Big history is making a comeback in the subfield of early American history. Or perhaps I should say that bigger history is once again of interest to scholars and, as an acquisitions editor, I am seeing exemplary work that shows what can be accomplished when one takes on the challenge of offering a more grand and sweeping account of events.
The contrast here is with the more fine-grained, local, and sometimes fragmentary work that came to the fore in the decades-long rise of social and cultural history. Rightfully weary of the big histories of famous men, military conflicts, and affairs of state, historians turned to the particularities of events and personal experience. In so doing they did scholars and lay readers alike a great service by putting us in contact with the daily and intimate aspects of history (often using diaries and court records), the experience of lesser-known historical actors (often women and people of color), and informal practices that structured experience (often unregulated markets, social networks, and resistance movements). And, as a result, today no one can do legitimate research and write meaningful narratives while overlooking these rich dimensions of historical experience.
A fair amount of this work, though, was narrow and fragmentary. States, trading companies, elite families—it was these institutions and entities that took care to tell big stories of their own aims and efforts, and then to preserve the records that supported those stories. Lesser-known actors living and working outside the dominant institutions lacked the means to tell and preserve their stories. As a result, the historical record for the “lower sort” can be incomplete in itself and specific stories are often disconnected from the records of other individuals and institutions. Some of the best examples of histories at the peak of the social and cultural turn were micro-histories that delved deep into a radically incomplete evidentiary record and used warranted speculation where clear evidence was lacking. Others were, at bottom, sets of historical case studies that were connected not by causality but by concepts. Others still borrowed from older modes of intellectual history and made claims about how transmitted ideas or cultures explained patterns across different places and times. Warranted speculation, conceptual suturing, and appeals to the spirit of the times—these were all necessary, though at times unsatisfactory, ways to address instances where the causal connections among events were lost.
Big history is making a comeback in the subfield of early American history.
Another response to these limitations in historical narrative is to return to political and institutional history with the insights gained from social and cultural methods. Informed by those methods, scholars can reengage with elite actors, the institutions of empire, early nation states, military institutions, and trans-oceanic mercantile and then capitalist companies. Finally, historical researchers can embrace big histories—i.e., those spanning generations and showing real continuity, albeit punctuated by agency and indeterminacy. These “old” foci of historical narration can provide the causal glue connecting what social and cultural history sometimes broke apart. More and more, I am seeing researchers moving in these directions, and the work that results from this shift is fascinating.
Two researchers whose work exemplifies this exciting trend are Elizabeth M. Covart (a historian of early America and founder of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast about Early American History) and Nicole Maskiell (Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina). The work of both Covart and Maskiell bears strongly on the history of New York and will be of great interest to people who follow the “Historian Notes” posted on the website of the Office of State History.
The working title for Covart’s manuscript is “America’s First Gateway,” the gateway in this case being Albany, New York. In an effort to understand how present-day United States citizens identify as Americans, Covart explores how early Americans created regional cultural communities. Albany presents the best location for this exploration, she argues, because of its historical diversity and its location. From Albany, colonists, fur traders, imperial armies, and frontier settlers traveled the Hudson River north to Canada and south to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. They took the Mohawk River and its portages to western New York, the Great Lakes region, and beyond. After 1826, frontier settlers traveled west via the continuous water route of the Erie Canal. This important riparian geography gave Albany and its people, both elite and non-elite, a front-row view of four imperial wars between 1689 and 1783, and positioned the city to become a center of the Transportation and Industrial Revolutions in the 19th century.
Covart and Maskiell are taking the lead in the return to our standard histories—big, sweeping, replete with familiar names, and littered with military battles and grand projects—and tell them anew.
Spanning the history of Albany from its Dutch origins as Beverwijck to the boom that accompanied the opening of the Erie Canal, Covart’s history is big. It involves four political regimes (Iroquois, Dutch, English, and American), titanic demographic shifts (from the clearance of the Iroquois to Yankee migration out of New England), and radical changes in political economy (from mercantilism to capitalism). In and through these changes, she finds a coherent narrative line and, by focusing on the social history of the Albany community, makes something whole out of this welter of diversity.
Similarly, Maskiell offers a fresh and compelling interpretation of core themes from social and cultural history, most especially the intimate relationships between enslaved persons and their titular owners. The well-known family names that stud her account—Stuyvesant, Livingston, Mather, and Sewall—are found in all the standard histories of the Northeastern elite. These distinct elite families—though divided by language, confession, and geography—found common cause in key areas such as land ownership, social status, and, crucially, slaveholding. Fittingly, Maskiell’s working title is “Bound by Bondage: Slavery and the Creation of a Northern Gentry,” as her manuscript follows the wider diasporic networks of several elite Anglo-Dutch families while examining the dense connections that were forged through slaveholding.
Here Maskiell pushes to find commonality where previous scholarship highlighted diversity. These familial networks were certainly contested—family struggles often pitted sibling against sibling—but remained remarkably resilient. Family ties were also bolstered and tested by daily interaction between enslaved persons and their enslavers. Whereas the Stuyvesant family, for example, valued family cohesion and continuity, the enslaved families on their property could be and were often broken apart on the signature of a bill of sale. Thus the raw facts of slave ownership shaped domestic experience and supported a shared culture among slave-owning families across the Northeast. In this way, Maskiell argues, what is often considered alien to the society, culture, and political economy of the Northeast (i.e., slavery), was essential to the formation of the very hierarchical order of life valued by these patrician families. And as elite families jockeyed for positions of power through business partnerships and strategic marriages, their efforts collided with those of the enslaved, who struggled to maintain their tenuous family bonds in terrible circumstances.
Covart and Maskiell are taking the lead in the larger effort to return to our standard histories—big, sweeping, replete with familiar names, and littered with military battles and grand projects—and tell them anew. These retellings are amazingly fresh and vital. They also show that the professional distinctions between social and cultural history on the one hand and political, institutional, and military history on the other were always provisional. A person writes history—full stop. Covart and Maskiell are at the head of their cohort of younger scholars writing some of the best new and methodologically-integrated history. We all should be thankful that the history of New York State is at the center of their work.
Michael J. McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmcgandy. This article was originally published by the New York Office of State History Historian Notes blog and is reposted with permission.