Introduction to United States History

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Alex Cummings

“We asked her where her husband was. ‘He’s in America.’ ‘What does he do there?’ ‘He’s got a job as Tsar.’ ‘But how can a Jew be Tsar?’ ‘Everything’s possible in America,’ she answered.”

- Scholem Alejchem, 1900

America was born in an early rush of globalization, a synthesis of native Americans, European settlers, and African slaves. Despite being embedded in global flows of people and goods from its very beginning, the US has long cherished its separation from the wider world; while European countries colonized Asia and Africa, Americans filled in to their own internal empire, and built a vast domestic market that spanned a continent. Despite a fondness for isolationism, the US has also intervened in conflicts throughout the world, involving itself everywhere from Haiti to Pakistan, while serving as an eager exporter of capitalism and constitutionalism. This course considers both the United States’ conflicted relationship with the global community and its complex self-image as an exemplar of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. One of the central themes of US history has been the elusive and contested notion of the “American dream” – the idea that one can live a happy life and accomplish great things in a land of plenty. For too many, this dream has long been a falsehood and an illusion, but Americans have also reinterpreted it to serve their own needs time and time again. From the Puritan vision of a “city on a hill” to the Cold War ideal of the “free world,” America has been constructed and reconstructed as a proving ground for grand expectations. Some have viewed (and continue to view) America as the birthright of one particular group, as a “white man’s country” or a “Christian nation,” while others have seen the US as the world’s “last, best hope” for democracy. America has been a free market paradise and a crucible for socialist radicalism. With these mutating conceptions of America in mind, this course will guide students through the experience of colonization, revolution, nation-building, civil war, reconstruction, and reform, from the vision of America as an “empire of liberty” to its more recent role as the guarantor of a “new world order.”

Required Texts:

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History Course packet


The Origins of American Settlement Taylor, American Colonies, 3-22
Battle of the Neo-Europes: New England, New France, New Spain Foner, 4-40
Spiritual America Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 164-193; Anne Hutchinson trial transcript (web)
Staples, Slavery, and a Subprime Aristocracy Foner, 118-144; Breen, Tobacco Culture, 124-147
The Rights of an Englishman Foner, 166-199; revolutionary pamphlets
Nation or Confederation? Foner, 237-260
The Early Republic Foner, 272-297
A White Man’s Country Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 65-87
Home and Market Foner, 346-372; Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class, 60-77
Globalization 1.0 Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 43-63
Democracy in Crisis Foner, 458-500
The Second American Revolution Foner, 502-539
Reconstructing a Nation Foner, 551-584
Industrializing a Continent Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 285-300
Birth of the Brand Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America, 130-139; late 19th century advertisements
Thinking “the People” Mary Elizabeth Lease, “Wall Street Owns the Country” (web); John Dos Passos, excerpts from The 42nd Parallel
The Yen for Reform Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (web)
The Progressives’ War Randolph Bourne, “War Is the Health of the State”; W.E.B. Dubois, “My Impressions of Woodrow Wilson” (JSTOR)
White Power, Black Nationalism, and the Political Culture of the 1920s Foner, 788-798; W.A. Domingo, “The New Negro – What Is He?”
America: Back to the Drawing Board Norman Thomas, “Is the New Deal Socialism?” (1936); Austen Bolam, “More Time Is Needed” (1935)
A Democratic Culture? Cohen, Making a New Deal, 251-287
The Ideological War Foner, 849-890
Building a “Free World” Foner, 895-926; IBM commercials; Willie Peacock, “Calypso Freedom” (iTunes)
Race, Gender, Sexuality, and the Third American Revolution Stokely Carmichael, Black Power speech (1966), “A Radical Manifesto: The Homophile Movement Must Be Radicalized!” (1969), Valerie Solanas, “SCUM Manifesto” (1968), “Freedom 101” (youtube)
Vietnam, the Crisis of Anti-Communism, and the Rise of the New Right Dionne, Why Americans Hate Politics, 55-76
The Washington Consensus Thomas Frank, One Market Under God, 1-50; Bruce Springsteen, “The River”; Public Enemy, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”; clips from Who’s the Boss, The Cosby Show, Roseanne
America in Globalization and War The Project for a New American Century, “Statement of Principles” (1997); Los Tigres del Norte, “Somos Mas Americanos” (2001)