HST6604: Approaches to the American Past

30 credits (Semester: Autumn)

Module Leader 2019-20: Dr Andrew Heath

Module Summary

This core module explores key themes in American history from the colonial through to the modern eras, introducing you to important debates in historical scholarship and giving you an awareness not only of the principal historiographical schools but also of the critical interrelationship between historical trends and events and scholarly interpretations of the past. Classes will be organised chronologically and thematically and will be taught through the examination of key historiographical approaches. Case studies covering topics such as Native American history, consumption, gender, class, slavery, immigration and ethnicity, the New Deal, revisionism and the Cold War, and the New Left will help you apply and critique the conceptual literature you are exploring.

Module aims

This module aims to introduce you to the most important issues and debates in American history. Organised chronologically and thematically, it will begin with a series of seminars exploring the development of historical writing in the US, moving from the professionalization of historical study in the late nineteenth century to the present. Thereafter, you will discuss a series of case studies (some tied to your own work) relating to, for example, early European-Amerindian contact, class and gender relations, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the 1960s and contemporary American culture.

The module will give you an awareness of not only of the principal historiographical schools in the United States but also of the critical interrelationship between historical trends and events and scholarly interpretations of the past. It will also give you a more profound understanding of American history, introducing you to different modes of historical writing and so providing you with a context from which to engage in independent research. To this end, the module examines the ways in which historians have explored their material and written about the past. We will look at examples of historical writing, and the approach taken by individual historians and historiographical schools. This will enable you to explore historians’ use of concepts and categories and how individual methods and sources have shaped the subject matter of history and the ways in which historians have written. The module will therefore inform your understanding in your choice of a research topic and enhance your ability to recognise any methodological problems inherent in your chosen area of specialism.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you will be able to demonstrate an ability to:

  1. Recognise and be aware of the distinctive presuppositions that underlie historical writing on American history and the notion of ‘American exceptionalism’;
  2. Recognise the contribution made by other academic disciplines to the recent study of American history;
  3. Identify and engage critically with historiographical debates about American history from colonial through the modern period;
  4. Elaborate and defend an intellectual position to other members of the seminar group, presenting complex scholarly arguments succinctly and accurately;
  5. Present conclusions in a fluent written form, demonstrating a mastery of bibliographical materials (including electronic resources) referencing their sources appropriately;
  6. Evaluate a range of American history primary sources, including material culture, employing appropriate analytical techniques and theoretical approaches;
  7. Speak confidently, using technical language, when discussing American history sources of different types and using them to support scholarly argument;
  8. Work collaboratively in your research and understanding of American historical context and period;
  9. Develop your ability to present your historical conclusions to a non-specialist audience.


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
20 3 277

The principal mode of contact will be ten two-hour seminar classes. Within this standard format, students will be offered:

  • A series of seminars critically exploring the development of American historiography; you will be encouraged here to draw on insights from your own work to link theory and practice.
  • A series of content-specific seminars, looking at a range of historical topics, issues, methodologies, and problems that take you through particular historical periods, providing both an introduction to the advanced study of the period and the historical and historiographical context from which to undertake practice-based research. Some of these seminars will be student-led.

You will be set preparatory reading in advance for all seminars. You will be expected to share your knowledge of historiographical developments, debate controversial topics and listen and respond to the views of others in a structured environment. You will, in addition, have individual tutorials in which to discuss the work you will write for assessment for this module.



Assessment methods
Assessment Type % of final mark Length
Coursework Formative n/a 2000 words
Coursework Summative 100% 6000 words

You will complete one written paper of 6,000 words. The paper will engage with one or more of the topics or themes of the module through a case-study/case-studies. It should demonstrate an advanced understanding of and critical engagement with current historiography, and advanced skills in the use of sources. You may choose to focus on your own research interests, but your work should engage with the module’s wider themes.

There will be a formative assessment in which you are invited to submit up to 2,000 words of a draft / plan / piece of exploratory writing in advance of the final essay.


Selected reading

  • Greene, Jack and Philip Morgan, Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (2009)
  • Richter, Daniel, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (2011)
  • Tomlins, Christopher, Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580 – 1865 (2010)
  • Morgan, Edmund, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)
  • Breen, T.H., The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (2004)
  • Holton, Woody, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution (1999)
  • Hartz, Louis, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955)
  • Balogh, Brian, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (2009)
  • Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848 (2007)
  • Clark, Christopher, Social Change in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (2007)
  • Levy, Jonathan, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (2012)
  • Genovese, Eugene, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1976)
  • Johnson, Walter, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013)
  • Stansell, Christine, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789 – 1860 (1987)
  • McPherson, James, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988)
  • Foner, Eric, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 – 1877 (1988)
  • Hahn, Stephen, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2005)
  • Ayers, Edward, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (1992)
  • McGerr, Michael, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865 – 1928 (1986)
  • Rodgers, Daniel, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (2000)
  • Jacoby, Karl, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (1998)
  • Peiss, Kathy, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986)
  • Montgomery, David, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865 – 1925 (1988)
  • Gaddis, John Lewis, The Cold War: A New History (2006)
  • Cohen, Lizabeth, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003)
  • Dudziak, Mary, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2000)
  • Sugrue, Thomas, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008)
  • Sugrue, Thomas J., The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996)
  • Stein, Judith, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies (2011)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.