Eileen Ka-May Cheng

BA, Harvard University. MA, MPhil, PhD, Yale University. Special interest in early American history, with an emphasis on the American Revolution and the early American republic; European and American intellectual history; and historiography. Author of The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth: Nationalism and Impartiality in American Historical Writing, 1784-1860; author of articles and book reviews for History and Theory, Journal of American History, Reviews in American History, and Journal of the Early Republic. SLC, 1999–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Mystic Chords of Memory: Myth, Tradition, and the Making of American Nationalism

Fall

Is history just a memory of memories? This course will explore this question by looking at how Americans have remembered and mythologized important events and individuals in the nation's history. One of the best-known such myths is the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. On being questioned by his father about who chopped down the cherry tree, Washington confessed that he had done it, telling his father, “I cannot tell a lie.” Ironically, this story was itself a fabrication. We must also not forget “Honest Abe,” where the theme of “honesty” recurs. Why have such myths been so important to American national identity? Was Washington’s purported truthfulness, for example, a way of creating a sense of transparency and a bond of trust between the people and their democratically elected government? The course will address such questions by looking at the construction and function of tradition and myth, as well as the relationship between myth and tradition in American culture from the American Revolution to the Civil War. We will examine some of the specific myths and traditions that Americans invented, such as the mythologization of individual figures like Sojourner Truth and specific events like that of the Seneca Falls women's rights convention. We will pay special attention to the mythologization of the American Revolution and the myth of the self-made man, examining how figures such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln both contributed to and embodied these myths. We will consider how and why myths about these events and individuals were created and the extent to which they corresponded to social reality. The course will study how these myths both unified and divided Americans, as different groups used the same myths for conflicting social purposes. And finally, we will examine what these myths revealed about how Americans defined the nation’s identity. Was the United States a nation bound by “mystic chords of memory,” as Lincoln so poetically claimed? Or were Americans ultimately a “present-minded people,” defined by their rejection of the past? More precisely, did Americans view the very notion of tradition as an impediment to the unlimited possibilities for growth and the actualization of their “manifest destiny"?

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The “Founders” and the Origins of American Politics

Year

From the establishment of the nation to the present, the Founding Fathers have served as a touchstone for American identity. But can we speak of an American identity? Or would it be more accurate to speak of American identities? After all, what were the common visions of such diverse figures as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin? And to what extent have their differences created multiple and perhaps irreconcilable American identities? Indeed, the very term “Founding Fathers” may be an evasion of the conflicts that have run through our entire history. Is the notion of the Founding Fathers our nation’s counterpart to the harmony of a Garden of Eden? But did the authors of Genesis have it wrong? Harmony is not incompatible with conflict; instead, one requires the other so that the denial of one is, in effect, the denial of the other. This course will explore how and why Americans have put such a premium on the Founding Fathers as a source of political legitimacy by examining the diverse colonial roots of the political thought of the founding generation. We shall also explore the lines of continuity that link the founding generations to the influences of such European thinkers as John Locke and Adam Smith. The course will then look at the political vision of the Founding Fathers themselves, putting into serious question commonly held views about the ideals that they embraced. Were the founders proponents of liberal individualism and democracy, as so many Americans assume, or were they backward-looking reactionaries, seeking to hold onto a communal ideal modeled on the ancient republics of Greece and Rome? Finally, the course will analyze the political legacy of the founders during the early 19th century to the Civil War, ending with the question of how could both the Union and the Confederacy view themselves as the true inheritors of that legacy when they seemed to represent such opposed causes?

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Women and the Politics of Memory

Spring

“A vital need in education is to establish women in history as participants in the making of all history as they were in reality. This is my firm belief; my ‘cause’; and I work at it all the time, in various ways.” —Mary Beard, 1948

With this declaration, Mary Beard issued a clarion call for the recovery of women’s contributions to history, highlighting what she believed was the widespread neglect of their roles even by supporters of women’s rights. The conventional narrative of women’s history would have us believe that it was not until the upsurge of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s that scholars of women’s history began to carry out Beard’s imperative. In fact, the study of women’s history has had more of a history than Beard—or many people today—have assumed. As early as the 18th century, European and American historians acknowledged women as agents of history. This course will look at how historical representations of women from this period to the 20th century reflected changing gender roles, as well as other political and cultural developments. We shall examine how these forces encouraged women’s independence on the one hand and their subordination on the other. The course defines history broadly to include not only formal historical narratives but also other genres such as biographies, historical novels, and philosophical works
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Previous courses

First-Year Studies: Inventing America: Cultural Encounters and American Identity, 1607-1877

