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Confessions of a British North Americanist: Borderlands Historiography and Early American History

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 25, Number 1, March 1997
pp. 1-12 | 10.1353/rah.1997.0028

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Reviews in American History 25.1 (1997) 1-12

While preparing his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, Herbert Bolton revealed his hopes for it to Guy Stanton Ford: "The most expansive idea which interests me is the presentation of American History as Western Hemisphere History, instead of Brazilian History, Canadian History, or United States History. It is inconceivable that we should not have histories of Europe as well as histories of Germany, France, England, etc. It is just as absurd to assume that the Western Hemisphere has developed in isolated chunks and yet we in the United States have proceeded on that assumption."

Bolton's complaint is especially ironic in view of the history of American history. Several of the early masters of American historical writing were attracted specifically to the non -English elements of America's colonial past: Parkman on the French and their Indian allies and Prescott on the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru come immediately to mind; John Lothrop Motley's work on the Dutch Republic grew out of his study of the Spanish empire; and the distinguished medievalist, Henry C. Lea, found his great subject in the Spanish church and the Inquisition that colored so much of Spanish colonial expansion.

But as more American historians focused on American history, they trained their attention on Anglo -American traditions -- Protestant civilization, the rule of law, the rise of democratic institutions -- all cast in a decidedly Whiggish key. George Bancroft perfected this approach, almost to the point of self-parody: "England Takes Possession of the United States," he entitled his chapter on early English settlement. The occasional crafty French Jesuit or arrogant Spaniard would appear in these histories but they did so as foils; they threw into sharper relief the superior virtue of the English and justified the eventual, inevitable triumph of British America. George Unwin wrote that in British historical writing the slave trade appeared only in connection with its abolition; so too we might say that France and Spain have appeared in American history primarily in connection with their defeat. As one of the most prominent practicing Borderlands historians, David Weber, has observed, "The story of American history has been told from the perspective of the winners -- the descendants of the English -- and the lives and progeny of the losing Spanish side have not been woven into the fabric of American history. American history is usually seen as a process -- as the story of the expansion of English America rather than the stories of the diverse cultures that comprise our national heritage."

Weber counts himself as a "third-generation Boltonian," and his synthesis of Borderlands scholarship, The Spanish Frontier in North America, is written with the fervor of an intellectual rescue mission. Bolton himself, with more than twenty books and over a hundred Ph.D. students to his credit, did as much as any one human being could to promote a common American history. In the past generation, with some of the regularity and all of the effectiveness of New Year's resolutions, many other historians, including some who have not specialized in "borderlands" history, have echoed his sentiments. Review Essays, historiographical pieces, festschrift contributions, even obituaries, have called on American historians, especially those specializing in the colonial period, to cast their gaze beyond the borders of British North America. The objects of these exhortations, British North American specialists, haunting as they do the precincts of Cambridge, New Haven, and Williamsburg, have seemed largely unmoved -- not hostile, not contentious, but not responsive either. As David Weber, once again, lamented in 1987, "specialists in the history of English colonial Virginia or colonial New York are understood to write American history; specialists in Spanish colonial Florida or California write regional history." Like the Proper Bostonian matron who, when asked how she planned to travel to the Great American West, replied "via Dedham," British North Americanists have drawn -- and drawn in -- the boundaries of their world to their own satisfaction.

Until now. The changing politics, population, and intellectual climate of the United States demand that we rethink our common past, and the rich field of Spanish-American history helps us to do so. It may...


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