Four hundred years ago, in August of 1619, more than 20 African captives arrived by ship to the English colony of Virginia, predating the Mayflower journey that brought English Pilgrims to what is now Massachusetts by a year. As recently explored in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, this anniversary reignites questions about American history, including: Which stories has it prioritized, and which has it left out?
On Sept. 18, three historians will tackle these questions for “Revising Early America,” the first discussion in a six-part series on “revisionist history” hosted by the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University, and moderated by center director Jason Steinhauer. The Inquirer asked those three scholars, alongside a Villanova historian, to answer: Where does the American story begin?
There are always new American stories to tell
Imagine at Thanksgiving dinner, someone — perhaps an uncle — asks: “History? What can you do with that?”
As “Americans” in the United States, we often treat the notion of history as useless, clueless as we are to its purposes and powers. Confronted with a question such as Where does the American story begin?, we tend to miss other questions that guide any “storytelling,” any “history.”
We might begin by asking: Which American story? Which America? Which Americans? Those questions lead some of us to the recognition that the most celebratory stories of many “Americans” — like the triumphs of the “Founding Fathers” — are those of omission, denial, and exclusion. These actions speak to the prevailing purposes and power of these “American” stories.
We might single out historic years: 2019. 1619. 1620. Those choices presume that history in the Western Hemisphere revolves around some emergent English-speaking society isolated from all other peoples 400 years ago. The histories begin with the omission of the peoples occupying the Americas before these immigrants arrived.
What happens if the sweeping expanses of the American continents — the Arctic to Antarctica, the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Caribbean Basin — are included in our American histories?
These narratives assign pedigrees. Mayflower folk are “originals,” or “initiators.” We overlook the fact that “20 and odd” Africans landed before the Puritan patriarchs. What claims to “America” — any America — might they and their descendants make?
What happens to “American histories” if the sweeping expanses of the American continents — the Arctic to Antarctica, the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Caribbean Basin — are included? What pressures would that place on exclusionary pretense? Would it make room for new histories, different stories? For a different future?
The “American” story is contentious. How could it not be? As long as people are denied and excluded from this storytelling project and its benefits, there will be new histories and new beginnings left to tell. We should embrace those stories with purpose, and power.
America began the world anew but has not lived up to its promise
The American story can be traced to many beginnings, but there is some truth to the American Revolutionary’s 1776 claim that their cause would “begin the world over again.” When Thomas Paine, an English immigrant living in Philadelphia, wrote those words, hierarchies of all kinds — monarchy, aristocracy, slavery — dominated the world. The promise of the Declaration of Independence linked the existence of the United States to the principle of equal rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This attack on hierarchy in governance saw nearly every state lower its voting requirements from those of the colonial period, and saw the U.S. Constitution ban titled nobility.
The spread of these principles immediately exposed many Revolutionaries to charges of hypocrisy for practicing the tyranny of slavery, while at the same time providing new inroads for enslaved people’s ongoing fight for their emancipation, by suing for their freedom in courts, or serving in the military.
The spread of these principles immediately exposed many Revolutionaries to charges of hypocrisy.
Internationally, the American Revolution helped spark what historians have called an Age of Revolution that by 1850 had spread through Central and South America, Haiti, and Europe, and reverberated into the 20th century as dozens of nations echoed the language of the American Declaration of Independence to declare their own sovereignty.
The loftiest principles of the American Revolution have never been fully realized. Slavery vastly expanded after the Revolution, both in terms of the numbers of enslaved people, and geographically across the continent. Along with it, violence spread against Native Americans, as well as theft of their lands. Inequality and injustice shaped much of the 20th century and remain. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in 1963, it is still an aspiration for America to “live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold those truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”
Violence and suffering define American history
Beginnings are always artificial and arbitrary markers created by societies (and historians) seeking to shape narratives about their identities. The American story has multiple beginnings, each one depending on the point of view of the social actors that assume authority in telling these stories. For Native Americans living in the American continent, the American story can begin with their migration to the continent or with the rise of their own societies. It begins in the oldest moment they can collectively remember, remembrance transmitted over generations by their ancestors.
Black blood added a new layer of violence and suffering to compose the painting that is the American story.
The story of European peoples in the Americas, and what later became the United States, is the story of their arrival in the American continent. It is also the story of the European encounter with native populations that led to the conquest of Native American peoples, seizing of their lands, and eventually colonization of the new territory. Ultimately, the beginning of that story coincides with the genocide of Native American populations, corresponding with the end of a multi-thousand-year story of Native Americans.
From either perspective, violence is the foundational element. Starting in the 17th century, European colonists in the mainland North America, as well as in the Caribbean, Spanish colonies of South America, and Portuguese colony of Brazil imported enslaved Africans to the so-called New World to work in plantations, mines, cattle ranches, and other professions. Africans had a long history in their homelands, but in the Americas their story began with slavery. Therefore black blood added a new layer of violence and suffering to compose the painting that is the American story.
We can’t leave out the West and settlements beyond British colonies
A question such as “Where does the American story begin?” often defines America as the American nation. That nation in turn is typically described as starting with the 13 British colonies on the east coast, the earliest of which was settled in 1607 (Virginia). Of course those colonies were and are important, establishing the foundations of American law and governance as adapted from the British.
But that’s a limiting and ultimately distorted view. It presumes that our national origins are solely rooted in those forms of law and governance, when other cultures and people across America have been just as formative.
How we have attempted to create a nation based on diversity, not in opposition to it, is the fullest story and the truest history.
In early America, all United States territory was native ground, and some remains sovereign to Native American tribes today. Many regions have other deep and continuous histories, such as the extent of Mexico, which was nearly the full southwestern quarter of the current United States into the middle of the 19th century. No one should be startled to know that the histories of Texas and Arizona, New Mexico, and California have been fundamentally shaped, since well before William Penn was eyeing up the lovely Delaware Valley up to today, by that important early American past.
The early America of St. Augustine, Seattle, Detroit, and Denver is just as compelling, and was just as important as Philadelphia, Boston, and Yorktown. If we try to root America too firmly on the east coast, and in those early British colonies, only incorporating places into our national history once they became part of the United States, we miss the opportunity to tell the deeper, richer story of America, which was diverse and complex from the beginning. How we have attempted to create a nation based on that diversity, not in opposition to it, is the fullest story and the truest history.
This collaboration between The Inquirer and the Lepage Center originated in a June 28 forum for journalists and historians funded by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.