“The past is a foreign country,” T. H. Hartley once declared, and perhaps the past of one’s own country is doubly so. The present, after all, always seems inevitable. Surely the United States of 2013 is but the flowering of the seeds planted so many centuries ago. This course seeks to challenge this assertion, as we consider not only how Americans in the period between 1607 and 1877 differed from us but also how much they differed from one another. How did the early and diverse European colonists themselves deal with unfamiliar cultures at a time when the very concept of newness was alien to them? We must not forget that Columbus believed that he had simply discovered a new route to India. As different as they were from each other, neither the Native Americans who lived in North America, nor the Europeans who colonized that region, nor the Africans whom the colonists imported as slaves had any intention of establishing a new nation. Consequently, in examining American history from the early 17th century to the Civil War, the question should be not why did the United States divide during the Civil War but, rather, why were Americans able to unify as a nation at all? In our consideration of this question, we will focus on two interrelated themes: how these different cultures interacted with and affected one another and how Americans defined their identity. Who was considered American, and what did it mean to be an American? What was the relationship between American identity and other forms of social identity such as gender, class, race, and culture? We will address these questions by examining major political, social, cultural, and intellectual developments in American history from the colonial period to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Specific topics to be studied will include the European colonization of North America, relations between European settlers and Native Americans, the relationship between the colonies and Britain, the causes and effects of the American Revolution, the shift to a capitalist economy and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the character and development of slavery, and the causes and consequences of the Civil War. We will use both primary and secondary sources, but the course will place particular emphasis on primary documents as part of an effort to view history from the perspectives of historical actors themselves.

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The American Revolution and Its Legacy: From British to American Nationalism

Year

It may be comforting to know that historians agree that an American Revolution did indeed occur. Less comforting but more intriguing may be the realization that historians do not agree on when it commenced and when it ended, much less on the full meaning of what exactly took place beyond the mere facts of the Revolution. Certainly, the question was profound enough to move John Adams to ask, “What do we mean by the Revolution?” In the fall, we will examine the causes and character of the Revolution by studying the political, intellectual, social, and cultural dimensions of this event. In the spring, we will look at how Americans adapted the legacy of the Revolution to the social and political changes of the 19th century and at how that legacy at once divided and unified Americans in this period. How were both opponents and defenders of slavery able to appeal to the Revolution to legitimize their views? What was the relationship between the Revolution and the Civil War? Was the Civil War a “second American Revolution”? By looking at how Americans used the memory of the Revolution to define their identity, the course ultimately aims to achieve a better understanding of the basis for, and nature of, American nationalism.

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Women, Gender, and Politics in American History

Year

A course on women’s history in America can be understood only by way of its inextricable connection to the history of men. Therefore, while the emphasis of the course will be on women, we will also look at the category of gender more broadly by examining relations between men and women and conceptions of masculinity and men’s roles. More generally, the course will provide an overview of women’s history in America, beginning with the 17th-century colonial settlements and extending to the 1970s, by focusing on the relationship between gender and politics. We will examine the extent to which women were able to participate in the public sphere despite their exclusion from formal political power for much of the nation’s history. We will place the topic of women and politics in the larger context of American history, studying how more general social and cultural trends affected and were affected by women’s political activities. Specific topics and themes will include the ideology of separate spheres; the relationship of gender, race, and class; the impact of war on women; sectional and regional differences; the suffrage movement; and the emergence of feminism.

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“Not By Fact Alone”: The Making of History

Year

History, like memory, is a reconstruction and, as such, does not call out to us to be seen or heard. Instead, we seek and discover only what our perspective illuminates. For the Puritans, history was the unfolding of providential design; purpose, like the seed of a plant, was always present in the unfolding of events. For Enlightenment philosophes, history was the story of progress effected by human reason; purpose in this case was a human triumph, such as the triumph of medicine over prayer. For Marx, history was the story of class struggle; in this case, purpose was no more than following the money trail, coupled with the added optimism that, in the end, the scales of justice would be balanced. Each of these perspectives recognized and struggled with the notion that history is, in the final analysis, a fate beyond human control because of the paramount role of unintended consequences that counterpoints the history of societies no less than it counterpoints the life of the individual. In other words, is purpose an artifact of human understanding or woven into the tapestry of history? We will study the different ways in which American and European thinkers from the 17th to the 20th centuries grappled with this question in their writings on history. The course will examine the conflicts and changes in their views on both the nature of the historical process and the way that history should be represented by historians. We will look at how these differences both reflected and contributed to broader intellectual, political, and social changes in this period. Such an examination will demonstrate the ways in which conceptions of history were, themselves, the product of history.

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