Calls for internationalizing American history in the last decade – beyond the (simple?) need to “globalize” history and its historiography –have been bound up with three classic historiographic questions: American exceptionalism, American isolationism, and American “imperialism.” The latter, in particular, has spawned new debates about “the American empire,” from diplomatic history to cultural studies, examining various forms of hard and soft power and the ways in which the United States has interacted with its neighbors, allies, and enemies. Transportation and telecommunications, not to mention film, have been powerful vectors of American expansion. However, an understudied aspect of America’s international relations in any period has to do with Americans abroad. One of the important ways in which U.S. history can be internationalized is by following Americans overseas.
Americans have gone abroad for a variety of reasons, be they cultural, political, economic, or to propagate a moral empire, as Ian Tyrrell has explored. Americans abroad have been writers and artists seeking to escape American commercialism and leaving a fascinating literature of expatriation in their wake. But many more still have been traders and missionaries, taking their products or their ideas with them.
This panel has three aims. First, it seeks to point to the importance of studying Americans abroad in a variety of capacities, from boy scouts to missionaries to businessmen and cosmopolitan women, exploring the ways in which they carried their identities abroad. Second, if strong religious or trade networks were involved in sending many (but not all) Americans abroad, we can also ask to what extent Americans abroad have formed identifiable communities. Third, however, by examining the ways in which these transnational subjects were vectors for American ideas and goods, we all argue that their activities did not imply a one-way street of cultural, religious, or even commercial transfer. The transnational experience itself questioned and transformed those engaged in it.