US History Survey Class: Coventry University 2011-2012

5 07 2011

In the next academic year, I will be teaching a class that surveys American history from 1776 to the present. The course code here at Coventry University is ISS 270.

While the module will be organised along broadly chronological lines, emphasis will be placed on addressing those general themes that have been important in the shaping of modern North America. The major themes of this module are: political change and institutions; key leaders; war and diplomacy; economic and social development. The primary focus of the module is the history of the United States. However, consideration will also be given to the histories of the other nations of North America: Canada, Québec, and Mexico.

The overarching theme or narrative of this module is the rise of the United States from a small confederation of agrarian republics into a coherent nation-state capable of projecting military, economic, and cultural power into all corners of the globe. All of the lectures and most of the seminar readings will be connected to this theme in some way or the other.

Intended Module Learning Outcomes

The intended learning outcomes are that on completion of this module the student should be able to:

1. Identify the events and ideas which have shaped the political, economic, and cultural history of the United States.

2. Explain the processes by which the United States went from a small agrarian republic to a global superpower.

3. Assess the nature of the political system and the ideas and issues which dominated American politics between 1776 and 2000.

4. Understand the relations between the United States and its two neighbouring countries, Canada and Mexico.

5. Understand the complex and multicultural nature of the American population.

Module Organisation and List of Lectures and Seminars

Your responsibilities each week will include completing the following readings before the seminar.  The seminars last just fifty minutes, but you can expect to spend up to 4 hours each week preparing for them. In a typical week, you will read the assigned pages in the textbook by David Reynolds and a primary source and you will listen to a podcast.

Please note that the page numbers refer to the paperback version of the textbook by Reynolds.

The podcasts have been taken from and

In addition, you are expected to follow and read the Disunion Blog on the New York Times website. Ten minutes of each seminar will be set aside to discussing the posts of the previous seven days on Disunion.

Autumn Term

Week Subject Readings For Seminar
1 Intro to Module
 Please read course guide before seminar.
2 Colonisation of North America
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 3-55
Jill Lepore “King Philip’s War”
3 The American Revolution
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 56-92
Declaration of Independence,

Richard Ketchum “Divided Loyalties: The American Revolution in New York”

4 The Federalist Era
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 93-120
The Bill of Rights,
 Washington`s Farewell Address:
5 Jefferson’s America
Hardt, Michael. 2007. “Jefferson and Democracy”. American Quarterly. 59, no. 1: 41-78.
Jefferson`s First Inaugural Address: Jefferson, Then and Now and
6 The War of 1812
Warren H. Goodman, “The Origins of the War of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol. 28, No. 2 (Sep., 1941), pp. 171-186
Edward Ayers “Slavery and the Early American Economy”
7 Andrew Jackson and the Second Two Party System
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 121-154
Podcast: Black & White: The Idea of Racial Purity
8 Mexico and Canada
Nelles, H V. 1997. “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword”. The American Historical Review. 102, no. 3: 749.
Podcast: Borderlands and Bordered Lands
9 The 1840s
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 155-182
Serving Time: A History of Punishment
10 The 1850s and Road to Disunion
Theodore Power, The Slave Power
“The Slave Power“ pp. 248-287 and “Boston Kidnapping” 316-385,
The Dred Scott Decision:
11 The Civil War
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 185-217
First Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln:

Adam I.P. Smith “Politics in the Civil War North”

12 Reconstruction
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 218-242
 Eric Foner “The Significance of Reconstruction”

Winter Term

Week Subject Readings For Seminar
1 The Gilded Age
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 243-271
 Beyond Numbers: A History of the U.S. Census
2 Indian Wars and the West
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 286-292
 Boyd, James P. Recent Indian Wars, Under the Lead of Sitting Bull, and Other Chiefs With a Full Account of the Messiah Craze, and Ghost Dances. [Philadelphia]: Publishers union, 1892 pp. 1-13, 129-152
3 Populism and Progressivism
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 272-301
Bryan`s Cross of Gold Speech, Patricia Limerick “The American West: A Work in Progress”
4 Woodrow Wilson’s America
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 302-334
Gary Gerstle “The Progressive Era ”
5 The 1920s
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 335-343
Podcast: Love Me Did: A History of Courtship
6 The Depression and the New Deal
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 343-351
 Podcast: Looking for Work: A History of Unemployment
Herbert Hoover`s Inaugural Address:
7 The Second World War
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 351-372
 FDR`s Third and Fourth Inaugural Addresses: and
 David M. Kennedy “The Great Depression and WWII”
8 The 1950s
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 375-407
Podcast (The Invention of) Traditional Family Values John Lewis Gaddis “The Origins of the Cold War”
9 The 1960s
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty,pages 408-462
 I have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr; August 28, 1963
Jack Rakove “The Supreme Court and the Politics of Race”
10 The Age of Nixon
Reynolds, Empire of Liberty, pages 463-507
War Powers Resolution, 1973
John Prados “The Origins of the Vietnam War”
11 The Age of Reagan
Reynold, Empire of Liberty, pages 508-585
Paying Up: A History of Taxation
12 Towards Continental Union ?
Francis Bedros, “Harmonization of Environmental Standards and Convergence of Environmental Policy in Canada: the NAFTA Context”

