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Q&A: Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution -- A Virtual Discussion with Michael D. Hattem

Select answers from Michael Hattem, author of Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution

Q: How much of the “authority of the past” can be traced to the rise of the precedent-based system of the common law in England in the 17th Century? (Thomas Lincoln)

A: A good deal of it, Thomas. I talk in my first and second chapters about the cultural impact of living in a common law legal system and John Demos and others have noted that the common law was more than just a legal system and that it seeped out into the cultures of England and British North America generally.


Q: Where did slavery and the slave trade fit in the early Americans’ reinterpretation of their British past? How was their view consistent (or not) with the ideology of the early republic? (Anonymous)

A: That is a great question. The slave trade, like slavery itself, was often left out of colonial and later national histories, partly because they did not fit with the themes of unity and independence so prominent in the early national historical narrative. That said, some Americans, especially those inclined toward antislavery, did see fit to blame the slave trade on Britain, and some, by extension, slavery in the colonies, just as Jefferson did in his first draft of the Declaration.


Q: I'm hearing an interesting parallel between the crafting of the "Colonial Creed" to separate the American identity from England and the post Civil War crafting of the Lost Cause narrative, and perhaps the later reunification of nation by describing it as an unfortunate battle of brother with brother. There was also in this a stressing of continuity, eradicating slavery as a factor, between pre war and post war society. (Ana Edwards)

A: Fascinating question and relevant to my next book project! Whenever political crises create a need for new historical narratives or history cultures, the question of continuity and rupture is one of the first that must be resolved and how that gets resolved depends on the political goals and circumstances of those creating the narrative. Confederates who believed they had to secede to protect their liberty (i.e., the ability to enslave human beings) drew analogies between themselves and the revolutionary generation who they argued fought to preserve their British liberties. The Lost Cause, as an attempt to manufacture a post-facto narrative to justify loss perhaps has more in common with loyalist histories of the period that sought to explain the loss of the colonies in a way that not only reconciled the past with the present but also as a roadmap for the future of the empire.


Q: Have you encountered the argument by Prof. Kermit Roosevelt of Penn’s law school that “created equal” had a different meaning when it was written than we understand it? Roosevelt posits that the original meaning was merely a restatement of Lockean anti-Stuart social contract theory: that we are born equal and we die equal and that, in between, we consent to government. He further posits that our sense of the Declaration as an “equality” document is a product of Lincoln-era propaganda. Thoughts? (Thomas Lincoln)

A: I have not encountered that argument from Dr. Roosevelt specifically but the late Michal Jan Rozbicki wrote a book ten years ago called Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution in which he argued that liberty in the eighteenth century was defined in no small part by the privileges one had that were denied to others. In other words, what made liberty meaningful to those who had it was partly that others did not. Equality in that context takes on a very different meaning that would seem to be along the lines of your description of Dr. Roosevelt’s work.


Q: In 1848, a correspondent to Frederick Douglass’ Paper pointed to a reference to Crispus Attucks in the popular history of the American Revolution by Italian historian Carlo Botta. Did any widely read history by an American acknowledge the role of Blacks in the revolution by the mid-1800s? (Kenneth Hawkins)

A: Botta’s history was published in 1809. At that time, the early histories of the Revolution did not mention Attucks. His role in the Revolution and in the memory of it was largely a product of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s-1850s, especially William C. Nell, a black abolitionist in Boston who wrote often about Attucks and managed a number of campaigns to get Attucks remembered and commemorated, efforts which he continued in the years before the Centennial in 1876.


Q: Given one of the earliest histories written was by Mercy Otis Warren, how did women fit into the stories that appeared after the Revolution? (Benjamin Park)

A: In addition to Warren, there were only a few other women who published historical works before the War of 1812. In the stories and narratives of the Revolution, they barely existed at all. It’s not until the mid-nineteenth century that we begin to see significant numbers of women writing history (detailed well in Mary Kelley’s work) but also the first history of women in the Revolution by Elizabeth Ellet in 1848-50.


Q: You noted history culture could be found in places like newspapers and almanacs and not just books. Were the post-Revolutionary writers angry that their historical works were published in these places, or did they want their work to appear there to have a bigger impact? (David Gary)

A: They definitely wanted their work excerpted and some were happy to see theirs serialized primarily because their explicit goal in writing history was to shape a new American national identity. That said, the thing they feared as authors who funded their own publications was the emergence of pirated editions of their books coming back to the United States from England and Ireland. These pirated copies often arrived very quickly and they were much cheaper than the original editions paid for by the authors. Publishing a work of history was a significant expense (Ramsay details his financial losses from his histories in letters to younger historians asking for advice about publishing) and many of the revolutionary generation’s historians never made any money and in many cases lost money from publishing their histories.


Q: I would like to ask specifically about the appropriation of indigeneity to form an American identity. He's talked a little about it, and wrote about it on pages 25-35, but I was wondering if he could go more in depth on the impact of this phenomenon on the systemic oppression/genocide of indigenous people in the US? (Kylie Hoang)

A: This is a really important question. I talk about this more in chapter six of the book but the cultural nationalists’ construction of an Indigenous past for the new nation that absolved its citizens of the historical actions of their ancestors, at the same time, justified the continuance, in the new national context, of the settler colonialism that would continue to define the nation’s imperial continental ambitions throughout the nineteenth century. So much as the expansion and growth of the United States rested in part on the appropriation of Indigenous lands, so too did the idea of “American history” and development of American national identity rest in part on the appropriation of Indigenous pasts. In other words, cultural forms of settler colonialism like appropriating Indigenous pasts helped allow early national Americans to justify the political forms of settler colonialism which were pursued by their government and which they supported.


