Publication Date

February 1, 1997

There are compelling reasons why American history should be taught within an international framework. As the United States developed from frontier outpost to immigrant receiver to world power, it was never separate from events and trends elsewhere. Today's global consciousness has arisen from economic forces and technologies of travel and communications that are extensions of older trade patterns and transportation revolutions. Even traditional assumptions about American uniqueness (or "exceptionalism") imply, if they do not always invite, comparisons with other nations. Yet it's no secret that the prevailing perspective in American history has been intensely parochial. Our textbooks and survey courses relentlessly dissect the nation's domestic affairs and reserve only a few glances abroad for wars and other conflicts. Whether we intend it or not, this myopia encourages our students to view American developments as uniquely benign and isolated from the rest of the world.

Calls to internationalize American history are increasingly appearing in professional journals. A 1980 AHA conference on the introductory history course resolved that" American history survey courses must make some effort to include an examination of a larger world, a more global vision" (Perspectives, November 1982, p. 19). More recently, Peter Stearns suggested in these pages (April 1989) ways to incorporate the United States more fully into the thematic framework of world history. The National Standards for United States History, published in 1994 by the National Center for History in the Schools, endorses this complementary relationship in principle, prescribing that U.S. and world history be “interrelated in content and similar in format” (p. 4). Yet, even in their revised ,1996 version, the U.S. standards, despite a promising beginning in the encounter period, view the nation’s history as a fundamentally inward-looking enterprise, connected to other national histories only by the two world wars and their aftermath. Amid the debate over whether George Washington or Harriet Tubman should have been mentioned more often, no one has noted the standards’ shortage of references to foreign countries or events.

A growing body of historical scholarship ties American developments to trends elsewhere, pursues ideas and movements across national boundaries, and analyzes U.S. history comparatively. Many Americanists are unaware of the challenge this scholarship poses to conventional teaching. But reluctance to internationalize our courses has deeper roots as well, ranging from narrow graduate training and acceptance of traditional exceptionalist notions to insistence upon detailed coverage of domestic events, fear of students' inability to master other histories, or simply the convenience of limiting our classroom demands.

A Genetic Approach

If we are to succeed in relating American developments to world history within the existing nation-centered curriculum, we need to discuss models and approaches. From a review of recent textbooks and scholarship I have extracted four distinctive but not mutually exclusive methods for internationalizing the teaching of U.S. history. The first, which I call the "genetic approach," broadens the search for American origins beyond 17th-century England to the post-1450 expansion of Europe and its collision with other worlds. The narrative that accompanies this approach opens with the rise of global commerce, the migration of Europeans to peripheral regions, and the development of the African slave trade. In other words, it begins with Columbus rather than Jamestown. More and more texts start even earlier, thanks to increased appreciation for Native American cultures thriving long before Europeans arrived. Recent survey texts have noticeably expanded coverage of the precontact history of Europe, America, and Africa, adopting the revisionist palette of "red, white, and black" to modify the traditional "foundation narrative." This is a trend the national standards extend in recasting the period before 1620 as the era when "three worlds meet."

Nevertheless, even the new textbooks narrow their focus to the eastern seaboard as soon as they reach the period in which British colonists gained a permanent foothold in North America. Setting the larger context takes longer now, but when Virginia and Massachusetts Bay get going, that context disappears. The U.S. history standards follow the same trajectory. They advocate a wide-angle, "hemispheric approach" to the encounter period, zoom in to a "continental and Caribbean approach" for the era of colonization, but after the Revolution exchange the zoom lens for a microscope under which the nation alone is placed. Like current survey textbooks and teaching, they isolate the 19th-century themes of democracy, expansion, reform, Civil War, and industrialization as domestic issues.

What's wrong with this narrowing of focus? The world history standards, which the U.S. standards are supposed to complement, suggest an answer. Between 1750 and 1914, they note, "the history of the United States … was not self-contained but fully embedded in the context of global change" (p. 203). The standards recommend situating political and social developments of this era internationally, and they suggest such assignments as comparing Spanish American independence movements with the American Revolution and assessing workers' responses to industrialism in western Europe and the United States.