Key Textbook

Reynolds, D. America, Empire of Liberty: a New History. London, Penguin, 2010.ISBN: 9780141033679 0141033673. All students are encouraged to purchase this book. When ordering please verify the ISBN number to ensure that you are getting the paperback version of this book.  


 Research Essay.  2,000-words. Deadline: Deadline February 2012. Your essay will be based on sources in the university library. A list of available topics is listed below. Your bibliography should include least ten items, of which at least five must be primary sources and three must be scholarly (i.e., peer-reviewed) secondary sources. An online database of appropriate primary sources for each topic is identified below. The point of this exercise is to make students familiar with the use of primary sources. Working with primary sources is an essential part of being a historian. Primary sources provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types). As technology advanced, new types of primary source began to be created (e.g., recordings of radio programmes from the 1930s).
Essay Question Essential Primary Source
How were Anglo-American relations covered in The United States Democratic Review between 1837 and 1859? What sorts of biases were evident in this publication’s reporting on Britain and its leaders?
What does the correspondence exchanged between President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev say about the Cold War in the 1960s?
What do declassified CIA documents say about American attitudes to the European Union and Europeans?
 How did the North American Review cover the issue of southern Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877?
How did Harper’s New Monthly Magazine depict Mormons between 1851 and 1891? What do the articles about the Mormons say about this community`s relationship with the national government?
What do the papers of Robert Lansing say about the decision of the United States to enter the First World War in 1917?
How did DeBow’s Review cover the Mexican-American War? Did the Southern States have a distinct perspective on this conflict?
 What do the speeches in Congress made during the debate about California statehood say about how Americans conceived of their nation?
Analyse the “fireside chats” of President Franklin Roosevelt. What do they say about his Presidency?

Abbeville Institute

19 12 2009

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting story about American academics who are attempting to rehabilitate the reputation of the Southern secessionists. A group of “neo-Confederate” academics who believe that the South’s cause in the Civil War was justified have established an organization called the Abbeville Institute.

The Abbeville Institute claims that its members study the attempted secession of the slave states so as to better understand secessionist movements in the modern world. However, a quick glance at the titles of papers delivered at its conferences suggests that it is actually a very parochial body concerned only with the American Civil War. There are very few papers of a seriously comparative nature and little discussion of secessionist movements in other countries (e.g., Canada). Moreover, the organization appears to ignore the more recent  secessionist movements in Alaska and Hawaii.

New Book From John Majewski

12 12 2009

John Majewski, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation

This looks like a book that every historian interested in North America in the 1860s should read. I’ve ordered it and shall share some thoughts once I’ve read it.

Here is the blurb from the publisher:

“What would separate Union and Confederate countries look like if the South had won the Civil War? In fact, this was something that southern secessionists actively debated. Imagining themselves as nation-builders, they understood the importance of a plan for the economic structure of the Confederacy.

The traditional view assumes that Confederate slave-based agrarianism went hand in hand with a natural hostility toward industry and commerce. Turning conventional wisdom on its head, John Majewski’s analysis finds that secessionists strongly believed in industrial development and state-led modernization. They blamed the South’s lack of development on Union policies of discriminatory taxes on southern commerce and unfair subsidies for northern industry.

Majewski argues that Confederates’ opposition to a strong central government was politically tied to their struggle against northern legislative dominance. Once the Confederacy was formed, those who had advocated states’ rights in the national legislature in order to defend against northern political dominance quickly came to support centralized power and a strong executive for war making and nation building.”

This might be read alongside my study of the political economy of the Canadian constitution of 1867.

