Rethinking the Colonial in Colonial America

Jessica Choppin Roney

This fall, I am throwing out my existing Colonial America syllabus and trying something completely new. My new course is organized around a central question: What is (was?) “colonial” about colonial America? Or, to formulate the question slightly differently than Michael Warner did eighteen years ago, how might I productively reframe the chronology of a class named “Colonial America”?[1]

Map of Kentucke published in 1784 along with The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke by John Filson. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Map of Kentucke published in 1784 along with The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke by John Filson. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been teaching for ten years now, and “Colonial America” is a regular in my line-up. I’ve taught it in various iterations adopting at different times each of the two fairly standard approaches: One is Atlantic history and the other Colonial British America. In each approach I am deeply influenced by the paradigm of Atlantic history and disrupting students’ assumptions about the geography of the early modern world. For all the legitimate problems many have identified with the paradigm of Atlantic history, I value it for how it de-centers an older narrative of the Thirteen Colonies (somehow they’re always capitalized), and makes them not the center but instead a part of a much larger, messier, and ultimately more compelling story of exchange, interpenetration, and entanglement. However, after a stimulating decade of turning the map upside down and sideways, I’ve come to conclude that the questions I have in my own scholarship right now are not only about de-centering the geography of colonial America but its chronology.

The basic point I am coming to appreciate is that colonial America persisted well after 1776. To conclude a course in colonial history with the American Revolution reifies the same geography and teleology that Atlantic history advertises itself as challenging. We tend to teach colonial America as if it means early America, or pre-independence America, as if with the Declaration of Independence colonialism was snuffed out. To make that assumption implicitly inscribes a particular geography on what is “America”: It is to say, Atlantic framing notwithstanding, what we have really been describing is the pre-national history of the United States of America. The rupture with Britain marks not the end of Atlantic history but does signal the end of colonial history in most college classes, my own included. That much of the work on the “Early Republic” tends to turn away from the Atlantic for its framing reinforces the close connection understood to inhere between colonial, early, and Atlantic. But of course, even restricting ourselves only to Anglophone North America, many colonies persisted and indeed flourished after 1776; some still do to this day. Britain retained and strengthened its hold on the Caribbean and the provinces that eventually formed Canada. To end colonial America with the Revolution likewise is to imply that the new United States itself had no colonies, despite a rich scholarly literature that considers the United States as an empire. The message is that the United States, with its promise that all men were equal, was somehow an empire with no colonies (or at least not until the Spanish American War)—fodder for yet more exceptionalist narratives of U.S. development. Taken from the perspective of Cherokee and Shawnee people trying to defend their land; white, Anglophone colonists trying to assert sovereignty in the trans-Appalachian west and beyond; or the ongoing cost of the Louisiana Purchase measured in obligations the United States still pays to this day to Native tribes, the U.S. is ripe for consideration not only as an empire but as a colonizer.

So this fall, inspired in part by my participation in the joint issue of the William and Mary Quarterly and Journal of the Early Republic, “Writing To and From 1776,” and the workshop that preceded it, I am troubling the chronology for my Colonial America class. The American Revolution will not fall at the end of the class, but roughly at the halfway point. I have made the choice to adopt the “post-hole” approach, which is to say to dig deeply into a few topics rather than attempt a comprehensive survey. The class will be organized around four units: Contact, Labor, Rights & Rebellions, and Colonial America after 1776.

The first three units will all include readings and topics that would look familiar in any Colonial or Atlantic history course, including an analysis of first contact between Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans; Iroquois power; the status of indentured servants; the rise of commodity crops and plantation slavery; mercantilism; the slave trade; the rising power of British colonial legislatures; rebellions by enslaved people; and the coming of an imperial crisis in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The persistence of the colonial in the independent United States. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The American Revolution will happen in Week 8 or 9 (out of 14) and then readings will encourage students to think about the status of African Americans and women in the newly independent U.S.; the choices confronting Loyalists; continuities between colonial and early national policy (and constraints on central power); the efforts of the United States to come up with a coherent policy for creating its own new colonies (called territories); the fight by Shawnee and other indigenous people to prevent colonization in Ohio; the policy of Indian removal as enacted on Cherokee people; the full price of the Louisiana Purchase and its ongoing effects to the current day; the Loyalist diaspora to Nova Scotia and founding of the new colony of New Brunswick; and the choices open to and inflicted upon loyal Caribbean colonies. Some of the secondary scholarship I am thinking of assigning include:

  • Colin Calloway, “The Visions of Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh,” The Shawnees and the War for America (New York, 2008), 126‒
  • Eliga Gould, “Independence and Interdependence: The American Revolution and the Problem of Postcolonial Nationhood, circa 1802,” William and Mary Quarterly 74 (Oct. 2017), 729‒
  • Pekka Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire (New Haven, CT, 2008), selections.
  • Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York, 2011), selections.
  • Donald F. Johnson, “Ambiguous Allegiances: Urban Loyalties during the American Revolution,” Journal of American History104 (Dec. 2017), 610‒
  • Robert Lee, “Accounting for Conquest: The Price of the Louisiana Purchase of Indian Country,” Journal of American History 103 (Mar. 2017), 921‒
  • Jessica Choppin Roney, “1776, Viewed from the West,” Journal of the Early Republic 37 (Winter 2017), 655‒
  • Andrew Shankman, “Toward a Social History of Federalism: The State and Capitalism To and From the American Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic 37 (Winter 2017), 615‒
  • Michael Warner, “What’s Colonial About Colonial America?” in Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Ithaca, NY, 2000), 49‒
  • Richard White, “The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of American History 65 (Sept. 1978), 319‒
  • Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8 (Dec. 2006), 387‒
  • Sarah Yeh, “Colonial Identity and Revolutionary Loyalty: The Case of the West Indies,” in British North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. Stephen Foster (Oxford, UK, 2013), 195‒226.

I recognize that by focusing on Anglophone Colonial America this class too inscribes its own assumptions of geography and chronology (and reflects my own training in the early modern British Atlantic world). Without trying to side-step the responsibility to be self-critical, I also recognize that in a 14-week semester, it would be impossible and probably unwise to attempt to untether all familiar markers or paradigms. But my hope is not to create the perfect class (I’ll never succeed), but to challenge my students to debate what is colonial, or post-colonial, about America and to give them tools to move beyond “early” or “the pre-history of the United States” in their definitions. Opening not only the geography on “Colonial America” as Atlantic paradigms have inspired us to do, but to move as well beyond its traditional chronology I hope suggests a number of ways dramatically to rethink its teaching beyond my own first attempt this fall.


[1] Michael Warner, “What’s Colonial about Colonial America?” in Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Ithaca, NY, 2000), 49‒70.

22 May 2018

About the Author

Jessica Choppin Roney is Associate Professor of History at Temple University.

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