The Foreign-Relations Model

One way to remind students that the United States remained in the world after nationhood is to highlight episodes in which Americans were involved in political, diplomatic, or military activities abroad. This second approach to internationalizing our teaching, the interactionist or foreign-relations model, is by far the most common way that international themes and events enter into American history teaching. Concern with foreign policy has long been a staple of survey courses and texts, and although the rise of social history in the 1970s and 1980s made inroads on its prominence, the puzzle of the "new world order" and the globalization of economic problems have placed the international context of American developments in the foreground. In the latest textbooks, foreign affairs take up about a third of the coverage of the Carter-Reagan-Bush years, a large share for a period without a major war.

For the 19th century it is a different story. Except for the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War, our survey students usually hear and read nothing about foreign relations until the Spanish-American War introduces the question of imperialism and initiates an era of American involvement in the world that reaches to the present. Hence the U.S. survey conventionally begins with the genetic approach and ends with the foreign-relations paradigm. Attention to national history burrows in from an early modem global context, concentrates on key passages of domestic history from the Revolution to World War I, and then finally resurfaces with the consideration of the nation's role in the world. As long as we follow this basic subterranean route, even if we add more international episodes into our syllabi, we won't excavate and aerate the entire substructure of the survey.

Transnational History

What's needed is continuous engagement with the ways that American political, social, and economic developments have been implicated in world patterns and events. The American 19th century, despite its traditional treatment in isolation, provides many opportunities for more global inquiry. That a rise of democracy occurred simultaneously in the United States, Europe, and Latin America suggests that international as well as domestic forces were at work during the age of revolutions. A more dramatic example is the frontier, which many students still celebrate as the locus of American exceptionalism. Studies of other 19th-century frontiers—in Argentina, Siberia, and South Africa—have found striking parallels as well as differences in regard to processes of expansion, subjugation, and settlement. The relationship between frontiers is clarified by world-systems theory, which views pioneer traders and settlers not as rugged individualists but as the advance guard of a Europe-based economic system engaged in integrating peripheral regions into its capitalist market.1

Such examples support a broadly transnational approach derived from world history as a third and more fundamental way to internationalize American history. One version of this approach, embodied in the world history standards, incorporates major features of U.S. history into a topical scaffolding that renders American history largely an extension of European civilization. The treatment of U.S. history begins with North America as an outpost on the world periphery participating in the contemporary web of colonization, mercantilism, and the slave trade. After independence, the United States begins a course that parallels the more advanced and influential nations, with its own version of democratic politics and ideologies, its share of the demographic transition, and its variant forms of industrialization, imperialism, and class formation. Finally, after World War I, the United States is accorded major attention as a world power and leading consumer society. This three-part chronology suggests a viable way to adapt the periodization of American history to a more global context.

Taken to a higher conceptual level, the world-history approach also asks students to grapple with the place of American developments in transnational interpretive constructs. Often called stage or cycle theories, these constructs include Marxist or feminist frameworks, world-systems theory, modernization theory, state development trajectories, and Kondratiev longwave economic cycles.

In either its topical or theoretical guise, a world-history approach tends to make U.S. history teachers uncomfortable. There are problems of emphasis and perspective. Shifting the early national focus toward Napoleon, for instance, may demonstrate that the world's eyes were not upon the tiny United States at the time. Europe's preoccupation with Napoleon in fact helped the infant North American republic to survive. But relegating the United States to the background in a course about American history is something, most Americanists are reluctant to do. They want their selection of topics governed by criteria other than world-history relevance. It seems foolish, for example, for a survey syllabus to ignore Shays's Rebellion because it had few international connections but to include the antebellum peace movement because it had many.

A transnational approach may also conflict with the traditional, often mandated, requirements of the U.S. survey, which emphasizes event rather than structure, chronology rather than historical generalization. Many historians would argue that commitment to such schema as world-systems theory imposes a rigid conceptual apparatus on a course for which they favor multiple perspectives. Macrosocietal concepts may be necessary tools for world historians, but to Americanists enjoying the relative luxury of teaching a mere 300 years of national history, the opportunity to engage students in mid- and lower-range ,interpretive controversies about specific events and movements remains compelling.

A Comparative Model

The fourth model, an internationally comparative approach, has the potential to incorporate many of the benefits of the others while avoiding their chronological boundaries or conceptual straitjackets. The method I have adopted, which George Fredrickson labels "comparative perspective," plants itself firmly in the "home nation" but seeks to illuminate its themes and subjects by considering similarities and differences from comparable historical experiences elsewhere.2 Not governed by world history, it nevertheless conducts a running dialogue with it without abandoning the U.S. survey's traditional chronological clarity and factual detail. The topics covered are generally the standard ones, but lectures, readings, and discussion consistently introduce international events and patterns to connect with American developments or to measure them against.