Review of Peter E. Austin, _Baring Brothers and the Birth of Modern Finance_.

10 11 2009

EH.Net published this review today. I was very excited to see it since Baring Brothers & Company played a crucial role in Canadian Confederation. (See my book British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation).

Peter E. Austin, _Baring Brothers and the Birth of Modern Finance_. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007. xiii + 265 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-85196-922-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter L. Rousseau, Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University.

The complexity of the confluence of events that led up to the U.S. financial panic in the spring of 1837 has long been appreciated by economic and financial historians. The traditional story advanced by McGrane (1924) and expanded upon by Hammond (1953) points to failed policies of the Jackson administration as the primary cause. And it is certainly plausible that President Jackson’s refusal to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States and a removal of the deposits therein to “pet” banks scattered throughout the country led to a sharp increase in bank liabilities that in turn prompted a disruptive executive order (i.e., the “Specie Circular”) aimed at slowing the rapid advance of public land prices, and that all of this together led to panic. But if the traditional story is not adequately convincing, one could always turn to Temin (1969) for an international account in which increases in the Bank of England’s discount rate short-circuited trade and led to declines in cotton prices, failures of cotton factors in the United States, and ultimately a loss of public confidence in bank notes.


Andrew Jackson

My own account (Rousseau, 2002) finds merit in both views but, like the traditional one, sees domestic events as central. In particular, I find that Jackson’s policies in 1836 dislocated the nation’s monetary base and left the banks in New York City short of reserves, and that with the stage thus set, any additional small shock, domestic or international, could have caused the runs that forced banks to suspend specie payments on May 10.

In his recent book, Peter E. Austin fills in many supporting details that the international story has heretofore lacked, albeit through an analysis of one British merchant bank. But an important one it was! Baring Brothers & Company was the premier “American House” in the 1820s and early 1830s. It achieved this status by exploiting an international reputation and first-mover advantage in the American market, and for many years its operations were able to reap substantial profits without taking excessive risks.


Bishopsgate Street, Former Home of the House of Baring

Austin’s engaging narrative makes it quite apparent that Barings saw early on that price inflation, deposit dislocations, and speculations in cotton would lead to a spectacular conclusion. In anticipation of this, a gradual withdrawal of Barings from discounting in the U.S. market commenced in 1834-35. In hindsight this was early given the profits taken at the height of the boom by competitors such as Brown Brothers, yet a conservative stance allowed Barings to avoid the fate of the infamous three “W”s (Wilson, Wildes, and Wiggin) that play such an important role in Ralph Hidy’s (1949) account of the panic and its international roots.

It is exactly on this point, however, that Austin’s monograph seems to take on two somewhat independent objectives. The first is to shed light on the personalities and policies that shaped decision-making at Barings over its early history, and how these policies helped the firm to survive the tumultuous 1830s. The other is an attempt to re-tell the classic tale of 1837 from a British perspective. In my view, the book succeeds in meeting the first objective but is less convincing on the second.

The early history of Barings is certainly impressive if not a bit monochromatic. As the first English merchant house to make strong headway in the young United States, it was well-known in the merchant community and trusted by its patrons. Austin describes vividly how Barings provided credit to only the most upstanding of commercial interests, always placing safety above expected return in deciding whether to begin or continue customer relationships. Joshua Bates, who led the company from the London office in the 1820s and 1830s, apparently placed great confidence in his American colleague Thomas Ward, who in turn evaluated potential accounts very effectively to ensure that Barings was not exposed to extraordinary risks. A wide and impressive range of primary sources, including voluminous correspondence between Ward and Bates, are brought to bear in making this case.

One company policy was to insist that those with trade accounts do business exclusively with Barings, thereby avoiding conflicts of interest or commitment with major competitors. Barings also acted conservatively in deciding how much credit would be extended even to its most desirable accounts. These precautions were not taken as seriously at Brown Brothers, which was more likely to extend credit to customers with multiple accounts or upon only tenuous security.  As a result, Barings began to lose business to competitors, suggesting that its withdrawal from the American trade may have had as much to do with a shift in the competitive landscape than with a well-reasoned decision to back away.  To this reader it seemed likely that both factors were at play.

With respect to the Panic of 1837, it is not always clear where Austin stands on the causes. At times the book seems to embrace the traditional story, seeing the withdrawal of Barings from the U.S. market as a symptom of the domestic problems that were about to take the U.S. economy over the brink. At other times the narrative seems more reminiscent of Hidy in describing the disruption in the American trade caused by changes in discounting policies at the Bank of England in the autumn of 1836 that we now know to have been short-lived.


