I’ve been writing/learning to write history for a bit now, but I don’t think that I’ve ever been as aware of my language as I am this semester teaching American history. I find myself, more and more, using North America in my U.S. survey, in part because the borders of the United States shifted so quickly in the 19th century that what counted as outside of the United States one year mightn’t be the next. But also, I think that orally centering North America reminds students that United States history does not consist of the inexorable filling of the borders we have today. If I weren’t already worried that I too-often reference cultural products that my students can’t relate to, I might ask them to think about how this Douglas Adams quotation, which actually describes Adams’s concerns about humans’ ideas about their place in the universe, can apply to our understanding of American westward expansion:
“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.”
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but I think that there is a tendency, especially after the American Revolution, to think about a United States shaped hole in north America that is being slowly and correctly filled by the new American nation.