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Breadth and Depth”: Some Remarks on Empire, Atlantic History and Vast Early America (Round-table II)

Steven Sarson

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1This essay explores the evolution of the study of the British-American Empire in the last 50 years, concluding with some comments on the state of current historiography and some speculation on where it might be heading. It contends that the “new social history” permitted colonial America to be studied in unprecedented depth, but also caused a “fragmentation” of our understanding of the larger field of Empire. After a few historiographical false starts, “Atlantic history” allowed a combination of depth and breadth by providing a means by which microscopic colonial studies could be placed in macroscopic imperial contexts. Some of these studies have recently come under attack for being supposedly insufficiently relevant to American revolutionary and later US history, but advocates have responded with defences of “Vast Early America.” While this article is sympathetic to those defences, it warns that “vastness” is better at defending depth than breadth ‒ that the absence of a spatial terminology and indeed a focus on “early America” risks losing the oceanic dimension of the currently still-dominant Atlantic historiography, and, with it, the inclusion of Africa and Europe along with America as integrated parts of an Atlantic imperial system.

2Historiographical essays tend to be tendentious, and this one is, a little bit. They also tend to be negative, but this one is not, on the whole. In fact for the most part it celebrates the achievements of Atlantic History and offers a largely optimistic prognosis for its possible evolution into the recently proposed paradigm of “Vast Early America.” That said, the essay also offers a few cautions about this new idea, though there is good reason to believe that pitfalls can be avoided or possible problems solved via the kind of creative adaptations that emerge from historiographical engagement. Atlantic History itself, after all, first emerged as the most successful response to problems perceived in the historiographical paradigm that preceded it ‒ the then “new” economic, social, and cultural histories that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

3The emergence of social, economic and cultural history clearly constituted a great leap forward by allowing us to appreciate the extraordinary agency of ordinary people in history. Paradoxically, however, this sweeping change in the way we view the past manifested itself initially in a proliferation of microhistories that fragmented our senses of early America as well as other places. Indeed in the early 1980s Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole organised a scholarly conference that resulted in 1986 in an edited volume entitled Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era, an attempt to “reconstruct” British American colonial history. As the editors admitted in their Introduction, however, the fourteen essays synthesised their respective themes well enough, but failed to synch their individual themes with each other’s.

4Even so, historians since then have found ways to link the small worlds we sometimes still study with larger questions we can all relate to. Some attempts to do so took a temporal approach to synthesis, positing a market revolution or even a transition to capitalism as ways of understanding early America as a whole (Sellers, Kulikoff). The problem soon arose, however, that these epic and one-time only transformations seemed to be happening in the same place repeatedly, about every 30 years from the early seventeenth century through the eighteenth and way beyond our purview into the nineteenth.

5In the long run, then, more convincing models emerged from spatial approaches to synthesis. One of these was Jack Greene’s own Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (1988). Published around the same time was D. W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 1, Atlantic America, 1492-1800 in 1986 and David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America in 1989. While these works offered new interpretations of early America, though, they failed to provide models of future analysis that would perpetuate the mission of synthesis. Yet each of them, perhaps especially Meinig’s, was part of a movement towards something that has provided such a model: “Atlantic History.”

6Atlantic History actually owes much of course to an older historiographical paradigm from another place: the Mediterranean world of Fernand Braudel. Initially, early American historians seemed more interested in the Annalistes’ concept of “global history,” which seemed to answer the problem of fragmentation and satisfy the need for synthesis. Except of course it did not and could not, mainly because it is normally impossible to conceive our research projects on this kind of scale, especially though by no means exclusively for PhD students and early-career researchers. It was therefore ultimately the specifically Braudellian model of an oceanic system that has helped us to reconstruct early American history by providing a context for smaller-scale studies.

7Broadly speaking, there are perhaps three principal advantages of Atlantic History. One is that it allows synthesis without imposing interpretative straitjackets such as market revolutions and transitions to capitalism. What it offers instead is a perspectival approach, and not even a prescriptively methodological one, which allows us to place our research in the context of that of others and allows others to place theirs in the context of ours.

8Second, it gets us beyond the kind of competitive localism that saw New England historians claim that their towns were the cultural hearths of America and the birthplace of the future United States, a tendency that even Jack Greene indulged in his synthetic Pursuits of Happiness by claiming that mantle for the Chesapeake instead. Rather, “Atlantic History” posits that there is a larger system and everywhere has its place and all its people play their parts.

