General History XV: Britain's North American Colonies from settlement to Indepdendence, 1600–1812
This option is designed to introduce you to the formative period of American History. Lectures and tutorial provision stress the point that Britain’s colonies on the mainland of North America possessed a distinctive history from the moment of first settlement. That history originated in the unintended, and unmanageable, consequences of the attempt to transplant and nurture old world institutions in a ‘new world’ environment. The course is centred on the interplay between expectation and experience. Tutors develop the theme of cultural adaptation and divergence in varying ways. However, the main emphasis of teaching in this option rests on cultural factors. Students learn of the unintended ‘democratization’ of cultural and political institutions wrought by an abundance of land and by the distinctive demographic characteristics of colonial societies. They examine the paradoxes which adhere to the codification and defense of slavery in a ‘land of opportunity’. They learn of relations between settlers and indigenes; relations which promised cooperation but delivered a chauvinistic, and yet curiously insecure, sense of American identity. The institutional and theological history of America’s protestant denominations, and the influence of religion in American life in this period, are themes which receive detailed coverage. Moreover, throughout the course and especially in its dedicated lecture series, you are made aware that the organizing theme of this offering – the old world in the new – challenges the assumptions of other, paradigmatic interpretations; chiefly the environmental determinism of Frederick Jackson Turner, the ‘psychological’ determinism of Daniel Boorstin, and the cultural determinism of David Hackett Fischer.
A secondary aim of the course is to introduce you to the origins and influence of regional diversity in the American past. All tutors point out the differences between life on the Chesapeake and life in Puritan New England. All tutors ask students to consider why culturally distinctive colonies could unite in opposition to Britain, and whether and how their unity in that cause informed the history of the early republic. Lectures, and some tutorial assignments, add to this theme an appreciation of the ‘middle colonies’, or the ‘lower south’, or the ‘old northwest’. In this way students are exposed to readings which ask them to assess the origins, the strengths, and the weaknesses of American national identity in this period. Tutors in this option expect examination papers to contain a mixture of questions, some relatively specific as to region or period, others designed to test the student’s understanding of the broad sweep of American history.
The design of the course assumes little or no previous knowledge of American history. In practice many students go on from this course to take other American papers, though the course, through its interest in the “Atlantic World,” complements several nominally British options.