American History

Research theme

With ten permanent academic staff, a visiting Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, three emeriti, and several junior research fellows in residence, Cambridge possesses one of the largest and most vigorous assemblies of scholars in American history outside of the United States. The staff is strong across the entire span of American history, from the seventeenth century to the present, and from social, cultural, and borderlands history to the history of politics, political thought, and foreign relations. The course on American History is one of the most popular of the undergraduate options in Part I of the Historical Tripos. There is a thriving MPhil in American History, and a lively and diverse community of PhD students working on a broad range of topics. PhDs from the programme have been appointed to posts in US history throughout Britain. The subject group is led by Gary Gerstle, Paul Mellon Professor of American History, who succeeded Professor Anthony Badger in this post in October 2014.

Cambridge American History Seminar

This seminar meets on Mondays, during term, in Sidney Sussex College, from 5pm. In a typical year, twenty or more scholars drawn from universities across the UK, Europe, and the US present new and unpublished research to this seminar.  Professor Gerstle convenes these meetings, which are open to all scholars and graduate students in Cambridge and beyond interested in American history.  The roster of speakers past years and this include Ari Kelman, Brooke Blower, Jennifer Luff, David Blight, Susan Carruthers, Kate Masur, Barbara Savage, Corey Robin, Alex Goodall, Tony Badger, Naomi Lamoreaux, David Minto, Peter Mancall, Peniel Joseph, Michael Kazin, Elizabeth Hinton, Jamelle Bouie, Nancy Cott, and Heather Thompson.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we are running seminars online this year and on a biweekly (rather than weekly) basis.

For more information on CAHS, please check the seminar webpage or contact Jonathan Goodwin at jmg216@cam.ac.uk

The Pitt Professorship

Since its establishment in the 1940s, the Pitt Professorship has brought to Cambridge many of the most distinguished US-based scholars working on American history and social science. The ranks of Pitt historians include Henry Steele Commager, Daniel Boorstin, John Hope Franklin, Eugene Genovese, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Richard Hofstadter, Eric Foner, Mary Beth Norton, James Patterson, Daniel Rodgers, Nancy Hewitt, James Kloppenberg, Alan Brinkley, David Blight, Margaret Jacobs, Loïc Wacquant, Ira Katznelson and Naomi Lamoreaux. The 2019-2020 Pitt Professor was Heather Thompson, Professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have two Pitt Professors for this year; the Pitt Professor elected for 2020-2021 Theresa Singleton, Syracuse University along with the Pitt Professor elected for 2021-2022, Kathleen Brown, University of Pennsylvania. 

Mellon Research Fellow

The faculty regularly appoints a postdoctoral Mellon Research Fellow to pursue original and significant research in American history. A fellow can hold the post for three years. The current Mellon Fellow is Emily Snyder, who earned her PhD in 2021 at Yale University. Past Mellon Fellows include Emma Teitelman, George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center and Penn State; Seth Archer, Utah State University; Katharina Rietzler, University of Sussex; Elizabeth Shermer, Loyola University (Chicago); Jay Sexton, University of Missouri; Francois Furstenberg, Johns Hopkins University; Emily Clark, Tulane University; Tim Minchin, La Trobe University (Australia); and Sarah Pearsall, Johns Hopkins.

American History Workshop

The American History Workshop (AHW) offers PhD students an opportunity to share and improve their academic writing through constructive peer review. The workshop also organises discussions of seminal historical texts and methodologies and sponsors academic skills sessions. Mellon Fellow Emily Snyder convenes the AHW.  

Conferences and Colloquia

The Mellon Professorial Fund supports a large number and variety of conferences, most recently, 'Global History of Democracy in the Modern Era', organised by Eugenio Biagini and Gary Gerstle. In the last two years, Sarah Pearsall has organised two conferences: 'Marriage’s Global Past' and the biannual meeting of the British Group of Early American Historians (BGEAH). Other past conferences included those on civil rights, the New Deal, transnational influences on American history, political culture in the Early Republic, indigenous and borderlands history, and southern women’s history.  

