History 410: Introduction

United States, Colonial Era to 1860, Fall 2020

Course Introduction

Intro | 1 | 2 | 3

For specifics on class participation, grading, etc., see course requirements. Required reading!

Supplies to Purchase

    • Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom

    • Alan Taylor, American Colonies

    • Gordon Wood, The American Revolution

    • Walter McDougall, The Throes of Democracy

    • You will also receive a lot of photocopied documents from me. Put these into a three-ring binder.

Writing assignments:

1. Three major essays.

2. A library research project.

The final grade will be based on the above and class participation

Each student has a responsibility to ask and answer questions, offer ideas and opinions, and respond to classmates’ comments. Reading attentively and thinking about what you read each night is the best preparation for class participation. Be ready to discuss the questions presented on the syllabus and bring questions and observations of your own to class. Read the questions and the items in boldface on the syllabus before you do the daily assignments. They will help you follow the readings and guide your note-taking. When you finish, jot down two or three “big ideas’’ – issues you want the class to be certain to address. Also, see various guidelines, pointers and suggestions for better class participation here.

Students are responsible for being familiar with the requirements for this course, which incorporate History Department guidelines on re-writes, late papers and plagiarism. This includes procedures for requesting extensions, late penalties, and rewrites. These are spelled out in great detail on the Course Requirements page.

As you begin this school year, you will be entering into a never-ending conversation about the history of the United States. Consider the following statement by the Philosopher Kenneth Burke:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Burke came up with this metaphor to illustrate the way that knowledge advances in the academic disciplines. This term you will become part of the ongoing conversation about this country, around numerous questions that will never be definitively answered. How and why was the nation founded? What is its fundamental character? To what extent is it an exceptional nation? What does the existence of slavery and racism say about this nation? What does it mean to be an American? How did we come to adopt a democratic system at a time when most nations were ruled autocratically? What brought Europeans to the America--and the original 13 British colonies in particular--in the first place? All this year we will be exploring these questions and more specific ones like how did the Constitution of 1787 get ratified, and was it actually better than the previous system of government, and what caused the Civil War?

Get ready to "put in your oar."

The Syllabus. Though historians try to be objective purveyors of true facts, every historical account is ultimately a fiction, because historians choose facts selectively, inevitably leaving out more than they include, and then arrange them so that they form a coherent and compelling narrative. That's why every history of the United States that you read will be very different from every other. I've curated the readings for this course, and in so doing have tried to put together a course that offers a coherent narrative that will be compelling and make sense, and leave you with useful information about the nature of this country, the human experience, progress, democracy, and other things. Sadly, it is a short term, and I have had to exclude many things I would like to have included. When I first started teaching at Exeter, the course began in 1760 and American history ended in 1997, so we were able to include a lot more. The subtractions have been painful, but I've carried on nonetheless. My fondest hope is that you well develop a love of history and read more on your own down the road.

I've divided the syllabus into three pages after this introduction. The first of those is here. The navigation bar (on top and bottom of every page) gets you to all the pages of the syllabus:

Intro | 1 | 2 | 3