Many aspects of American history can be seen as analogous, parallel (i.e., simultaneous), or connected to developments elsewhere. Sometimes it is the absence of links that seems to matter, as with the lack of feudal arrangements in the American colonies or an enduring labor party in the United States. Given the emphases of existing comparative studies, I devote most attention in my course to three reference groups: (1) the other "new societies" in Latin America, Canada, Australia, and South Africa founded during the great age of European expansion; (2) western European countries that forged enduring transatlantic connections with the early United States and embodied similar political, social, and industrial trends; and (3) the new political and industrial world powers of the 20th century, Japan and Russia. There are exceptions. Early national history and later ventures in imperialism, for instance, permit useful analogies to 20th-century developing nations, seen from both sides of the power relationship.

As both the world and U.S. history standards indicate, early American history can easily be cast in a comparative mold. The Old World-New World encounter occasions a contrast between indigenous and European societies in the 16th century. The colonization policies and patterns of the French, Dutch, Spanish, and English are already implicitly compared in most texts. And the revolution of the 13 British colonies, which culminates the genetic approach, has several fruitful reference points; the French and Haitian revolutions, the Latin American independence movements, and, more distantly, the anticolonial movements of the 20th century. Comparative questions about colonial society can also be raised for issues more specific to Anglo-American history, such as the Great Awakening or the status of women in England and its colonies.3

The comparative approach works especially well in opening new international vistas on American history when the focus is on the period between the Revolution and World War 1. Here survey-course teachers can draw upon a sophisticated comparative literature to bring discussion of specific episodes in American history such as Washington's Farewell Address the Indian Removal Act, passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, or the Homestead Strike, into comparison with parallel international events and trends. Some of the topics that teachers may choose to focus on include the theme of the United States as a "new nation," the comparison of frontiers or "borderlands” between expansionist settlers and indigenous peoples, the nature of slavery and race relations, the dynamics of emancipation, the process of industrialization, the formation of the working class and its collective organizations, or the reception of immigrants.4

With an imaginative selection of readings, more unusual comparisons can be added to these themes: parallels between Jacksonian democracy and Chartism; the question of southern, rather than American, “exceptionalism"; and comparisons between the Civil War and national unifications in Germany and Italy. Students are often surprised to discover that many American reform movements were allied with counterparts abroad. The antislavery, temperance, utopian-socialist, and women suffrage campaigns, and even Progressivism, though developing in different national contexts, were shaped in important ways by the migration of reformers, ideas, and strategies in the Anglo-European world.5

Foreign relations consistently comes to the fore in a course with an internationally comparative focus. Like domestic history, episodes in foreign relations can be subject to different types of comparison. American imperialism in the Philippines, for example, can be connected to the contemporaneous European brand, tested against general theories of imperialism by Hobson or Lenin, or viewed as analogous to our later involvement in Vietnam or even to the imperial ventures of Greece and Rome. Generally speaking, distant analogies seem to give students in introductory courses more trouble. Exploring divergent American, European, and non-Western perspectives on the Cold War, for instance, proves more fruitful than comparing America's postwar commitments to the 19th-century Pax Brittanica. And although students are intrigued by Paul Kennedy’s question about whether the United States is following the path of the Roman, Austrian, and British empires into decline, they quickly run out of details on the far side of the comparison (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Political Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 [Random House, 1986]).

For all foreign relations episodes, the dual- or multiple-perspective approaches that many teachers have adopted for domestic history are an essential comparative tool. International events from the Louisiana Purchase to the Versailles Treaty to the Vietnam War can be illuminated by examining even-handedly the histories, aims, and actions of all the national protagonists involved, not just those of the United States—a proposition that seems self-evident but is rarely explored in our textbooks.

As for world-systems approaches or other transnational theories, rather than dominating the survey course, they can be introduced at appropriate episodes or eras. Teaching the Great Depression comparatively, for example, involves the recognition that it was a worldwide economic collapse—compelling evidence of a world economy. From there, students can be led to consider whether periodic depressions support the view that economic development proceeds in longwave cycles and whether popular moods or political shifts also follow such cycles. John Garraty's provocative discussion of parallels between FDR's and Hitler's economic policies can raise general questions about political responses to depressions (The Great Depression [Doubleday Anchor, 1987]). To what extent have 19th-and 20th-century depressions led to greater government control over daily life, and thus helped create the welfare state? Without neglecting the details of the New Deal, survey-course students can position it in world patterns and argue its place in world historians’ conceptual schemes.