9And that same virtue ‒ the Atlantic World conceived of as a system ‒ also allows a third advantage. That is, it gets us beyond such binaries as micro/macro and fragmentation/synthesis. In one of my own endeavours, for example, the quotidian labours of a Riversdale plantation slave in early national Maryland is placed in the context of a trans-oceanic complex of production, trade, and consumption of tobacco. And not artificially so but inextricably so, with neither the individual nor the world he or she lived in making much sense without the other.

10Other examples of slave studies in other places include Philippe R. Girard and Jean-Louis Donnadieu’s “Toussaint Before Louverture: New Archival Findings on the Early Life of Toussaint Louverture.” Other historians have explored historical phenomena across a wide expanse of the Americas, such as Jane Mangan in “Moving Mestizos in Sixteenth-Century Peru: Spanish Fathers, Indigenous Mothers, and the Children in Between,” and Nancy Christie in “ ‘He Is the Master of His House’: Families and Political Authority in Counterrevolutionary Montreal.” Some extend back from America to Europe, including Nancy van Deusen’s “Seeing Indios in Sixteenth-Century Castile.” Because of course there was not just one European-American Atlantic World but several, all in many and various ways connected to each other.

11Even so, some still see problems with the ways in which Atlantic History has developed. In a review in 2015 of Bernard Bailyn’s Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History, for example, Gordon Wood complained that

under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.

12On the face of it, the subject of Wood’s concerns about these articles appears to be their lack of focus on the future United States. There may in fact be more to it than that, but let us examine the face of it first. Karin Wulf, the Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture that publishes the William and Mary Quarterly, responded to Wood by reference to, among other things, an essay by Charles McLean Andrews entitled “On the Writing of Colonial History,” published in the first issue of the Third Series of the newly revamped journal in 1944. In it, Andrews wrote that the colonial period should be seen as “part of the general history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and consequently […] something more than a seed-bed for the propagation of forms of government and habits of thought that would reach fruition only at a later period.” As Wulf pointed out, then, the journal was not “losing its way,” as Wood had claimed, but was “staying the course” established over 70 years before.

13And as Josh Piker, the then editor-elect and now editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, further pointed out, a United States-focused approach to colonial America would have made little sense to colonial Americans. Not only because they had no idea what the United States was or would be, but because many people in Boston and Williamsburg had connections with people in places as far flung and not part of the future United States as, say, Peru, Montreal, Haiti, and Castile.

14Besides, and beneath the face of it, one suspects that Wood, who began his career studying the Founders of the Philadelphia Convention but has since reached out into more wide-ranging studies of the Founders both before and after 1787, had more than merely geographical problems. The articles he criticised were not only about far-flung places but also about subaltern people: indigenous women and mestizo children in Peru, for example, and about subjects such as family and gender as well as slavery and race.

15What Wulf and Piker ultimately responded with then was the idea of a “Vast Early America.” And like Wood’s criticism, the concept is not just geographical. Both Wulf and Piker used the term “depth” as well as “breadth” to describe their visions of vastness. To that extent, “Vast Early America” derives from but goes beyond “Atlantic History.” Atlantic history can and does embrace connections within and between the Atlantic Worlds of Britain, France, Spain, and other European imperial powers, as accords with its original purposes. And it has included the study of such subjects as race, gender, and sexuality as well as the more traditional topics of trade, government, politics, and war. But what the idea of vastness also encompasses, especially with its advocates’ stated attention to depth as well as breadth, is something more than mere inclusion. Something more like recognising or validating, perhaps even embracing and celebrating, the vast diversity of early American life, and with that the vast diversity of early American scholarship.

16My own early research on revolutionary and early national Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the wider tobacco south has benefitted from the concept of Atlantic history (as has my other work), as is evident in the reference above about the labour of Riversdale slaves in wider context. The concept of vastness and its implicit and perhaps inherent insistence on diversity may further benefit my more recent and future research, even if the subject matter is more traditional. My study of the long-term impact of the Glorious Revolution in Britain, the American colonies, and the early United States has made me aware of a problem of homogenisation in certain aspects of Atlantic history. While the effort to explore commonalities and connections is laudable, the effort to synthesise can lead to a stress on sameness.

17That sameness may sometimes be perfectly appropriate, but not always. While David Lovejoy’s seminal and still standard account of the Glorious Revolution in America stressed that colonists suffered the same Stuart tyrannies as their English counterparts and responded in the cause of the same rights of freeborn Englishmen, for example, it seems to me that interpretations of these tyrannies and their rights diverged significantly on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Briefly and very generally, while English people and in the long run Britons saw the Revolution in terms of the restoration of an “ancient constitution” and the final establishment of parliamentary sovereignty, colonists saw the Revolution in terms of the restoration of natural rights and the final establishment of local legislative supremacy and ultimately popular sovereignty. The importance of the implications of these different interpretations of 1688-89 for everything that happened from 1764 to 1776 and even indeed to 1791 can scarcely be overstated. It is difficult to frame these divergences within the generally homogenising paradigm of Atlantic History. Much easier to do so within the potentially more flexible and divergence-friendly framework of a Vast Early America.

