The Power and Peril of Geographical Paradigms in Early American History

Konstantin Dierks

Image 1: Hiroshige Utagawa, Bankoku nyūsen sugoroku (Foreign ships calling at port), ca. 1853-1869. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Beginning this month, The Panorama will launch a new roundtable entitled “The Pacific Early Republic.” This roundtable has its origins in SHEAR’s 2021 annual meeting, whose program contained an embarrassment of riches answering Rosemarie Zagarri’s 2011 call for historians to add a “global turn” to their investigation of the early American republic. Twelve sessions did so, ranging in their concern from the Ottoman world, to Latin America, to the Pacific world, to the American West. The five essays in this roundtable showcase the Pacific world, and they raise questions about the insights as well as limitations of geographical paradigms.

For any historian of the early American republic, the imperative of the “global turn” has added a daunting number of developed historiographies to be consulted and mastered. This is certainly true of the Pacific world in and of itself. There are the Pacific Basin and the Pacific Rim; the Indigenous and the imperial; waterscapes, transits, islands, and landmasses; Oceania, Asia, the Americas, and the Antipodes; Hawai’i and Fiji; China and Japan; the Pacific Northwest and California; explorers, traders, sailors, missionaries, and migrants; whaling and sealing; navies, clippers, and steamers; fur, guano, and gold; the adjacent Indian Ocean. The task of monitoring and keeping up with Pacific world historiography—read “historiographies”—is boundlessly demanding.

Of course, the “Atlantic world” as a category of analysis not so long ago had its own similar broadening effect at least on what had been called “early American” history. By the late 1990s, more and more books that once might have had “early America” in their titles shifted to “in the Atlantic world.” The impetus was to foreground the trumping significance of movement beyond the bounds of any national or sub-national container that unhelpfully delimited historical archives and historical narratives. The national was recast as artificial and in need of correction, and the Atlantic was presented as the corrective, and taken for past reality. Undeniable scholarly utilities and pedagogical benefits were brought by the decade-long conceptual hegemony of the Atlantic world.

So were analytical pitfalls, however, which caused the Atlantic world to fade as a category of analysis. Originating in the study of the horrific amplification of the transatlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century, and eagerly adopted in English/British imperial historiography in particular, the Atlantic world paradigm never fit Iberian or Dutch imperial scales as these already extended beyond the Atlantic domain long before the eighteenth century. The Atlantic world paradigm seemed myopically Anglocentric and then, once it was cautiously applied to other early modern European empires, Eurocentric. It failed to account for Eastern Europe, the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, east Africa, the Indian Ocean . . . and the Pacific world. It overlooked Indigenous peoples and the North American continental interior. Study of the nineteenth century made all of these geographical omissions that much more glaring and problematic. Hence Zagarri’s call for a “global turn.”

Yet the Atlantic world paradigm serves even more so as a cautionary tale. It was much better as a structural framework conducive to etic analysis, while inattentive to emic analysis of cultural subjectivities. Presented as a corrective to the artificial nation, the Atlantic world paradigm was no less artificial in its own way. Even as a structural framework, it registered transnational movement and interconnectivity while overlooking the simultaneity of multiple geographical scales. It was one-dimensional and ungrounded, placing its selection of evidence in service of the Atlantic world paradigm in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It could stray toward socially undifferentiated geopolitical aggregates as historical actors, in the manner of old-fashioned diplomatic history. And it tended toward a socially elite bias, seemingly in keeping with an ideological impulse to slay the dragon of nation using the knight of cosmopolitanism. Yet this was unreflexive social privilege and empty political radicalism on the part of scholars.

One solution to the blinders of the Atlantic world paradigm has been the “global turn,” though it too can favor etic over emic analysis, and ungrounded reductionism to one single geographical scale, the global itself. It too presented itself as a corrective to the nation without interrogating its own conceptual limitations. Another, more recent solution has been “vast early America,” a paradigm less preoccupied with overthrowing the national container (been there, done that), and more concerned with the porous, diverse social composition of a germinal future United States. It has its own ideological impulse, substituting transatlantic cosmopolitanism with a greater fullness of American social diversity from all geographical corners. It enacts its own kind of political withdrawal, yielding the messy toil of institutional politics in favor of a cultural politics that makes demands only on those deemed unenlightened. While the “vast early America” paradigm is more geographically capacious and grounded than the Atlantic world paradigm, it remains beholden to the United States as its tacit center, even as it is cursed by the complexity argument, with ever more filigree diversity to be accounted for.

