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Home > The Courses > Course Home Pages > Rethinking American History in a Global Context

Rethinking American History in a Global Context

by Thomas Bender
New York University
New York, New York

If we presume that the American nation is self-contained, we accept the ideology of nineteenth-century nationalism. In fact, the nation is not a given of history; it is rather a contingent product of history. The unexamined presumption of the naturalness of the nation as the carrier of history makes the nation its own context. Such an approach undercuts the discipline's principal contribution to the disciplinary matrix of knowledges. History is a contextualizing discipline. Historians explain social life and social change by locating it in relevant temporal and spatial contexts. The way we address the question of context is thus of central importance to the disciplinary practice of historians.

There is a second, more practical methodological prompt to think of the nation in contexts larger than itself: both historical causes and consequences typically cross borders. The historian ought not presumptively stop at national borders: it is important to follow money, people, things, and knowledges as they cross borders, whether entering or leaving national space.

Max Weber famously defined the state in terms of its legitimate monopoly of violence, but the state also legitimated itself by stimulating feelings of national affiliation. And one element of that work, an important element, was the creation and celebration of a national high culture. Defining and legitimating that culture was the work of the academic humanities. Historians created national histories that would educate and make national citizens, while the study and celebration of national literatures created national high cultures that sustained nationalism. This is the reason modern nations have supported our work. As William NcNeill has emphasized, "History got into the classroom . . . to make nations out of peasants, out of localities, out of human raw material that existed in the countries of Europe and in the not so United States as well."

Against American Exceptionalism
Popular and academic discussion -- seldom grounded in history -- about both multiculturalism and globalization raises the question of the nation and of coexistent forms of social and political affiliation. That no doubt accounts in a large way for the increasing expansion of humanistic scholarship and teaching into various transnational, subnational, and borderland domains.

It is in this spirit that the working title of my current book project is In the American Province, making the point that American history is part of a larger history, a history among histories. The question, of course, is how might one write a history of a national people in the context of a plenitude of available narratives? Often this requires no more than making connections between histories we know but seem to us not to be a part of American history. We are often blind to the possibility that American history might in fact be a part of other histories.

Americans have long believed their historical experience to be exceptional. This tendency became particularly evident after World War II, and historians rallied around the notion of "American exceptionalism." There is no doubt that American history has been distinct, as is that of any other nation. As a nation-making story, the American case has been remarkably successful. To have been more successful and proudly so does not mean, however, that the United States did not share a larger history of nation-making.

The problem with the notion of American exceptionalism, again resurgent, resides not in the idea that the history of the United States is distinctive. The problem that concerns me is the presumption that the United States is exceptional because it does not share the history of other nations. The U.S. in this conception has possessed a special historical dispensation. This ideology is reinforced (usually unknowingly) when we teach the history of the United States as if it is self-contained. Such an approach obscures the continuous history the U.S. shared with others on a global scale -- for the whole of its history.

To the extent that we as historians teach the nation's history in isolation from its historical relations, we bear some responsibility for the ways Americans understand (or misunderstand) their relation to the world. I do not want to exaggerate the influence of history or historians, but I do believe that the way we have taught history has reinforced what might be called a unilateralist understanding of the United States in the world -- a conception that encourages surprise and anger whenever the world intrudes.

American History and Global History
I would strongly argue that the fundamental context for American history is the beginnings of a truly global history sometime around the year 1500. We cannot overestimate the significance of that moment in history. For Adam Smith, the establishment of ocean routes to the East Indies and the Americas was the most important event in human history. The invention of agriculture and cities might be of equal rank, but the point is that this event has a larger significance than American histories usually recognize.

What happened in the age of discovery? Just what was discovered? I propose that it was not America, nor was it the western hemisphere. The ocean world was discovered. Put more precisely, the discovery was that the ocean was not a barrier, but was rather a connector of the continents. This marked a vast expansion of the human world; it became coterminous with the globe.

The ancient Greeks knew that the earth was round. But for them the world and the globe were not synonymous. The world was an "island world," a conjuncture of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This Afro-Eurasian land mass centered on the Mediterranean. For those of the Abrahamic religions, this was the world created by God. He pulled back the sea to expose a patch of earth for Adam and Eve and the human family. The outer limits of the world thus understood were marked by the ocean, beyond which were monsters, perhaps even an anti-world.

