General History XVI: From Colonies to Nation: the History of the United States 1776–1877
At the heart of this option is the issue of how the thirteen loosely-bound colonies of 1776 and the plural states of 1787 were forged into an indestructible, singular American nation. The leaders of the Revolutionary generation put into place new constitutional and governmental structures that would be pushed to breaking point over the next three generations, as the new nation sought to come to terms with profound social, economic and cultural changes. The course addresses these developments, which included stunning territorial expansion, through purchase and military conquest, which filled out the continental United States to the shape we recognize today; the uprooting and forcible westward expulsion of settled, indigenous Indian tribes; the quadrupling of an ethnically and racially diverse population through natural reproduction and mass immigration; a communications and market revolution that drew previously self-sufficient and local economies into a system of national as well as international commerce; the entrenchment and expansion of one of the most formidable slave-based economies the New World; a surge of Protestant evangelicalism that sacralized the landscape, shaped social relations and gender roles, prompted a host of reform movements and encouraged millennial expectations. At the same time the more deferential republican polity of the 1770s and 1780s swiftly evolved into the world’s first mass democracy, in which recognizably modern political parties – run by a new professional type, the party manager – mediated the relationship between government and ‘the sovereign people’.
The option explores the evolving and ultimately incompatible perspectives on American identity and destiny held by a free-labour North and a slave-holding South. Addressing the power of republican and religious ideologies and the competing claims of liberty, equality and individualism, the course considers the political process by which the sections tumbled towards the Civil War. It assesses the view of the conflict as a ‘total war’, and examines the strength of Confederate nationalism, the complex motivation of wartime Unionists, the role of slaves themselves in securing their own freedom, and the extent to which, in the post-emancipation era of Reconstruction, the old Union gave way to a new nation.
This paper demands no previous knowledge of American history. It is taught through tutorials and through a course of twice-weekly lectures during Michaelmas Term.