Media, Memory and Revolution

Arts & Literature

October 15, 2013
by Janice Hume Also by this Author

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"Who's your Founding Father?" Honda's 2013 Presidents' Day TV Commercial.
“Who’s your Founding Father?”
Honda’s 2013 Presidents’ Day TV Commercial.

Icons of the American Revolution are ubiquitous in American culture. They grace our currency, sell Hondas in television ads, teach lessons via children’s cartoons, climb the history bestseller lists, and dot our landscape on markers and memorials.

This isn’t surprising. The Revolution is our first real “story” as an independent nation, distinct from native and colonial origins. The telling and retelling of that story began almost as soon as the fighting ended, when early Americans sought to remember the heroes, villains, and events of those “times that tried men’s souls.” New Americans both desired and needed a history – after all, nations exist not just in laws and geography, but also in stories.  Many Revolution stories survived, but also morphed and changed over time.  Some found a home in American journalism, and then were recounted in early published histories. This essay considers how journalism, in particular nineteenth-century magazines, made a contribution to the popular history of the Revolution.

Sociologist Barry Schwartz has argued that the most significant moment in any society’s past is its beginning, a period marked by “the magic, attraction and prestige of origins.”[1] Though we are a people known for looking forward, rather than to the past, the Revolution has always held that “magic,” remaining at the core of our national tradition.

Stories of the war survived in myriad ways. They were passed down orally in families and communities, and preserved in letters, journals and military documents. They were also printed and distributed in the press and in books. Journalism existed long before the war, predating any formal American histories. Arthur Shaffer, who studied how the history of the Revolution was written prior to 1815, notes that, “many Americans learned their history through newspapers and magazines.”[2] Thus journalists were involved in providing the “first draft of history” as the cliché goes, but also in publishing at least some of the subsequent drafts.

The memory narrative of the Revolution – first printed and later broadcast – is the topic of Popular Media and the American Revolution: Shaping Collective Memory, forthcoming in December from Routledge, Taylor & Francis.[3] It is not a history of the war, nor is it about how the era’s press covered news of the battles. Many others have written about those topics. Rather, it is about how we remember and sometimes forget the characters, arguments, and events of the Revolution. It describes how Americans’ collective memory of the war has manifested in popular media in three centuries.

Why is memory important? The term “collective memory” describes a nation’s, region’s, or community’s beliefs about the past – beliefs that sometimes reflect current needs more than what actually happened. Such memory matters. “Representations of the past can be mobilized to serve partisan purposes,” according to historians Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford. “They can be commercialized for the sake of tourism; they can shape a nation’s sense of identity, build hegemony, or serve to shore up the political interests of the state; and they can certainly influence the ways in which people understand their world.”[4]

Magazines provide tangible memory sites for study, similar to books, markers and museums. Historically they have been, as media historian Frank Luther Mott explained, “leisurely in habit, literary in tone, retrospective rather than timely.”[5] By the outbreak of the Civil War there were some 700 magazines in the United States, and many of them looked back on the Revolution with curiosity, nostalgia, and awe. I examined a sample of 231 magazine articles from 1787 through 1860 and found memories of the Revolution in many forms. Articles included lengthy biographical sketches, historical series detailing military campaigns, histories of places, shorter recollections of revolutionary incidents, essays, reprints of letters of notable figures, reviews and announcements of numerous books and lectures, coverage of orations, anniversaries and monument dedications, and poetry.

Magazines opined about the obligation for Americans to remember. As one noted in 1837: “Great and important events should ever be kept in memory, and also often spoken of, and also be instilled in to the minds of our children, and by them transmitted to their children, and handed down from generation to generation, to the last posterity.”[6]  Editors worried that some important wartime contributions would be lost to the “gathering mists of time,” and so they called for commemorative monuments and for more published stories.

