It’s end of the semester and time for the dreaded red pen.
My U.S. History class at Lone Star Community College in Conroe ended last night. All the exams are given, papers corrected, grades posted, students gone. Have they actually learned anything? All I can do is hope. Maybe, a few things.
I feel like those TV announcers that accost people on the street to ask if they know when the American Revolution occurred. Most don’t. One of my students, who is from Boston, for heaven’s sake, could not pick out that particular set of dates on a timeline. I can understand her not knowing the founding of Texas or the Republic of Texas or the Civil War, she’s a Yankee after all, but the American Revolution?
I hope that my students remember my dictum that nothing happens in history without a reason. History is a sequence of events like dominos where one action follows another. If I drop the students into a timeline at any point, they should be able to logically trace the next occurrence, and the next, and the next, or the previous one as well. Or at least I hope they can. Their grades on the Final show they can, more or less.
If they can remember one starting point, they can unravel the timeline like pulling on a thread in a sweater. A good beginning for one sequence of event is the Spanish empire in 1492 which lasted throughout the 1500s, ending rather ignominiously in 1588 with the defeat of the Spanish Armada. If that century can be said to belong to anyone, it certainly belonged to Spain.
Or the settlements of the American colonies after the death of Elizabeth of England in 1603. Or the French control of the 1600s under the Louis, 13th and 14th. The 1700s ended the Hapsburg empire in Spain. By 1718, as we saw in a previous blog, the Spanish settled San Antonio, and the French established in New Orleans, thus facing off for control of the New World while the Thirteen Colonies scrabbled to hang on.
From there it’s easy to follow history to the French and Indian War which triggered the American Revolution which caused the French Revolution which led to Napoleon who invaded Spain and started the Latin American Revolutions—and of course the War of 1812—followed by the founding of Texas and its brief life as a Republic which led to its annexation to the United States in 1845 which instigated the Mexican-American War which added all that western territory to the U.S. which caused the Civil War and the rise of the United States as a world empire in 1900 under Teddy Roosevelt.
From this timeline it is possible to see Western history as series of centuries which can be assigned to a country which has dominated it, at least generally. During the centuries before the Christian era, one can trace the power of the earliest Sumerians, through the dominance of the Greeks and Persians to the rise of the Roman Empire which lasted in various forms for 400 years. But even Rome declined to be replaced by a variety of smaller groups including the Germanic tribes.
Then, during the 1200s, came the Mongols as Jack Weatherford has argued in his excellent book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Italy and the Renaissance followed during the 1300s, then Portugal and perhaps Sweden in the 1400s. As I’ve argued, Spain controlled the 1500s, starting with Columbus in 1492 and ending in 1588, a convenient date.
But England was not to dominate the 1600s due to their religious and civil wars. That century belonged, without any doubt, to France and its powerful kings, Louis the 13th and especially Louis the 14th the Sun king. The 1700s saw the rise of England, although revolutions predominated. Great Britain came into its own during the 1800s under the aegis of the great Queen Victoria. The 1900s or the 20th century have belonged with little doubt to the United States. In this new century, however, is our dominance at an end? Perhaps so.
Like the beginning of the end for the Spanish in 1588, or the French in 1714 with the death of Louis the 14th, many writers and historians are marking the end of our century with the attacks of 9/11 in 2001. The next century will belong, or does now belong, to the Chinese. It seems that our current political climate is ensuring that outcome.
But as I told my students, that’s okay. It is nothing to be alarmed or concerned about. It is just the rise and fall of empires. The British are still around, as are the French and Spanish. They just don’t have to worry about running the world anymore. And perhaps, we can relax and breath a sigh of relief. Our century is done. We can build our walls and hunker down and not worry about the squabbles of the rest of the world.
It’s a thought.