U.S. Intellectual History Blog

In Pursuit of an Early America Paradigm Shift: Settler Colonialism?

In The Juntosponsored 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.

[1] I particularly like Lorenzo Veracini’s Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, and Walter Hixson’s American Settler Colonialism: A History.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Eran, this is a great examination of a theoretical framework that holds great promise for historians of the US. Like you do here, I think the way a settler-colonial framework speaks to power and geography, as well as its ability to get us beyond tired interpretive tropes, holds great promise. I’m working a little later than early America here, but you might be interested in my recent meditation on settler colonialism and the Civil War Era: http://ageofrevolutions.com/2016/01/18/the-civil-war-as-a-settler-colonial-revolution/
    Please excuse the shameless self-promotion, but I’m excited that others are having this conversation, too. Thanks for a great post!

    • Thanks, it’s great to feel that I’m not alone in thinking “why aren’t we talking about this much more?” I enjoyed your post about the Civil War and settler colonialism. I love the idea of viewing the Civil War as a war over mutually exclusive visions of settler colonial societies.

    • The post itself can serve as a promotion for North American contributions to the excellent Native Diasporas collection. Brief note: back in 2007, the WMQ published a roundtable on “Postcolonialism,” five years before Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire. Recent studies on the intercolonial dynamics of the British chattel slave trade, such as Greater Caribbean “seasoned” slave exportation in Gregory O’Malley’s Final Passages, both elucidate and exacerbate debates on *settler colonialism* and related concepts.

      • The 2011 WMQ “Critical Forum” on Christopher Tomlins’ Freedom Bound also provided “critical” essays on debates, research, and (Tomlins’) sources for *colonizing.*

  2. I want to thank you for providing us with an excellent essay on the merits of applying the concept of settler colonialism to the study of United States history.

    Since I did not attend the conference, I am curious about the reaction your suggestion received. Why do you think the profession has been slow to embrace the concept? The late Nathan Huggins published his piece on the “master narrative” at least a quarter of a century ago. Is it simply a function of the methodology in which the profession socializes its graduate students? Does teaching young scholars to “think like historians” lead to an antipathy toward innovation? Since only a handful of graduate programs fill over half the jobs in the profession, is there an institutional base for a new paradigm to sweep the profession? In the 1960s Bernard Bailyn’s graduate seminar at Harvard served such a function.

    • “Does teaching young scholars to “think like historians” lead to an antipathy toward innovation?”

      In the parlance of our times — oh most def.

    • Your may or may not wish to read Benoît Godin’s Innovation Contested: The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries, a study of “word” and idea as well as concomitant “stages” of both synchronic and diachronic “transformation.”

    • There wasn’t much of a reaction really, but we were a small group, quite early in the morning, so I wouldn’t read into it too much. But I think you are right about the way our profession often functions as a gatekeeping guild.

  3. Seems to me David Hackett Fischer’s Freedom and Fairness is an example of what can be done. A paragraph from the Amazon summary:

    Fischer asks why these similar countries went different ways. Both were founded by English-speaking colonists, but at different times and with disparate purposes. They lived in the first and second British Empires, which operated in very different ways. Indians and Maori were important agents of change, but to different ends. On the American frontier and in New Zealand’s Bush, material possibilities and moral choices were not the same. Fischer takes the same comparative approach to parallel processes of nation-building and immigration, women’s rights and racial wrongs, reform causes and conservative responses, war-fighting and peace-making, and global engagement in our own time–with similar results. “

    • I haven’t read this book yet, but I certainly plan to and it looks promising–if a bit too taken by the notion of a “free society.” In my mind, if there is one thing we cannot have too much of in American history, it is comparative history.

  4. An interesting post. I’m reminded of a ancedote Patricia Limerick( A historian who would have some great insight into this new paradigm shift) recounted in one of her essays. After introducing herself to a colleague, he responded “Bill Williams said everything yousaid and he said it better. ” The rest of her essay, in her enjoyable limerickian style, attempts to adjudicate what her work intellectualy does and does not owe the by then decade deceased Williams, who she had never read. I mention Limerick’s piece and its moral because I find it curious that in this post there is no discussion of the clear antecedents of this ‘new’ paradigm. William Appleman Williams’ Understanding of an imperial Weltanschauung in the sixties appears to serve the same purpose as your “organizing principle.” While his work is seen primarily as the progenitor of Cold War Revisionism, Williams’ Magnum Opus, Contours of American History is clearly a forerunner of many of the themes you find valuable in this paradigm.
    Additionally, the work of Francis Jennings on the pre-revolution conquest of east coast indigenous peoples, Edmond Morgan on labor, race and land, Fred Anderson’s depiction of the imperial triangular relationship inherent in Pontiacs war, George Fredrickson’s work on comparative Herrenvolk societies, and, as already stated Patricia Limerick, among others, on the the West as a site of American imperialism rather than Turnerian democracy all appear to be older( in some cases by decades) homegrown versions of this new paradigm.
    While Settler Colonialism serves as a useful short hand rubric for understanding these various processes, I think it is critical to acknowledge this work (at least in the academy) is not in an empirical or conceptual sense, radically new. being an inheritor of this intellectual genealogy does not suggest nothing more can said. Certainly Williams’ sense of feminism needs a great deal of revision if not outright invention. Revision, however, is not a radical intellectual break and thus a certain degree of intellectual and vocational humility as well as a deeper immersion in the American Imperial historiography of the last fifty years is I think called for. Leo Ribuffo’s various pieces on William’s legacy are a great place to start. As one of my profs once said “we all stand on the shoulders of giants we just have to admit”
    Thanks for initiating this discussion,

    • Thanks for this push back Chris, it will give me a chance to explain myself better. First, you are of course right, and I do have a tendency towards polemics and overstating a case. I too can name many other books that explored many of what I suggest settler colonialism can offer, perhaps first among which is the great work of Richard Slotkin. Certainly many of these ideas have been developed in earlier scholarship. One of the great things settler colonialism does, however, is that it brings them quite neatly together and so offers us a more useful platform for discussing American history going forward. Which is what you said, I guess.
      I also think that settler colonialism can sharpen our thinking. I find it to be the most lucid framework I’ve come across–it is a prism very well suited to deflect many of the founding myths that slip into our scholarship.
      Maybe we should not use the terms of paradigm change, or turn, or what have you, altogether, but that is for a different discussion.

      • Thanks for the reply Eran, keep up the discussion and apologies for the typos, this response was written on 3 different devices( one with a broken keyboard) over the course of a toddler filled day. Best, Chris

  5. Citation for the above mentioned article, real great read:

    Dilemmas in Forgiveness: William Appleman and Western American History
    Diplomatic History
    Volume 25, Issue 2, Spring 2001, Pages: 293–300, Patricia Nelson Limerick

  6. Many thanks for this post. I’m very interested to see that intellectual historians are expressing interest in an analytical framework that those of us who work at the intersection of early American history and Native American and Indigenous Studies have engaged for some time now. I’ve been pleased to participate (as a presenter or audience member) in panels at two of our major conferences (Omohundro and SHEAR) on this topic, and it’s good to see that the ideas and the work seems to be making inroads within your subfield. Another place to look for substantial engagement with settler colonialism is the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (naisa.org) and its journal.

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