"Ocean" is a Greek word, and it meant the "outer sea," as opposed to the Mediterranean, or "inner sea." If it were not for the ocean barrier, it would be possible, the Greeks realized, to go west to get to the east, or India, as they named it, referring to those lands east of the Indus River. The great discovery in the half century straddling 1500 was that the ocean was not "in the way." Rather, it was a common carrier that connected the continents. With this recognition -- which had an experiential basis with the circumnavigation of the planet by Magellan's shops in 1519-1521 -- global history begins. American history is in its entirety inseparable from that revolution in the human condition. To miss this spatial event is to miss the actual beginning of American history and a key to much of that history.

The ocean world was a "new world" for every people whose territory was touched by the ocean. Time does not permit discussion of character of the new world as it became a part of the history of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, but the point is that the story of the age of discovery must be told from all of those perspectives, because they were all a part of it. Developments in the part of the western hemisphere that became the United States represent but one of the new worlds that global history brought into being.

Modernity and American Resources
Modern capitalism and modern slavery were born of this new world, for both depended upon the interconnections among all the continents, as well as upon each other. While it is true that there were many utopian hopes of peaceable kingdoms in this new world, the actual experience that developed was shaped by a new relation of capital and labor, which improved the conditions of life in Europe, but also, as Adam Smith regretfully acknowledged, brought exploitation and tragic injustices to Africa and the Indies, east and west.

Two new economies developed in the new oceanic world. Both depended upon global trade. The first was based in precious metals -- gold and especially silver. The other, called the "plantation complex" by Philip Curtin, was based on slavery.

It is often forgotten that before American gold and silver entered the Mediterranean world, Africa -- and Mali in particular -- had supplied much of Europe's gold. Mali in the fourteenth century had represented wealth to Europeans. That would change with the new global economy. Africa would become a source of slaves, not gold or textiles.

The Spanish became enormously wealthy from the silver mines of the Americas. That success was dependent, however, upon global connections. The Pacific was as important as the Atlantic.

There was so much silver at Potosí that the metal's value would have been deflated had not a major new demand developed. Such devaluation might well have stalled European settlement and exploration in the western hemisphere. Enter China. For entirely domestic reasons, China monetized silver (established silver as the legal tender for paying taxes) in the early sixteenth century. Initially, the necessary specie was supplied by Japan, but with a quarter of the world's population, China needed more than Japan could provide. Spain established Manila in 1571 to facilitate a Pacific exchange of silver for the goods of the East Indies. The seemingly limitless demand of China for silver was linked across the Pacific with the apparently inexhaustible supply at Potosí and in Mexico. And that put into motion the global economy that sustained the Americas.

The plantation complex was more directly related to North America, but it too was a global system. If the Spanish profited by the global movement of silver and gold, the Portuguese, Dutch, and English prospered through trade in mildly addictive drugs: sugar, especially sugar, but also coffee and tobacco. Since these agricultural products had no nutritional value, only long-distance trade could make them income-producing.

British North America entered the world of the plantation complex well after the Portuguese and Dutch, and even then the Chesapeake was on the periphery of it. Yet it was this economy and social system that made the settlement of the British mainland colonies possible. The Chesapeake became a part of the plantation economy once it discovered tobacco, having failed to achieve successful cultivation of the cane that was brought to Jamestown. The northern colonies did not rely directly upon slaves, but they profited from the long-distance trade in the products of slavery: sugar, tobacco, and coffee.

Teaching America as a Province
This account has been severely compressed, but I hope that one can see from it that the beginning of American history is not only about utopian dreams of opportunity or escape, whether from religious persecution or from poverty. It is also about the beginnings of capitalism, and it is about capture, constraint, and exploitation. In fact, more Africans than Europeans made the Atlantic transit in the colonial period. This early history is neither proto-national nor self-contained. American beginnings were the product of many interconnected histories, and the outcome was quite contingent and unpredictable.

There is much more that could and should be said, but I have surely reached the limits of my claim on your patience. Let me conclude quickly and simply. Although time has not allowed me to fully elaborate a history of America as a province in the larger history of the world, I hope that what I have been able to say achieved two things. First, I hope I provided sufficient description to enable you to get a sense of what such a history might look like, and second, I hope that I have persuaded you that the expansion of context is more than decorative, that it has an interpretive payoff that enables us to better understand the course of American history.


Thomas Bender is the director of the International Center for Advanced Studies, University Professor of the Humanities, and a professor of history at New York University. He is the author of The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century (2001). This article was taken from his address at the June 5, 2004, Professional Night of the AP United States History Examination Reading.


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