The Atlantic world, the “global turn,” and “vast early America” are all akin to the conceptual mode of social history. In lieu of neglected social constituencies, they instead address neglected geographical spaces. As with social history in its heyday, these paradigms have opened historical archives to fresh analytical eyes and retrieved vantages without which history is utterly incomplete. They are essential for teaching undergraduates, for training graduate students, for updating grade-school education, and for challenging a reading public. Yet they are necessary but also insufficient to the task of investigating history. Just as social categories could not be presumed, given the demands of cultural history and an appreciation of intersectionality, so cannot geographical categories be presumed. The Atlantic, the global, and the Pacific are all not some kind of natural correctives to the false container of “the nation”; they are themselves artificial constructions, they fit within multiple scales . . . and they must be interrogated as such, in the tensions between the etic and the emic, the structural and the subjective.

What, then, is the Pacific world? Merely a subset of the “global turn”? The five essays in this roundtable, by Heesoo Cho, Sean Fraga, Minami Nishioka, Dael Norwood, and Michael Verney, reaffirm that the Pacific world has an important additive function since our compass of the Pacific world is still incomplete, which means that our compass of the early American republic in its relations with the wider world is likewise incomplete. The essays indicate that there remain more vantages to examine, more movements to trace, more connections to elucidate, more situations to scrutinize. One might ask further historical questions that span the contextual, the comparative, and the connective. For instance, what were the continuities as well as discontinuities between the domestic color line formulated with respect to Indigenous and enslaved peoples in the “United States,” and the global color line formulated with respect to Indigenous peoples in the wider world, as increasingly encountered in the era of the early American republic? If mindful of the blinders of other geographical paradigms, the Pacific world can be a useful new starting point for asking the kinds of historical questions that go beyond a mere additive function. This roundtable bids in that direction.

For Further Reading

For important syntheses inspiring recent new work, see:

David Igler, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (Oxford, UK, 2013).

Matt K. Matsuda, Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures (Cambridge, UK, 2012).

For a focus on Pacific islands, see:

Stuart Banner, Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous People from Australia to Alaska (Cambridge, MA, 2007).

Nicholas Thomas, Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (New Haven, CT, 2010).

For a focus on Hawai’i, see:

Noelani Arista, The Kingdom and the Republic: Sovereign Hawai’i and the Early United States (Philadelphia, 2019).

David A. Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Minneapolis, 2016).

Lorenz Gonschor, A Power in the World: The Hawaiian Kingdom in Oceania(Honolulu, 2019).

Gregory Rosenthal, Beyond Hawai’i: Native Labor in the Pacific World. (Berkeley, CA, 2018).

Joy Schulz, Hawaiian by Birth: Missionary Children, Bicultural Identity, and U.S. Colonialism in the Pacific (Lincoln, NE, 2017).

Jennifer Thigpen, Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai’i’s Pacific World (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014).

For environmental histories of the Pacific, see:

Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (Cambridge, UK, 2012).

Bathsheba Demuth,. Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (New York, 2019).

Ryan Tucker Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741–1867 (Oxford, UK, 2014).

On Americans venturing into the Pacific, see:

Hester Blum, The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration (Durham, NC, 2019).

Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca, NY, 2015).

Dane A. Morrison, True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore, 2014).

Dane A. Morrison, Eastward of Good Hope: Early America in a Dangerous World (Baltimore, 2021).

Brian Rouleau, With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire (Ithaca, NY, 2014).

Nancy Shoemaker, Pursuing Respect in the Cannibal Isles (Ithaca, NY, 2019).

On trade relations with Asia, see:

James R. Fichter, So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism (Cambridge, MA, 2010).

John R. Haddad, America’s First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation (Philadelphia, 2013).

Dael Norwood, Trading Freedom: How Trade with China Defined Early America (Chicago, 2022).

On Asian immigrants and others in the United States, see:

Nancy E. Davis, The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America (Oxford, UK, 2019).

Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Berkeley,CA, 2019).

Mae Ngai, The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (New York, 2021).

10 May 2022

About the Author

Konstantin Dierks is associate professor of history at Indiana University.  He is currently at work on a book about globalization of the United States, 1815-1861.

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