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Historian in focus: Andrew Priest, New Head of Department

  • Date

    Tue 14 Jan 20

Andrew Priest

Andrew Priest's area of expertise, US foreign policy, has never been so relevant. But what led him down that path?

Dr Andrew Priest developed his love of history during his school years. Initially interested in early modern history, he soon became diverted by the history of the United States. His new book, due out in 2021, shows how the USA became a modern day colonial empire.

Why did you choose to study history as your degree?

Well, I almost didn't. I actually gave up history for GCSE (foolishly, I chose to study geography instead), but I always planned to go back to it, which I did for A-level. In sixth form, I enjoyed learning about the early modern period, so I decided to study it at university. That plan didn't really pan out, however, because I eventually elected to study History and American Studies at the University of Birmingham. With time, I became more interested  in modern America than in early modern Europe.

Did you look up to anyone while you were study at university?

All my lecturers were brilliant, but there were two in particular who inspired me. As an undergraduate, Nick Cull, who is now at the University of Southern California, taught me. Nick offered a second-year option on the history of US foreign policy which I found fascinating on every level. Nick was a great teacher and I gravitated more and more towards his areas of interest.

For my PhD, the irrepressible Scott Lucas, who is still at Birmingham, supervised me. Scott was an inspiration, as he has been to many graduate students - and not just because he's a socialist from Alabama, so quite different from most professors who teach at provincial British universities! He's also an excellent researcher, writer, and mentor.

Can you give us more insight into your current research project?

My interests still centre on American foreign policy. I'm currently finishing a book about how Americans debated empire in the years before the United States became a fully-fledged colonial empire itself. I am looking at domestic responses to European imperialism, especially between the 1860s and 1880s, examining how these attitudes fed into views about America's place in the world. There's a lot that this period can tell us about the foundations of American power.

Many Americans were (and are) in denial about being an empire, and I'm trying to show this by examining how they considered the other great empires of the day. When I started, I expected to find that they were very much opposed to the other empires because they didn't believe that the US did the kinds of things these empires did (such as conquer and control large amounts of territory, and impose their will on people in distant lands). I did find these reactions, but many people also often found good things to say about other empires, especially if they thought they were bringing what they believed were the benefits of western civilisation to the rest of the world.

Although most of my study is concerned with people involved in policy making, I even found these attitudes among progressives, including some women suffragists and African Americans campaigning for civil rights.

The book is due to be published by Columbia University Press, hopefully early in 2021.

What advice would you give to history undergraduates?

Question everything. Listen to and learn from others, but don't accept what people tell you without thinking it through. No one has a monopoly on knowledge or ideas, including your lecturers! And everyone has something important to contribute - especially undergraduates, who often think about things in new and exciting ways.