18Yet every historiographical evolution raises new questions. Just as the new economic, social, and cultural histories did, just as Atlantic History has done, so does Vast Early America. Perhaps for example a new emphasis on diversity and divergence will eventually at least partially validate Gordon Wood by creating a once-again fragmented (or “mushy”) picture of early America. I think this is unlikely, however, given the collective experience of the profession. The best signs so far are the articles noted above, all of which attempt to place their subjects and subject matter in larger perspectives. And indeed the William and Mary Quarterly facilitated individual efforts by grouping a variety of otherwise disparate studies in a roundtable that aimed not only to position its subject in the mainstream of historiography but also to find commonalities and connections by, as the roundtable title put it, “Centering Families in Atlantic History.”

  • 1 I owe this final point to Elodie Peyrol-Kleiber of the University of Poitiers, who made it during d (...)

19But that roundtable title, in particular the words “Atlantic History,” brings us to what is perhaps a more worrying concern. Early America may be vast, but does it necessarily include the Atlantic Ocean and does it extend to Europe and Africa or indeed anywhere beyond? Admittedly, American historians have been better than at least British ones at integrating their subject into a wider Atlantic context (I am reminded of a British historian colleague with whom I once co-taught a British-Atlantic World course and who described the division of our labour therein as follows: “I’m doing Britain and Steve’s doing the Atlantic World”). But that is all the more reason to keep pushing an Atlantic agenda, and ensuring that our vision of early America, however vast, is still vast enough to keep Europe and Africa in its sights.1

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Andrews, Charles McLean. “On the Writing of Colonial History.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 1.1 (1944): 27-48.

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. 1949. Trans. Sian Reynolds. New York: Harper Collins, 1972.

Christie, Nancy. “ ‘He is the master of his house’: Families and Political Authority in Counterrevolutionary Montreal.” Centering Families in Atlantic History. Spec. issue of William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 70.2 (2013): 341-70.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: OUP, 1989.

Girard, Philippe R., and Jean-Louis Donnadieu. “Toussaint Before Louverture: New Archival Findings on the Early Life of Toussaint Louverture.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 70.1 (2013): 41-78.

Greene, Jack P., and J. R. Pole, eds. Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Kulikoff, Allan. The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.

Lovejoy, David S. The Glorious Revolution in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Mangan, Jane. “Moving Mestizos in Sixteenth-Century Peru: Spanish Fathers, Indigenous Mothers, and the Children in Between.” Centering Families in Atlantic History. Spec. issue of William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 70.2 (2013): 273-94.

Meinig, D. W. Atlantic America, 1492-1800. Vol. 1 of The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Piker, Josh. “Getting Lost.” Uncommon Sense ‒ The Blog 21 Jan. 2016. 08/08/2017

Piker, Josh. “Coming Home,” Uncommon Sense ‒ The Blog 3 May 2016. 08/08/2017

Sarson, Steven. The Tobacco-Plantation South in the Early American Atlantic World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. Oxford: OUP, 1994.

Wood, Gordon S. “History in Context: The American vision of Bernard Bailyn.” The Weekly Standard 23 Feb. 2015.

Van Deusen, Nancy E. “Seeing Indios in Sixteenth-Century Castile.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 69.2 (2013): 205-34.

Wulf, Karin. “#VastEarlyAmerica and Origins Stories: WMQ 1:1.” Uncommon Sense The Blog 22 Feb. 2016. 08/08/2017.

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1 I owe this final point to Elodie Peyrol-Kleiber of the University of Poitiers, who made it during discussion after I had delivered the original paper.

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Steven Sarson, « Breadth and Depth”: Some Remarks on Empire, Atlantic History and Vast Early America (Round-table II) »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 74 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2017, consulté le 09 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Steven Sarson

Steven Sarson did his BA at the University of East Anglia and PhD at the Johns Hopkins University. He has authored two books and a third, Barack Obama: American Historian, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2018. He has also published numerous articles (including in the Journal of the Early Republic, the Journal of Economic History, and the William and Mary Quarterly) and edited an 8-volume document collection on The American Colonies and the British Empire. He has taught at Towson State University and Swansea University and is now Professor of American Civilisation at Université Jean Moulin – Lyon 3.

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