In The Junto–sponsored roundtable contemplating the future of intellectual history for early Americanists, Rosemarie Zagarri raised what I thought was the most incisive point of that productive early morning discussion we had on the last day of the recent S-USIH Conference in DC. Recalling how Bernard Bailyn and his students reinvigorated the field by introducing the concept of republicanism during the 1960s, Zagarri suggested that offering scholars a new organizing paradigm might be the best recipe for rekindling the kind of excitement and sense of historiographical coherence scholars felt in the wake of the field-reorienting discovery of republicanism. At the time I suggested that the emerging scholarship of ‘settler colonialism,’ at this point still quite marginal to our theory-averse field, might offer historians exactly that—a new and invigorating framework for future scholarship. In the months since the conference this prospect has been often on my mind and I thought to provide here a more drawn-out case for settler colonialism as an organizing category of analysis for early American intellectual historians.
First, perhaps a few words on what settler colonialism is and what an intellectual history that uses this concept might look like. I don’t mean to present settler colonialism in all its facets, there are several good books that do that much better than I can hope to here (1), but I do want to stress the triangular structure at the center of settler colonialism, which I think is its most suggestive feature. Indeed, theorists of settler colonialism highlight the notion that the category is structural and relational rather than content driven. Furthermore, whereas usually when we discuss relational structures, we imply binaries—‘culture wars,’ for instance—settler colonialism relies on a triangular structure.
As I see it, for intellectual and cultural historians in particular, this triangular structure is the most promising aspect of settler colonialism. In this vein, an analysis of the North American British colonies and the early US understands American settler society as culturally and ideologically contending with a metropolitan center in Europe, and more specifically in Britain, and with the Native peoples of North America. By examining this cultural terrain, fertilized by the anxieties and resentments so intrinsic to this structure, we can better unlock many of the mysteries of American settler society—perhaps first among which is the ultimate question for historians of this period: how did a society that purported to cherish “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as its core values embody slavery, genocide, and disenfranchisement for so many?
I would like to more particularly highlight several of the promises that such an analysis holds for historians of the period and intellectual historians, in particular:
1. Most importantly, in my opinion, settler colonialism allows us, once and for all, to undermine one of the most persistent founding fables—the notion that something exceptional happened in American history that sets it apart from the rest of the world. Though in recent decades couching US history in an Atlantic world has done much to erode this myth, the category of settler colonialism puts American history in dialogue with even more far flung historical phenomena—societies that exhibit structural similarities, such as Australia, Israel/Palestine, Taiwan and many more.
2. Since an analysis of settler colonialism urges us to examine cultural and intellectual phenomena in relation to one another—within a given structure—it offers historians an organizing concept that helps bridge some of the unnecessary balkanization in American history and consider together diverse fields. For instance, by its very nature settler colonialism tethers geography to ideas—bringing together the material and the ideational.
3. As a prism that stresses how struggles over power manifest in culture and ideology, it lends itself to scholarship that examines the three central categories along which people in North America sought to shore up power—race, class, and gender. Rather than attempting to incorporate these categories artificially into our analysis of the period—as many historians feel obliged to do these days—settler colonialism offers us a platform to account for the diverse array of power structures more organically, as part of one narrative.
4. For intellectual historians settler colonialism can present one way out of the enduring predicament of elite bias in our sources. By couching texts produced by elites within a relational structure it becomes easier to regard texts as repositories of diverse agendas and sensibilities and tease out subaltern voices. This has the added value of complicating the often misapplied division between high and low brow.
Ultimately, settler colonialism allows us to account for the composite whole that is America. Rather than dividing our narratives into Native American history, slavery, the American Revolution, history of gender, market capitalism, and so on, examining America as a settler colonial society weaves these threads together, presenting a lucid—if troubling—unity. For intellectual historians, of course, that unity is first and foremost ideological. Indeed, in this fashion we do not only bridge the liberalism/republicanism divide that carried the day—and exhausted itself—during the 1980s, but also many other facets of the thought worlds that shaped American history.
 I particularly like Lorenzo Veracini’s Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, and Walter Hixson’s American Settler Colonialism: A History.