Problems and Possibilities

Teachers setting out to internationalize U.S. history should expect to encounter difficulties. Some students harbor such an' unshakable faith in America's benign uniqueness that it colors all of their comparative work. A more frequent problem is students' lack of adequate knowledge of world history. This can be addressed in various ways: minilectures for background and chronology, guest lectures, appointment of "area experts" among class members, or the use of library reference assignments. Such methods can allow students a meaningful entree into comparative issues without making them feel lost or encouraging them to descend automatically into national stereotypes.

Much time and care must be given to selecting readings, which need to be clear but not unrelievedly conceptual, and detailed enough to make open-ended discussion possible. In fields with a mature comparative literature, like frontier studies or race relations, articles appearing in American Heritage or History Today make effective survey readings. Useful comparative chapters and sections sometimes lie hidden in histories aimed at a general audience, such as Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience (Vintage, 1958), John Morton Blum’s V Was for Victory (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), and Witold Rybczynski’s City Life (Scribner, 1995). Occasionally, a gem turns up elsewhere, as in the delightful comparison of Japanese and American baseball in Robert Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa (Vintage, 1989).

No doubt, the kind of approach I have sketched here is open to the charge of neglecting certain details of U.S. history, but I believe the trade-off of perspective for coverage is well worth it. Another fear may be that comparative U.S. history will downplay the internal differences among Americans that the national standards take pains to emphasize. A comparative approach does not deny diversity but clarifies and contextualizes it. Comparative studies of the American "color line," for example, have revealed the distinctive configuration of race and class in the United States through contrast with group identities and relations in other national settings. To those who fear that comparison will make U.S. history look too favorable or, conversely, unexceptional, the proper response is that a comparative approach aims neither to praise nor to criticize the United States but to understand the nature of the country and where it stands in the world.

My experience suggests that the benefits of teaching U.S. history comparatively far outweigh the potential drawbacks. Students note that the comparative approach helps them connect the experience of the United States to that of the rest of the world and to assess more accurately their nation's distinctive developments and qualities. Some report renewed excitement when confronted with an enlarged version of American history, whose horizons seemed to shrink as they encountered it over the years in ever more specialized chunks. The great strength of a comparative approach is its ability to bring an international perspective and larger hypotheses to a traditionally" narrow teaching framework that needs more than ever to move toward global awareness. As we search for ways to connect American history to the rest of the world, this approach holds real promise for the introductory course.


1. On transnational democratic developments of the 1820s, see Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (Harper Collins, 1991). For reviews of comparative frontier studies, see Peter Kolchin, “Comparing American History” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982): 78-9; and David J. Weber, “Turner, the Boltonians, and the Borderlands,” American Historical Review 91 (February 1986): 66-81. An attempt to situate the United States in Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems framework can be found in John Agnew, The United States in the World Economy: A Regional Geography (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987).

2. George M. Fredrickson, "Comparative History," in Michael Kammen, ed., The PastBefore Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in United States (Cornell Univ. Press, 1980), 466.

3. Useful comparative colonial and revolutionary studies include Roger Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America: A Comparative Study (Beacon Press, 1974); Lester D. Langley, The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850 (Yale Univ. Press, 1996); and Patrice Higgonet, Sister Republics: The Origins of French and American Republicanism (Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).

4. For representative titles, see Seymour Martin Lipset, The FirstNew Nation: The UnitedStates in Historical and Comparative Perspective, rev. ed. (W. W. Norton, 1979); James O. Gump The DustRose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1994); Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (Macmillan, 1971); George Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (Oxford Univ. Press, 1981); Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1983); Jean Hefner and Jeanine Rovet, eds., Pourquoi n’ya-t-il pas de socialisme aux Etats-Unis?/Why Is There No Socialism inthe United States? (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sodales, 1987); and Walter Nugent, Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914 (Indiana Univ. Press, 1992).

5. See Frank Thistlethwaite, America and the Atlantic Community: Anglo-American Aspects, 1790-1850 (Harper and Row, 1963); James M. McPherson, “Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question,” Civil War History 29 (September 1983), 230-44: Carl N. Degler, “One Among Many: The United States and National Unification,” in Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Lincoln The War President (Oxford Univ. Press, 89-119; Christine Bolt, The Women's Movements in the United States and Britain from the 1790s to the 1920s (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1993); and James T. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1986).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.