America History and American Memory

For many years scholars have sounded the alarm over the fact that america history has been too closely linked to colonialism, with its assumption of European primacy. For centuries, as writers like Pequot writer William Apess and white colonists like Alexander Hamilton argued, the people who lived in this huge continental expanse were not considered “American” because they did not fit into a European framework of meaning and understanding.

The American Revolution and the early republic spelled out a new framework of meaning and understanding that took hold. These events and the new political and economic structure they forged shaped a national sense of identity for Americans. Suddenly the world became more interested in Americans. The United States became a world power and fought in two World Wars. It went through periods of boom, known as the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. The American Memory collections in this section show some of these turning-of-the-century moments: Edison’s films show a ringside seat at the 1900 World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York; and a collection of letters from President McKinley to his wife shows the intimate, familial side of life in this era.

This sense of national identity has been shaped largely by the idea of a continuous frontier. Whether in the form of an ever-advancing Atlantic coast or, later, a westward movement, the frontier has continually reshaped the American experience. This rebirth of primitive conditions, the continual touch with the simplicity of primitive society that a continually advancing frontier affords, furnishes the forces which shape the American character.

Since the 1890s, academic historians have been stressing the need to integrate Atlantic and continental histories of vast early America into a collective narrative that has room for all its diverse elements. But this effort has taken on urgency in the last century because of a growing realization that the old narratives are no longer valid.

The idea that a centralized, national government with strong powers of taxation and land control was the key to America’s success is not valid. Neither is the view that slavery was central to this story. In the end, slavery grew to be a major factor in the story, but it was far from the only one.

When we view the whole of this broad Atlantic and continental history, we can see that it is a story about all of us. It is the story of an experiment in democracy and a struggle for economic and social justice that we are still struggling to complete. As we continue to struggle, we have been shaped by the events of this history and continue to learn from it. We will continue to be influenced by those lessons, as we will be by any other history that shapes our lives. That is why we need a good, comprehensive study of america history. We need to understand our past in order to make sense of the present and future. The best america history will help us answer the question, “Who are we?”.

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