Note Issued by the Second Bank of the United States

These inconsistencies lead me to view Austin’s story of Barings in the 1830s as better suited for explaining the second suspension of specie payments in 1839 and the ensuing recession than for explaining the events of 1837. And though Wallis (2001) makes a strong case that domestic factors also stood front and center in 1839, the supply of foreign capital did indeed dry up as Temin suggests. If this drying up was a response to the inherent weakness of the U.S. economy, Barings’ move away from the market was perhaps a leading indicator of what was to come. To the extent that its actions changed public expectations about how the inflation of the 1830s would come to a conclusion, it may have also played a causal role in the events of 1837. But more likely the new Barings policy provided a model that other foreign investors would follow as public projects and the state bonds issued to finance them began to go bust at the end of the decade and into the 1840s.

To sum up, Peter Austin makes a strong and lasting contribution to our understanding of Baring Brothers and its operations, especially in the 1830s. I believe that his strong scholarship will help to keep alive the recently renewed interest in this most fascinating period of U.S. economic history and encourage its continued reexamination.

Copyright (c) 2009 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list.

Historians Discuss the Development of the American Healthcare System

27 10 2009

I thought I would share these two links related to the history of healthcare in the United States.

This podcast explores “the origins of the health care debate, and try to explain how we wound up with a system so different from the European model.”

James Mohr, history professor at the University of Oregon, places the current healthcare debate in a historical context. He explains, “We have to find ways to combine what is positive and unique about our system while eliminating the historical anomalies that make it unsustainable.”


Toronto General Hospital

I will add that the history of Medicare in Canada is one of the great under-researched topics in 20th century Canadian history. Medicare is clearly an important institution for the Canadian identity. Tommy Douglas was voted the greatest Canadian because of his role in creating our current system. More importantly, Medicare has a big impact on the level of health in Canada. Health spending represents a big share of GDP. Health care is consistently one of the most important issues for Canadians, according to pollsters. But while the general public is very interested in Medicare, academic historians, it appears, are not. There are few books on the history of Medicare. Steps on the Road to Medicare: Why Saskatchewan Led the Way by Sylvia O. Fedoruk and Stuart Houston is one of the few good books on this topic. Moreover, it deals with only one province and was written by two people who are not professional historians. Stuart Houston is a medical doctor. I base my annual lecture on the evolution of Medicare on research by non-historians: Eugene Vayda, Raisa B. Deber, “The Canadian Health-Care System: A Developmental Overview” in Canadian health care and the state : a century of evolution,  edited by C. David Naylor (Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992).

There is an active community of historians of medicine in Canada. For instance, Michael Bliss has published a biography of Sir Frederic Banting, the inventor of insulin, and Jaclyn Duffin at Queen’s has published an interesting history of medicine in the Western world. Shelley McKellar at UWO has published a biography of Canadian surgeon Gordon Murray. However, there are few works on the history of the Canadian healthcare system.

Many of the students in my post-1867 Canadian history course want to write their essays on Medicare. Along with Vimy Ridge, it is the most popular topic. Unfortunately, there are few secondary sources to which I can direct them. (I have done a diligent search). What is a needed is a good book that gives the history of our health care system from say 1900 to the present. The book would talk about the Marsh Report, the developments of the 1950s, the Saskatchewan Doctors’ Strike, Diefenbaker, the Royal Commission on Health Care, Medicare, the Canada Health Act of 1984, the impact of the Charter of Rights, etc. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exist.

This situation is absurd and represents a big systemic failure on the part of the Canadian historical profession. For some reason, research on the history of health care is not valued.

Thomas Paine and the Rights of Hindus

24 09 2009
Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

I would like to draw people’s attention to a piece by historian J. M. Opal in Common-placeCommon Sense and Imperial Atrocity: How Thomas Paine saw South Asia in North America”. Opal argues that Paine understanding of British policy in the Thirteen Colonies was influenced by the ongoing British debate about British misrule and atrocity in India.

If Opal’s interpretation is correct, it means that Paine saw the whites of the Thirteen Colonies and Hindu and Muslim populations of India as co-victims of the British Empire.

I found Opal’s argument interesting in light of a book I have purchased and plan to read this weekend, David Armitage’s The Declaration of Independence: a Global History.

The picture of Paine is from the Library of Congress (see here) and is in the public domain.