Q: Along with this view of the revolutionaries view of their history, there was the view expressed in Mather's Magnalia. During the war, works such as Dwight's Conquest of Canaan and Ezra Stiles, America was part of providential history, a position that continues in the concept of Manifest Destiny. How does this historical vision relate to what you describe? (Robert Imholt)

A: This was an important debate in the previous literature on the topic of American historical writing that came out around the Bicentennial. The question was: how much did the early national histories reflect the Enlightenment and reject providentialism as a force of historical change. Some historians back then argued that early national historians rejected providentialism in favor of a more enlightened perspective. What I found was that though they were not as explicit about providentialism as Mather, there was still a sense of an underlying providentialism in their narratives.


Q: I just received my copy of the current American Historical Review roundtable of Jill Lepore’s These Truths. This follows on the release of the 1776 Commission report by one president and cancellation by the incoming president. How do we go about creating a new national narrative today? (Peter Feinman)

A: I have thought about this question a lot in thinking about the contemporary relevance of my work and thinking about national memory. My current project looks at the history of the memory of the Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries and what I’ve found is that American history became politicized in a distinctly partisan way after 1800 and has been that way ever since. There has never been a time outside the window of the 1790s and early 1800s when there were not competing national narratives and memories. In other words, I do not think it is possible to create a new national narrative that could be widely accepted. Of course, one of the challenges there is that doing so would have to contend with the very powerful resilience of the Cold War-era memory that many American adults grew up with. All that said, I think we are currently in an important moment in the history of the memory of the American Revolution. Conflict over American history seems to ebb and flow along with the degree of political division in the country. Not unlike in the 1760s and 1770s, many Americans today are reconsidering the meaning and legacy of the Revolution. What is somewhat new is that many are calling for it to have no place in our collective civic and political cultures. I do not know if there is a way to create a national narrative with broad appeal in the present but I think that if it were possible it would require avoiding the two extremes we see so often currently of either seeing the Revolution as all good or all bad. What makes American history so interesting to me as a historian is its complexity and both of those extremes tend to flatten American history into two dimensions.


Q: Some educated Americans before 1800 had read in the Greek and Latin classics. Was not the Roman past some part of the American past before about 1810? Was not Gibbon read in your early America?  (Thomas Bisson)

A: I did not address classical history in the book for two reasons. First, there is already a ton of literature on this topic, some quite old and some quite new. But second, and more importantly, the number of Americans who knew anything substantive about the classical past was very small, especially compared to those who knew anything modestly substantive about recent British or English history. I wanted to get beyond just elites and to get a sense of what ordinary colonists and later Americans knew about the past and how it contributed to their civic identities and political behaviors. My decision to do this was confirmed early on when I noticed during reading newspapers and pamphlets from the imperial crisis that pseudonyms of British historical figures were often just as commonly used as those from classical figures.


Q: How does Noah Webster’s effort to distinguish an American language from an English one fit into the notion of turning from one historical narrative to create another? (David Greer)

A: Americans created a deep national past by making Columbus the discoverer of America, nationalizing natural history, and appropriating Indigenous pasts for the purpose of establishing a sense of historical independence from Britain and Webster’s linguistic efforts sought to establish a sense of cultural independence from Britain. Both were part of the broader project of establishing a new national identity after securing political independence.


Q: How do you deal in your narrative with the many European settlers who were not British, but Dutch or Swedish or Moravian. Did they relate to this tradition of parliament and King? And what about the Proprietary colonies as opposed to the Royal colonies? (David Crosby)

A: This is a great question! It is true that the colonies had significant ethnic diversity. For those who did not have British ethnic identities, within a generation or so of coming to the colonies they and their descendants quickly developed British civic identities, often while retaining their distinct ethnic identities. In other words, to think of oneself as a British subject (regardless of ethnic origins) was to also think of oneself as an inheritor and beneficiary of the history that made Britain the most powerful empire in the world by 1763.


Q: Can you talk about how history was taught in schools and in colleges in the English Colonies from 1620 to 1776? For your hypothesis to be correct, I would expect to see changes in the curriculum. (Manu Radhakrishnan)

A: That is a great question but history was not often taught in schools either before or after 1776. Schools in this period, from grammar schools to academies to colleges, were based on the classical liberal model which focused on grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were expected to read history on their own time, but they did not have history courses and curriculums until well into the nineteenth century. Part of what I did in chapters 1 and 2 was to look into college library catalogues and how they changed over time.


Q: In your opinion, did Thomas Paine's writings in any meaningful way affect how Americans thought of the origins of their historical experience? (Edward Dodson)

A: I tried to offer a new take on Paine’s Common Sense based on understanding the imperial crisis through this lens of history culture in the book’s “Interlude.” Basically, I think Paine’s book and his arguments were so appealing partly because they allowed many American colonists a temporary way out of the disconnect between them and Britain, whereby they cared about the authority of the past and believed the British did not. Paine’s arguments effectively told them, forget about all that and instead worry about beginning the world anew.” He painted such a critical picture of the English past partly as a way of getting the colonists to disown it instead of constantly and futilely appealing to it. But once the war ended, the past quickly regained its previous cultural importance and it only increased in the decades after the war.