Teaching US History in the Long Nineteenth Century

A few years ago, as part of a general curricular revision, my department moved to a three-semester sequence for both our World and US History surveys. There were several reasons we made the move: we wanted more room to focus on the particular outcomes these courses embodied as part of our university’s core curriculum (particularly information literacy and global awareness); we were trying to get away from the “content dump” approach and open up more time to more deeply delve into the material; and we thought our students would benefit from a survey that had more depth and less of a frantic rush through the material to appease the coverage gods. Did it work? The answer, as is so often the case, is “it depends.” It’s still a tall order to balance depth and coverage in a survey course, even if it’s extended over three instead of the traditional two semesters. I have long been dubious that a survey, as we presently conceive of it, can accomplish the goals we strive for as history educators. But I also recognize the value of a disciplinary overview course or course sequence, and the need for a “gateway” experience aimed at both majors and non-majors. In this regard, moving to three-semesters has been a net positive. The pace isn’t quite as breakneck as it had been in the two-semester format, and there is more time for writing workshop days, information literacy work, and other activities that had previously been crowded out of the survey sections for lack of time (WE MUST GET TO 1877 OR ALL WILL BE LOST).

An unexpected benefit, though, has been the disruption of the periodization that has become attached to the study of US History via the traditional survey model. Our US survey sequence is divided into “Colonial and Revolutionary America” (North America [and the Atlantic World] to roughly 1789); “The US: Republic to Empire” (1789-1898); and “The American Century” (1898-present). (For those interested, the World History sequence is the Ancient World, the Medieval World, and the Modern World–with much more fluid periodization, depending upon the instructor.) Despite the fact that I my specialty is 19th-century US History, this is the first semester I have actually taught the middle course of our US survey–the Republic to Empire course–which I have come to call the “long nineteenth century” in a nod to one of my favorite historians, the late Eric Hobsbawm. As I designed the course, I was excited to test all of the things the revised periodization would let me do. In particular, I was looking forward to rescuing Reconstruction from being the thing we would barely get to at the end of the first half of the survey and the period after which the second half started, something that’s consigned the era to some sort of peculiar limbo in undergraduate history courses across the discipline.

What ended up occurring, though, was of even more benefit than simply allowing for a fuller consideration of Reconstruction (as important as that accomplishment was). Looking at the US in the long nineteenth century helped us see important processes and continuities for which the Civil War was not a disruption, but rather merely an interruption–or in some cases, even an accelerant. A long nineteenth century approach enabled us to look at territorial expansion as a consistent phenomenon with a remarkably durable ideological underpinning (in this work, our reading of Jay Sexton’s The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America was of invaluable assistance). From the Louisiana Purchase to Florida, Texas, the territories wrested from Mexico, filibustering and imperial ambitions in Latin America, Indian Country of the Plains and transmontane West, incursions into the Pacific World, and finally the fully and explicit embrace of empire embodied in the 1898 war with Spain, expansion and empire were nineteenth-century processes. As scholars and practitioners, we know this. But a two-part survey structure has implicitly positioned the Civil War and Reconstruction eras as at least a disruption, if not an outright endpoint of one epoch/beginning of another, in such a fashion as to obscure this larger continuity from many students. This is also the case with Indian Removal. The essential nature of this process was, as scholars of Native peoples make abundantly clear, different only in scope after the Civil War than was the case in the antebellum period. Looking at US history through a long nineteenth century lens, students are able to see how settler colonial ideology and the workings of race and white supremacy underwrote federal and state policy-as well as public (white) opinion-when it came to indigenous peoples from Washington’s Revolutionary-War campaign against the Iroquois through the massacre at Wounded Knee. Indeed, the Civil War era, with Cherokee participation in the Confederate war effort and the Lincoln administration’s brutal suppression of the Lakota Rebellion, is one link in this longer chain and thus helps students see continuity across what has traditionally been viewed as a disruptive process.

These are two of the most notable themes that benefit from a long nineteenth century framework of analysis, but there are certainly others that my students and I looked at through these new lenses this term. Race and racism are more effectively problematized when students don’t “finish” with slavery when they finish one course. They see more clearly how emancipation was actually an incomplete and violently-contested process when they have the chance to continue their analysis beyond what used to be the hasty “there was a Civil War and then slavery ended and have a nice holiday” conclusion to the semester in the traditional survey. Political alignments and realignments–party systems–make more sense when students can see the evolution of both the Republican and Democratic parties into the late 1800s. The nature of warfare and the pattern of state violence and expansion becomes clearer to students when they see the nineteenth century as a whole rather than divided in half; in this sense, the Civil War is an evolutionary step in a larger process of historical development, not a self-contained event. Even particular historical figures whose lives spanned much of the century–Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Sitting Bull–can be powerfully effective teaching tools to show students both the continuities and disruptions of the long nineteenth century. I went into this course expecting some positive changes in the way my students and I would engage with US history, but I came out having seen those expectations significantly surpassed.

Ultimately, my first go-around with this retooled survey course further affirms my sense that the traditional two-semester paradigm for the US survey may be more of an obstacle to getting our students to think like historians than we assume. We know that problematizing the seemingly familiar for our students leads to more effective and meaningful learning; disrupting the periodization that they’ve become used to throughout their schoolwork in US history is a great place to start. Looking at long-term historical development and larger historical contexts are important outcomes for the study of history. The long nineteenth century model seems to offer a better opportunity to get at those particular things for both me and my students. I realize that not everyone reading this can alter their department’s survey course structure. But there are ways even in this traditional paradigm to disrupt the familiar periodization; perhaps a thematic (as opposed to simply chronological) approach is worth considering. Or, if you want to get really unconventional, perhaps inverting the chronology and teaching the survey backwards is worth a look. Whether it’s explicit re-periodization or implicitly complicating traditional notions of “eras,” there’s real possibility here for revitalizing the US survey course. As we reexamine, retool, and perhaps redesign our courses this summer, it’s worth thinking about the ways in which we can complicate chronology to render the seemingly familiar different (and, dare I say, more interesting)  for both us and our students.

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