I’m your instructor for this course, US History to 1877. In the course, we look at American history from the time before America existed through the government-stated end of Reconstruction. We’ll look at the people who participated in American history willingly and forcibly, as citizens and non-citizens, as immigrants and natives, as patriots and rebels, and we’ll look at the complicated mess that all those categories make.
My interest in history has blossomed over the past several decades. I majored in History and English Literature as an undergraduate, earned master’s degrees in Library and Information Science, History, and Science and Technology Studies, and am approaching completion for a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies. My research interests are in the comparative uses of libraries by undergraduate and graduate students, and in taxidermy in natural history museums.
But my interest in history lies in its usefulness. As we’re seeing today, history is really important to understanding the world around us. I’m writing this on August 21, 2017, having just looked at a solar eclipse. Two items there are important: First, August 21 is the anniversary of an uprising of enslaved people in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Second, Nat Turner, leader of that rebellion, observed a solar eclipse in February of that year and interpreted it as a sign to start slaying his enemies with their own weapons.
Do I think that the eclipse is a sign for me to rebel against government entities that are holding me back? Absolutely not. But I also see the eclipse and all the history of eclipse-as-omen and understand that events like this can serve as reminders of what’s happened in the past and how history works.
People learn different information from the same event. The eclipse of May 1919 confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In the ancient Mediterranean world, eclipses were signs that a ruler would die. Some saw the eclipse of 1918 as marking the beginning of American dominance in the world, as it also coincided with the nearing end of World War I.
History works the same way. The same event, or the same kind of event, can be interpreted and reinterpreted to give prominence to different actors, explain different causes, or redefine certain terms. And it’s useful to recognize these diverging views of history as explanations for how we view the world—and especially the people in it—differently.