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–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

History

War in the American Imagination

Open , Seminar—Spring

Some background in history helpful but not required.

Americans often like to think of the United States as a nation founded on ideals, but the United States also was, as one historian has put it, a nation "founded in blood." Valley Forge was once our Statue of Liberty. After all, the American Revolution was not just a struggle for the ideals of liberty and equality that Jefferson so eloquently expounded in the Declaration of Independence; it was also a war of independence from Britain, an international conflict that included France and Spain and, let us not forget, a bitter and cruel civil war amongst Americans themselves. In effect, we were birthed as a nation divided. How did this legacy of bloodshed shape American identity? To what extent did Americans sacralize bloodshed and thus conflate it with idealism? We remember the Alamo, but can anyone recall the basis of our claim to that territory? Are we not here going further and actually equating bloodshed with idealism? To what extent did Americans see their later wars as an extension of the Revolutionary War? Was the Civil War a second American Revolution, or was the American Revolution the nation's first civil war? The course will examine these questions by looking at how Americans perceived and remembered the wars in which they fought from the Revolution to World War II. Among the other wars to be considered are the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and World War I. In effect, the course offers an exploration of how we may "see things not as they are but as we are."

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The American Revolution: From British to American Nationalism

Open , Seminar—Fall

Some background in history is helpful but not required.

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?” The course will look at the many different answers that revolutionary Americans gave to Adams’s question by examining the political, intellectual, social, and cultural dimensions of this event. Was the Revolution simply a struggle for political independence, or was it also a social conflict over who would “rule at home”? Was the American Revolution a transformation in the “hearts and minds” of the people, as Adams believed, or was the War of Independence integral to the meaning and character of the Revolution? Did the Revolution end with the close of the war, or was the war “but the first act of the great drama,” to use Benjamin Rush’s words? What was the relationship between the Constitution and the Revolution? Was the Constitution a conservative reaction to the radicalism of the Revolution, or did the Constitution extend and solidify what the Revolution had achieved? While the emphasis of the course will be on what the Revolution meant for those who participated in it, we also look more broadly at the long-term legacy and memory of the Revolution. Through this examination, the course ultimately seeks to address the question: What was the basis for and nature of American national identity?

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

Open , FYS—Year

“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 2017 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 from 1607 to 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 not be why the US divided during the Civil War but, rather, why Americans were 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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Previous Courses

The “Founders” in Film and Fiction

Open , Seminar—Spring

We were told that George Washington never told a lie and confessed to his much chagrined father that he chopped down the fabled cherry tree. Was this the myth to inspire trust in the "Founding Fathers" and the infant democracy? But the myths continue. For more than two centuries, the "Founding Fathers" have been a touchstone for American identity. Americans have expressed their fascination with the “Founders” not only in the political arena but also in the realm of fiction, in works ranging from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Spy, to the HBO series, John Adams, and the Broadway musical, Hamilton. What is the source of this fascination? But most importantly, who were the “Founders” that have such a hold on the American historical imagination? And what did they actually stand for? The course will explore these questions by looking at the different ways that the “Founders” have been represented in film and fiction from their own time to the present. We will consider a variety of media, including novels, art, plays, films, and television. We will look at how these fictional portrayals reflected larger cultural changes and at the different political and social purposes that they served. Would the musical glorification of Hamilton have been a hit during the Great Depression? We will also examine the extent to which these portrayals conformed to historical reality, using them to look more broadly at the relationship between history and fiction. What can fiction contribute to historical understanding, and what are its limits as a medium of historical representation? Some background in history is helpful but not required.

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The “Losers”: Dissent and the Legacy of Defeat in American Politics

Open , Seminar—Year

Though our nation was born in conflict and is sustained by conflict, the present always seems inevitable; surely, the United States of 2016 is but the flowering of the seeds planted so many centuries ago. To imagine that the Revolutionary War ended in failure, that the Founding Fathers were hanged, and the names of Loyalists such as Hutchinson and Arnold were as much on our lips as Washington, Adams, and Jefferson seems blasphemous. Or to imagine celebrating the loyalist William Franklin as a hero rather than his father, Benjamin, seems utterly absurd. The world just wouldn’t be what it is if, instead of calling ourselves American, we identified ourselves as Canadian. The melodic themes of liberty, dissent, and equality would seem less lyrical if Americans could no longer claim them as their own; but would our understanding of American identity be the richer if we viewed these themes as forged in conflict? To this end, the course will focus on those groups who were on the losing side of major political conflicts from the 18th to the 20th centuries, ranging from the Loyalists and the Confederacy to the Populists and the Socialists. The course will also consider the ultimate losers in these conflicts—those who were denied political rights altogether and thus even the possibility of victory. What did the treatment of these different political groups reveal about the extent of—and limits to—American acceptance of dissent? How did a culture that placed a premium on success and achievement regard loss and defeat? How was the South able to turn the defeat of the Confederacy into a badge of honor and a source of pride through the idealization of the Lost Cause? What was the long-term legacy that these losing groups left behind? When viewed from this perspective, were these groups really losers at all? After all, without the Anti-Federalists, there would have been no Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Ultimately, the course aims to cultivate a "tragic" perspective that goes beyond viewing history in terms of winners and losers, heroes and villains, and instead recognizes that, in the final analysis, we are all in bondage to the knowledge that we possess.

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America in the Historical Imagination: American and European Perceptions of the “New World”

Open , Seminar—Fall
From their earliest explorations of the Americas, Europeans visualized America alternately as a utopia free of the corruption and materialism that characterized their own society or as a savage wilderness that represented the antithesis of their own civilized state. Indeed, John Locke declared, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” pointing to the widespread tendency to portray America as a symbol of both the hopes and the fears of humanity. To understand how and why America became such an important symbol in Western culture, this course will examine the image of America from both European and American eyes from the beginnings of European settlement to the 19th century. We will analyze the interdependence of the Old and New Worlds by exploring the following themes: How did Europeans in the 16th century deal with the novelty of the “New World” at a time when the very concept of newness was an alien one? How and when did Americans transform their sense of distinctiveness into a conviction of their special mission and thereby lay the basis for the belief in American exceptionalism that has been so important to American identity? Was “manifest destiny”—a doctrine that justified the dispossession and destruction of Native Americans—a departure from or an outgrowth of the Puritan vision of the “City on a Hill,” which made America a model of moral purity and charity? How did Americans reconcile their sense of mission with their attachment to Europe and their desire to emulate European standards of civilization? In other words, conflict and harmony are so inextricably connected in the relationship between Europe and America that we may ask: Is it possible to know which was the point and which the counterpoint?
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The “Founders” and the Origins of American Politics

Open , Seminar—Year

Some background in history is helpful but not required.

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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Related Disciplines

Women and the Politics of Memory

Open , Seminar—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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Related Disciplines

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

Open , Seminar—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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Related Disciplines

Women, Gender, and Politics in American History

Sophomore and above , Seminar—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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Related Disciplines

“Not By Fact Alone”: The Making of History

Open , Seminar—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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