A history not viewing America as a fait accompli

By Clint Talbott

Fred Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, has been named a professor of distinction in the College of Arts and Sciences.

As he strives to complete an important history of America, Fred Anderson contemplates a host of pitfalls, prominent among them is writing a history that assumes that the United States was fated to emerge as it did.

Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, is grappling with how to complete a history that is provisionally titled “Imperial America, 1672-1764,” a volume that he and co-author Andrew Cayton, distinguished professor of history at Miami University, “hope to live long enough to see published” among other volumes of the Oxford History of the United States.

Anderson ruminated on the challenges of his current project in a November presentation during which he was recognized as a professor of distinction in CU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“We’re writing a volume that cannot be told as story of Americans, because the United States didn’t yet exist,” Anderson said. A key difficulty is determining how to write “a general narrative that does not succumb to the teleology of a nation state, that the U.S. is a necessary outcome. That’s a big problem.”

Further, Anderson noted, he and Cayton wrestle with how or whether to incorporate the history of New Mexico and Quebec into a narrative about America. Further, he said, to tell the story of Eastern America, “we have to tell the stories of Western Europe and West Africa, the West Indies and the Atlantic itself, which was the greatest highway of information and commerce of its day.”

Today, of course, the history of America is seen as more than just the history of its English-speaking white men. “Now we must and we want to include Native Americans as historical actors,” along with African Americans, and diverse Europeans who inhabited North America.

“They all matter,” Anderson said, adding that the authors want to include the “half of these players who happen to be women and who deserve a place” in American history. Even domestic animals have their place, because they were vastly important in shaping the continent and even helped trigger some of the most destructive wars in North America, he said.

To tell all of these stories is not only to affirm that the American story is larger and more complex than that of “dead white guys.” To tell all those stories is also to “transform the nature of the story itself,” one with many meanings and characters, he said.

A key challenge is in creating a synthetic narrative culled from disparate historical sources. “We have to make more sense of the world than they made of it, because they were blinkered by the limitations of the day,” such as the slowness of communication.

It’s not that things had to work out as they did, Anderson added. “In fact, they don’t … And that has to have a place in our story as well.”

Anderson said he and Cayton haven’t solved the problem of how to write the 800-page book, “because we cannot make our book simply a prologue to an American nation that didn’t have to exist.”

But they have chosen to organize the book around a simple concept: power. In a new world populated with colonists who might have had little in common besides being subjects of the same king, how did some groups develop the will and wherewithal to exercise power? And how did subordinate groups accept the exercise of power over them?

As Anderson describes the book, it is the story of maturing colonies and the British empire, a story of the foundations of the American republic, and a story about a century-long struggle to bring order to chaos.

“I only hope to God we can do it,” he said.

The honorific title College Professor of Distinction is reserved for scholars and artists of national and international distinction who are also recognized by their college peers as teachers and colleagues of exceptional talent. Anderson and Leslie Leinwand, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and also chief scientific officer of the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology, are this year’s honorees.

Anderson, who directs CU’s Honors Program, received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1981 and has taught in CU’s History Department since 1983, has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Charles Warren Center of Harvard University, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

He is the author or editor of five books, including “Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766,” which won the Francis Parkman Prize and inspired the 2005 Public Broadcasting System television series “The War That Made America.”

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