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History Blog

The Making of America
By Alex Ford
29 Mar
The American West was the topic which first fired my historical imagination when I was at school. It is a period of extreme contrasts:
  • Of great liberal experiments in democracy yet subjugations of whole peoples.
  • Of exuberant expansionism yet terrified xenophobia.
  • Of pioneers and rugged individuals, yet the explosion of big business and city living.
And, of course, the stark contrast with that image of nineteenth century Britain with its top hats, starched collars, and Dickensian poverty.

When I was asked to write The Making of America for Hodder, I was both excited and terrified. Terrified because I would have a responsibility of helping thousands of students find (or fail to find) what makes nineteenth century America such a brilliant period; excited for exactly the same reasons!

One of the best things about writing The Making of America has been the freedom I have been afforded to spend time with some fascinating historical books, accounts and source materials. The project has been two years in the making and much of this time was given over to ensuring it has been based on recent historical developments. I have put many of these books in the recommended reading on the OCR website, however Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Elliott West’s Contested Plains deserve special mention for reshaping my thinking about the period as a whole.

Of course, much of the history of nineteenth century America tends to have a narrow focus, say the settlement of the West, or tells a potted history of high politics. One of the key challenges therefore, was bringing together this vast array of political histories, social and economic studies of slavery, and niche histories of the American West, and fusing them to create an overarching narrative of nineteenth century America which kept real people’s lives at its heart. I don’t know yet if I have been successful in this, but it has certainly been my guiding principle.

Throughout the book, I have tried to shed light on the experiences and actions of a whole cast of people, whose lives act as little lamps to illuminate the broader period. Of course, Abraham Lincoln, James K Polk, Custer, Sitting Bull, and the usual cast get their outing, but ordinary people shaped the story of nineteenth century America in deep and highly significant ways. From violent anti-slavery zealotry of John Brown, to the dogged determination of Suzie King Taylor in refusing to accept the racist conventions of her age.

Some of my favourite stories came from the primary research I conducted whilst preparing to write:
  • of seventeen-year-old Abigail Scott’s journey to Oregon, and the experiences which shaped her as a campaigner for women’s suffrage;
  • of Joe Kilpatrick and Charles Ball, and their attempts to subvert and survive the brutality of cotton slavery;
  • of Quanah Parker, Comanche Warrior turned ranch owner railroad shareholder.
In fact, there were so many fascinating stories that I have had to put some of them online as extra resources instead.

At the end of the day, history is the pursuit of the human story and an investigation of the human condition. I hope that this book acts in some small way to help students access the visible and visceral human connections which bind us to a people separated from us by both time and space. Moreover, I hope that it helps teachers and students alike to understand and enjoy one of the most significant periods in modern history.

Alex Ford

The Making of America is now available
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