certain geographic location at a certain time.  I have blogged about how Winnie the Pooh is a “book of my life” because it affected what I expected from a well written story.  American Colonies is a “book of my life” because it changed how I looked at the history of this country.

The book is divided into three parts.  Part I, “Encounters”, gives a general overview of the pre-European continent and discusses New Spain, the Spanish Frontier and Canada/Iroquoia.  It takes us up to the mid 1650’s.  It is not until Part II, “Colonies”, that we truly meet the British, beginning with the colonization of Virginia and continuing through the colonization of the Chesapeake Colonies, New England, Carolina and the Middle Colonies.  There is a chapter about Puritans and Indians and a whole chapter about the West Indies.   Part III is called “Empires” and it takes us from about 1650 all the way to the Pacific colonization in 1820. It includes good descriptions of French America  and has a nice section on the German migration to Pennsylvania. 

If you want a broad perspective on colonial North America, this is the book for you. For instance, often the importance of the West Indies in colonial life is overlooked other than noting that it was part of the “triangle trade” in slaves.  Taylor spends time on their importance in the British economy.  Thus we understand why, when negotiating the peace treaty after the Seven Years War, the British, who had conquered Canada and the French West Indies, considered “keeping most of the French West Indies and returning Canada.”

Although much smaller, the sugar islands were far more lucrative.  But the influential British West Indian lobby did not want to weaken its advantageous position within the empire by accepting new competition from the more productive plantations on Guadeloupe and Martinique.  The British West Indians lobbied to keep Canada instead. … By taking vast new territories in the Treaty of Paris, the British broke with a previous imperial policy that had sought to maximize maritime commerce while minimizing continental entanglements.  Somehow they would have to raise the money to administer and garrison their expensive new domains in Canada, the Great Lakes, the Ohio Valley, and Florida.

My copy is well used at this point.  And over the years, as  I’ve sought out books about specific peoples, places and periods,  I’ve never had reason to think that Taylor got anything wrong in his overview. 

Taylor has a new book out, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies.  It is on my to-be-read list, but first I must finish his 2007 book  The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution.  It has been sitting on my shelf for a few years but I finally picked it up this month and am engrossed in it.

But for all around usefulness, and sheer readability, American Colonies can’t be beat and I recommend it.