Cambridge was instrumental in launching both BGEAH (founded by Dr Betty Wood) and the Association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH).  The Mellon Fund helps to support BrANCH'S annual meeting. A new Consortium on the History of State and Society (CHSS) has been established, bringing together scholars at Cambridge, the American University of Paris, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan.  Cambridge has sponsored two CHSS workshops on 'States of Exception in American History', one in Cambridge in 2015 and a second one in Chicago in 2018. Another consortium with Princeton University and Boston University supports an annual conference in American political history. Cambridge has also hosted conferences of the British Association for American Studies, the European Southern Studies Forum, and the Southern Intellectual History Circle.

The Mellon Fund also provides financial support for an exchange programme for graduate students in American History at Cambridge and the History Department at Boston University.  Other collaborations are currently under development.

Research Area contacts

Convenor: Professor Gary Gerstle

Dr Betty Wood - In memoriam

The History Faculty mourns the passing on Friday September 3, 2021, of Dr Betty Wood.

Betty was a pioneering figure in early American history in the United Kingdom, a devoted teacher of Cambridge undergraduates and postgraduates, and a cherished History colleague and Girton Fellow for more than forty years.

Betty took her first degree at Keele (BA, 1967) and her second at the University of London (MA, 1968).  Her decision to study for her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania (1975) was an early sign of the barrier-breaking that would characterize Betty’s entire career.  She became one of the first women appointed to the History Faculty, initially as an Assistant Lecturer in 1974, then as a Lecturer in 1978, and finally as a Reader in 1999, a post she held until her retirement in 2012.  With American History seriously under-resourced throughout her first two decades, Betty carried a punishing workload of lecturing and supervisions. She offered a pathbreaking special subject on women in the American Revolution and supervised scores of Part II dissertations.  At the postgraduate levels, she supervised numerous MPhil students and nineteen PhDs.  Her PhD students went on to permanent posts on both sides of the Atlantic and have been leading figures in early American History throughout the United Kingdom.

It is impossible to overestimate Betty’s contributions to the development of early American History in the UK. She along with the late Bill Speck founded the British Group of Early American Historians and made it the country’s leading association for this subfield.  BGEAH both assembled early Americanists from everywhere in Britain and brought important US-based scholars across the Atlantic to participate in important intellectual discussions going on here.  Sylvia Frey, the distinguished Tulane University early Americanist, was one of the scholars whom Betty drew to Britain, launching a remarkable series of Tulane-Cambridge Atlantic World conferences across a fifteen-year span in the 1990s and 2000s.   

Betty entered postgraduate work just as the social history revolution was taking off.   Focus was shifting from politics to society, and from the study of elites to a study of “the people.” Groups long left on the sidelines and thought to be without meaningful histories—workers, the enslaved, indigenous peoples, women, rural whites—now became the subject of urgent and creative study.  Social history required its practitioners to uncover new research materials (and archives), develop new methods, and to think imaginatively about recovering lost pasts.  Betty embraced this historiographical revolution from the start.  She made her most important contributions to the study of slavery in eighteenth and early nineteenth century America, in books such as Slavery in Colonial Georgia, 1730-1775 and Women’s Work, Men’s Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcounty Georgia, 1750-1830 (1995). As the field of early America widened in the 1990s to include the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Betty moved with it.  Her co-authored study with Sylvia Frey, Come Shouting to Zion: African-American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (1998), was one of her most accomplished works, a seminal contribution to understanding the central role that Protestant Christianity came to play in the lives of the enslaved.

Betty delighted in uncovering new primary sources and exploring their meaning.  She was particularly good at reconstructing economic and religious practices of the enslaved that had slipped the attention of historians. Her work was always probing and sophisticated.  It resisted easy answers.  And it conveyed profound respect for the ordinary women and men whom she was studying.  These qualities made Betty a superb scholar, a special supervisor, and an irreplaceable colleague.  We will miss her.  

Gary Gerstle, with generous input from Tony Badger, Sarah Pearsall, Andrew Preston, Alistair Reid, and John Thompson

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Banner image: Publicity photo of the Marx Brothers in 1946. Wikicommons