Roundtable An Imperial Gaze at the Sacred Myth of American Exceptionalism

AHA Session 249
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 204 (Hynes Convention Center)
Elizabeth Mancke, University of Akron
Daniel Byrne, University of Evansville , Lisa K. Jarvinen, La Salle University , Timothy Roberts, Western Illinois University and Patricia Rogers, Michigan State University
Cary Fraser, Pennsylvania State University

Session Abstract

The four discussant historians organized this panel after attending an NEH summer seminar entitled “Rethinking American History in Global Perspective.”  The month long seminar allowed for significant discussion of the various manners that their research on questions of American imperialism and anti-colonialism across the breadth of United States history intersected with the question of American exceptionalism.  The exceptionalist narrative shaped both historical actors and historians’ perception of those actors.  Most importantly, it created a sacred myth which endowed American imperialism with a sense of distinction from other metropolitan powers.  Whether shaped by religious reasoning, economic interests, or cultural imperatives, the experience of American empire was perceived and presented as unique and exceptional from European imperialism.  The panel hopes to engage a number of these issues as they span the history of the United States and challenge historians to reconsider the key intersections of imperial histories that both challenge and reshape the very idea of American exceptionalism.            Chaired by Dr. Elizabeth Mancke, the roundtable panel will present four chronologically organized discussants and be followed by commentary by Dr. Cary Fraser.  All four discussants will engage the question of the intersection of American imperialism and American exceptionalism while focusing on a number of specific questions or areas directly pertinent to their scholarly research.  Dr. Patricia Rogers will begin with an examination of how the American search for a unique identity used earlier exceptionalist narratives to shape ideas about future westward expansion and imperialism.  Linking both past and future helped Americans to frame their exceptionalist narrative, to create a unique identity, and to set the course for empire.  Dr. Timothy Roberts will investigate the complexities of challenging American exceptionalism in the period surrounding the Civil War.  Seemingly contradictory forces emerge to create comparison with other metropolitan powers while at the same time highlighting the unique aspects that make up the Civil War era.  Dr. Lisa Jarvinen plans to further problematize the question of empire and exceptionalism through a comparative review of imperial developments from the Mexican-American War to the Spanish-Cuban-American War.  Like Roberts, Jarvinen notes a distinct exceptionalism from Europe, but asks the audience to broaden their definition of American.  Dr. Daniel Byrne brings the panel into the twentieth century by examining the concept of American anti-imperialism in light of the exceptionalist narrative.  American presidents all engaged in the rhetoric of America’s exceptional anti-colonialism while often underwriting imperialism and accepting “evolutionary” decolonization.  Dr. Fraser will bring his own broad understanding of American imperialism and “ambivalent anti-colonialism” to bring the four discussants’ arguments into focus and present questions for further discussion.             The roundtable of discussion of this question with a wider audience of scholars will help to reset the angles of investigation of both American imperialism and American exceptionalism.   The presentations should set the framework for engaging commentary and active discussion between the participants and the audience.  It is hoped that the panel will open broad new avenues for scholars to think about and study American empire and anti-colonialism across the centuries.

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