University of Erfurt

North American History

Profile

Our curriculum covers topics in North American History spanning from the colonial period until the present. Both in their research projects and their courses our faculty deals with a wide range of topics from political history to the history of sexualities. What all of our work has in common though is that we approach the past from the perspective of cultural history. Thus, we aim to detect historically changing and interacting rules of human conduct, thought and perception, and to analyze their impact on the lives of individuals as well as on the collective social order.

The Declaration of Independence from England on the 4th of July 1776 marks an important turning point in North American history as well as in the history of mankind. The American revolutionaries denounced despotism and monarchy and created a society based on a set of unalienable rights for all people such as freedom, independence and the "pursuit of happiness," which are still at the foundation of American society today. The United States was the first country worldwide to put the newly developed ideas and concepts of the enlightenment into practice.

Examining North American history more closely however, we realize that the American Revolution and the founding of the United States did not occur spontaneously. Instead, both events need to be understood as consequences of an ongoing process of change in the American colonial societies. From Massachusetts in the North to Georgia in the South, the American people had gradually developed ideas about the nature of liberty and democracy. Long before the revolution they had actively created a social order largely independent of the British crown. On the other hand, the founding of the American Republic did not imply freedom and equality for all people. Millions of African Americans remained enslaved in the American South until the Civil War and emancipation, and women were excluded from political participation until well into the 20th century, to point out only two of the most obvious examples.

As a consequence, one of our three main research areas deals with the contested ground in between dichotomies such as freedom and repression, self-determination and heteronomy, and equality and difference, all of which are of enormous significance in American history. Factors such as skin color, gender, social status, sexual orientation, etc. continue to determine an individual's options in life to a high degree. Obviously, a white male New York cotton dealer in the 1830s experienced life differently than a black female slave in Alabama. Categories such as race, class and gender remain powerful concepts and have enormous effects on the lives of individuals.

The history of violence is another central field of research in our department. Historical concepts of violence change over time, and they are closely linked to larger cultural processes in society. By examining different forms of violence and the way they were legitimized we can not only reveal differing social orders and their dominant ethics, but also show how they changed over time. Taking for instance African-American history into account, it is obvious that the history of violence is intrinsically tied to the history of social and cultural categorization.

Our third field of research deals with the United States in the world, its involvement in international processes in an interdependent world, with world history, transnational history, and the history of migration being a major focus in the department of history at the University of Erfurt in general. In this context, we also need to pay attention to the history of American expansionism. The research fields at our department are closely interwoven, and evidently, the history of expansion overlaps with the history of violence and the categorization of individuals. More detailed descriptions of individual research projects can be found on our faculty's websites.

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