Tuesday, February 1, 2011

American History (2): New Encounters, 1492-1750

This is part of a series of "conversation starters," organized in 2007-'08, for my American history students at Grand Valley State University.

The big questions you should be conversant with:

1. When does American history begin?

2. Why is 1492 an epochal year in world history?

3. Why did Europeans feel the need to explore the world west of Europe?

4. As a result of exploration and colonization, what three great human groups (or races) would converge in North America?

5. On the map of the Western Hemisphere, can you point to where two highly developed Indian cultures/civilizations were in 1492?

6. What is the name of the major ecological revolution that occurred as a result of the new human encounters?

7. Returning to the map of the Western Hemisphere, can you show the general regions where the Spanish, French, and British settled?

8. What was the dress rehearsal for the British conquest and colonization of America?

Some responses to the big questions you should be conversant with.

1. When does American history begin?

1776? 1492? I conduct a little exercise called "Desert Island Books" that reveals the degree to which we Americans look back even further than 1776 and 1492 to nations and civilizations for our core values, principles, and outlook. I've asked numerous groups to imagine they were the last Americans. If they could take only a half-dozen books to their island refuge, what would they want to feed mind and soul and to teach the young?

For moral instruction and spiritual comfort, virtually every group would take the Bible. Did Americans have anything to do with writing the books of the Bible? No. They were produced in the Middle East and Mediterranean world between 800 and 3,000 years ago.

For instruction in right thinking and reasoning, every group wants Plato or Aristotle. Did Americans have anything to do with the Athenian intellectual revolution? No. These ancient Greeks lived some 2,400 years ago.

For the brilliant possibilities of the English language, most groups vote to take Shakespeare. Did Americans have anything to do with the creation of Skakespeare's sonnets and plays? No, they are a product of the mind of Elizabethan England, when the "New World" was just beginning to excite the English imagination. (They had to deal first with a mortal enemy, Spain, before they could allow themselves the luxury of dreaming of an overseas empire. Phillip II's Armada was defeated in 1588. Jamestown was settled in 1607.)

For sound principles of economic organization, they would take Adam Smith. Did Americans have anything substantial to do with writing The Wealth of Nations? It's true that this foundational book mentions America more than 100 times. But, no, British North Americans did not write it.

For political guidance, it is true that every group would take the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Federalist Papers to the island. These are American originals. Yet one cannot read the Federalist Papers without understanding the history of ancient, medieval, and early modern republics, in particular Rome. And we Americans did not have anything to do with building Rome.

So if the American mind is formed out of ideas and books that are up to 3,000 years old, when exactly does American history begin? The answer requires a bit of nuance. 1776 or 1492 are not quite accurate.

2. Why is 1492 an epochal year in world history?

1492 is epochal, one of the great turning points in world history, not because Columbus was the first seaman to cross the Atlantic -- he certainly was not: there is strong evidence that Vikings had crossed the Atlantic centuries earlier -- but because of what followed in human history. Because of aggressive exploration, colonization, and commercialization, the peoples of four continents were suddenly brought into intimate contact with one another. The destinies of Europe, Africa, South America, and North America were now threaded together in an "Atlantic system" that would profoundly affect millions of lives.

The commercial revolution alone ushered in huge changes among the peoples knit together in the Atlantic system. Chesapeake tobacco, African cotton, New Guinea cane sugar, Amazon coffee, Ivory Coast slaves -- all were traded in the new, globalizing economy of early modern times.

Vikings had crossed the Atlantic prior to 1492. So Columbus was not the first, but he was the most important explorer. His 1492 voyage was significant for what followed, for the dramatic changes that would be initiated in human history: 1492 would become an epochal year that would unite the destinies of four continents and three quite different peoples -- European, African, and Native American -- into an anthropological, ecological, cultural, and commercial "Atlantic System." This new network of interrelationships involved an unprecedented exchange of plants and animals -- the so-called Columbian Exchange -- some of which eased the burdens of human life. This early example of globalization provides the anthropological and ecological meaning of 1492. It is fundamental to understanding the creation of the modern world.

Numerous inventions and institutional changes in Europe made it possible to magnify the significance of 1492. Navigational improvements, the printing press, the commercial revolution, wealth creation, the increasingly centralized state, and Renaissance exuberance combined to make it possible to undertake voyages of exploration and colonization on an unprecedented scale. These factors are also important for understanding the birth of the modern age.

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