August 2017

Review: Creating a Nation, Unit 1 of Joyce Appleby’s The American Vision

This unit does not ask questions of the materials it includes that would provide a greater voice for disenfranchised communities like women, Native Americans, and African Americans.

See our introduction to this series for a list of the other units reviewed.

by Scott Oliver

Unit 1 of Joyce Appleby et al.’s American Vision examines early American history from the arrival of prehistoric indigenous groups through the ratification of the Constitution. The first section of chapter one provides a basic outline of the indigenous communities that inhabited North America pre-European colonization. While it was a pleasant surprise that the indigenous communities were given an entire section, one problem arises from the fact the book condenses 9,500 years of history into approximately 10 pages.

Section two presents the beginnings of European exploration, including Africa and Asia, providing a general background as to why Europeans eventually colonized the Americas. The notion that the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the North American continent is put forward in this section, ignoring the Nordic explorations of what is today Canada hundreds of years prior.[1] The language involved with this section follows the Eurocentric history of America. The “discovery” of North America by Columbus ignores the fact millions of Native peoples were already inhabiting the continent (for thousands of years at this point).

Frontispiece from History of the Discovery of America (1810) depicting initial encounter between native peoples and Europeans. Courtesy of Aurora University.

The remainder of the unit explores the creation of the thirteen colonies and their evolution into the United States. Everything from the first settlements to the economy of slavery is covered in the third and fourth sections, while chapter two focuses on the American Revolution. One trend that works well in this section is the inclusion of primary sources, allowing students the ability to read the words for themselves instead of relying on the authors to interpret them. The use of annotations provided by Appleby et al. on the Constitution provide the students with an opportunity to read the original document while helping interpret some of the more difficult legal language.

This unit does not ask questions of the materials it includes that would provide a greater voice for disenfranchised communities like women, Native Americans, and African Americans.

This book presents the early history of North America in a structurally and factually sound manner. The structure of each chapter is easy to follow, while the information is factually accurate. The largest problem found in this unit is a combination of the language used and the exclusion of specific groups, including women, African Americans, and Native Americans (barring the first section). In her book, An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes: “The history of the United States is a history of settler-colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.”[2] With this idea in mind, Appleby et al.’s view on both the pre-European colonization and post-colonization history of North America is seen through a different lens.

Women’s labor in the colonial period. Courtesy of WomenHistoryBlog.

The language used presents the history of the United States as a history of white male European settlers colonizing a land that was mostly void of inhabitants, while the indigenous populations are discussed briefly and quickly forgotten. Women are given four paragraphs in the entire unit, while African Americans are spoken of in the abstract as slaves with not a drop of ink spilled as to what that meant to the individual being enslaved. There is no discussion of the psychological toll it takes on those forced from their home and sold into slavery.

Photograph of slaves from the Civil War era. Courtesy of Pinimg.com

To conclude with another quote from An Indigenous People’s History of the United States: “Inherent in the myth we’ve been taught [of the founding of America] is an embrace of settler colonialism and genocide. The myth persists, not for a lack of free speech or poverty of information but rather an absence of motivation to ask questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative of the origin story.”[3] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s criticism of United States history is seen no more clearly than in textbooks like this one by Appleby et al. American Vision does well to provide a coherent, factually accurate portrayal of the founding of the United States. Its structure is easy to follow, and the information is easily digestible. It does not, however, ask questions of the materials it includes that would provide a greater voice for disenfranchised communities like women, Native Americans, and African Americans. These groups played as much a part in shaping the United States as white men, and yet their impact is often overlooked. Fortunately, this is an easily remedied issue: Appleby et al. can provide more views from disenfranchised groups to create a more inclusive history of the foundation of the United States.

Recommended Readings

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon, 2015.

Singleton, Theresa A. “I, Too, Am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American Life. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Sobel, Mechal. The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in 18th-century Virginia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989.

Wulf, Karin A. Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Scott Oliver profile picture.jpg

Scott Oliver is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his Masters of Applied Anthropology, focusing on the African Diaspora in the early 19th century. Scott’s most recent research has focused on the diet of enslaved communities at James Madison’s Montpelier. He is currently employed by the Bureau of Land Management, and can be reached at here and followed on Twitter at @scottsnightout.

Notes

[1] McGhee, Robert. “Contact between native North Americans and the medieval Norse: a review of the evidence.” American Antiquity 49, no. 1 (1984): 4-26.

[2] Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Vol. 3. Beacon Press, 2014.

[3] Ibid, 2.

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