American History: A Survey (Brinkley), 13th Edition


America in the World


Most Americans understand that our nation has become intimately bound up with the rest of the world—that we live in a time that is sometimes called the "age of globalization." In recent years, scholars have also begun to reexamine the way we explain the American past and have revealed a host of connections between what happened in the Americas and what was happening in the rest of the world. They have, in short, taken our modern notion of globalization and used it to explain some aspects of our more distant past. This reexamination has included the earliest period of European settlement of the Americas. Many scholars of early American history now examine what happened in the "New World" in the context of what has become known as the "Atlantic World."

The idea of an "Atlantic World" rests in part on the obvious connections between western Europe and the Spanish, British, French, and Dutch colonies in North and South America. All the early European civilizations of the Americas were part of a great imperial project launched by the major powers of Europe. The massive European immigration to the Americas beginning in the sixteenth century, the defeat and devastation of native populations, the creation of European agricultural and urban settlements, and the imposition of imperial regulations on trade, commerce, landowning, and political life—all of these forces reveal the influence of Old World imperialism on the history of the New World.

But the creation of empires is only one part of the creation of the Atlantic World. At least equally important—and closely related—is the expansion of commerce from Europe to the Americas. Although some Europeans traveled to the New World to escape oppression or to search for adventure, the great majority of European immigrants were in search of economic opportunity. Not surprisingly, therefore, the European settlements in the Americas were almost from the start intimately connected to Europe through the growth of commerce between them—commerce that grew more extensive and more complex with every passing year. The commercial relationship between America and Europe was responsible not just for the growth of trade, but also for the increases in migration over time—as the demand for labor in the New World drew more and more settlers from the Old World. Commerce was also the principal reason for the rise of slavery in the Americas, and for the growth of the slave trade between European America and Africa. The Atlantic World, in other words, included not just Europe and the Americas, but Africa as well.

Religion was another force binding together the Atlantic World. The vast majority of people of European descent were Christians, and most of them maintained important religious ties to Europe. Catholics, of course, were part of a hierarchical church based in Rome and maintained close ties with the Vatican. But the Protestant faiths that predominated in North America were intimately linked to their European counterparts as well. New religious ideas and movements spread back and forth across the Atlantic with astonishing speed. Great revivals that began in Europe moved quickly to America. The "Great Awakening" of the mid-eighteenth century, for example, began in Britain and traveled to America in large part through the efforts of the English evangelist George Whitefield. American evangelists later carried religious ideas from the New World back to the Old.

The early history of European America was also closely bound up with the intellectual life of Europe. The Enlightenment—the cluster of ideas that emerged in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries emphasizing the power of human reason—moved quickly to the Americas, producing considerable intellectual ferment throughout the New World, but particularly in the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean. The ideas of the British philosopher John Locke, for example, helped shape the founding of Georgia. The English Constitution, and the idea of the "rights of Englishmen," shaped the way North Americans shaped their own concepts of politics. Many of the ideas that lay behind the American Revolution were products of British and Continental philosophy that had traveled across the Atlantic. The reinterpretation of those ideas by Americans to help justify their drive to independence—by, among others, Thomas Paine—moved back across the Atlantic to Europe and helped, among other things, to inspire the French Revolution. Scientific and technological knowledge—another product of the Enlightenment—moved rapidly back and forth across the Atlantic. Americans borrowed industrial technology from Britain. Europe acquired much of its early knowledge of electricity from experiments done in America. But the Enlightenment was only one part of the continuing intellectual connections within the Atlantic World, connections that spread artistic, scholarly, and political ideas widely through the lands bordering the ocean.

Instead of thinking of the early history of what became the United States simply as the story of the growth of thirteen small colonies along the Atlantic seaboard of North America, the idea of the "Atlantic World" encourages us to think of early American history as a vast pattern of exchanges and interactions—trade, migration, religious and intellectual exchange, and many other relationships—among all the societies bordering the Atlantic: western Europe, western Africa, the Caribbean, and North and South America. - Atlantic History Links - Atlantic History Seminar: Related Weblinks

Peruse the sites below. What are the basic tenets of Atlantic history? How does it differ from "normal" American history? Do you think Atlantic history is a "new" type of history? In what ways do you believe it will be helpful in understanding the past? Or is it helpful at all?

Look over the Atlantic History working paper abstracts at

What major historical issues are Atlantic history scholars currently researching? How does an Atlantic history perspective influence the questions they ask, or their findings?
One of the central questions in U.S. history has been the question of American exceptionalism, whether America is unique among the nations of the world. With that in mind, consider a major issue in American history (slavery, the American Revolution, the Civil War, etc.). How does it look different from the perspective of Atlantic history? Do you think these differences illuminate or obscure the realities of America's historical experience?
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