Magazine writers also argued for the need to get things right, and for the importance of using primary documents. They criticized other writers, lecturers and historians for errors or omissions, and sometimes sought to correct the record. For example, The North American Review, critical of Thomas Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts Bay, explained to readers: “At the risk of being tedious, we have sketched the outline of the whole colonial history, for the purpose of shewing [sic] how totally our author mistook its general character.”[7]

Articles described Patriots as more worthy of veneration than the ancient Greeks.  The revolutionists were brave and had brilliant political minds. Many biographical sketches and book reviews focused on notables like Jefferson, Kosciusko and Lafayette. Regional figures, too, like General Andrew Pickens or Sergeant William Jasper, were remembered for their heroism. Almost any kind of participation in the Revolution was deemed heroic, but no one was more lionized than the uber-American-hero George Washington, “the best great man” that ever lived. He was featured time and again in American magazine articles. In a 25-part “History and Biography” published as a serial in the children’s magazine Youth’s Companion in 1848, Washington was portrayed as “no mere man,” but rather as God’s chosen leader.[8]

In contrast, enemies were brutish, including not just the British and Loyalists, but also “runaway negroes” and Cherokee “barbarians.” They were artful, treacherous, savage butchers.

Women were remembered for wartime courage, though fewer by name. For example, one unnamed wife kept watch over her husband’s “blood-stained corpse in a lonely house, in the midst of enemies, resolute to protect the precious remains from further outrage.”[9] Other women melted platters, pans and dishes for bullets, or made clothing for soldiers from sheets and blankets.  Martha Washington was remembered by name, of course, for her association with her husband, George, and for her cheerfulness and firmness.

Nancy Hart as depicted in 1896 book.
Nancy Hart as depicted in 1896 book.

Another named heroic woman, Nancy Hart, illustrates the symbiotic relationship between journalism and early-published histories. According to historian George White’s 1854 Historical Collections of Georgia, Hart captured a squad of British soldiers who had invaded her north Georgia cabin and forced her to cook a meal for them.  The soldiers,  “stacked their arms and seated themselves, when, quick as thought, the dauntless Nancy seized one of the guns, cocked it, and with a blazing oath declared she would blow out the brains of the first mortal that offered to rise, or taste a mouthful!”[10]

White’s account was reprinted verbatim from a newspaper story published in the Yorkville (S.C.) Pioneer, “believed to be the first account of her that ever found its way to the public,” as well as from an account published in the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book.[11]

I was startled that so much press content would find its way into a permanent history, and wondered if that same dynamic repeated in histories of the other colonies-turned-states. To find out, I visited the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and examined histories of the Revolution published prior to 1899. I supplemented the sample with digitized histories from the era available via Google Books. In all, I examined more than 60 books to determine if and how they used press sources to tell the story of the Revolution.

Many historians (though not all) writing in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did make use of press sources in a variety of ways, from simple acknowledgments in book introductions to insertions of entire stories or lengthy passages taken directly from newspapers and magazines.

Elizabeth Ellet. Source: NY Digital Library
Elizabeth Ellet. Source: NY Digital Library

Book authors, like magazine writers, also wanted to get their facts right.  Elizabeth Ellet, who authored books and was a regular magazine contributor, wrote in the preface to the third volume of The Women of the Revolution in 1850: “Traditions, however entertaining, should have no place in an authentic record, if they are unsupported by indisputable testimony, or if they are at variance with history or probability.”[12]

Some histories included short and seemingly random snippets of information, which is not surprising given the miscellaneous nature of the press of the era. But longer accounts were included, too, and they often featured lively language, quotations, and narrative. One history, for example, provided a colorful account of how Timothy Bloodworth and his sons hid in the hollow of a cypress tree and picked off confused British soldiers with a gun nicknamed “Old Bess.” The details were taken from the Wilmington Chronicle.[13] Obituaries were often excerpted or reprinted, as well as other tributes to deceased Patriots.

Like era magazine editors, book authors believed their struggles to record the history of the Revolution were worthwhile. Thomas J. Rogers wrote in 1824, “Every endeavor to rescue from forgetfulness the men who distinguished themselves in our glorious revolution, ought to be encouraged by all patriotic Americans.”[14] Most books were highly nationalist in tone, and like magazines, provided comfortable American heroes and heroines for a nation defining itself.

The stories examined provide insight into the layered and complex role of memory in the creation of both journalism and history. At least some had survived in memory long before they were recorded in newspapers, magazines, or books.  For example, the story of Nancy Hart did not surface in newspapers until around 1825, though her heroic deed would have happened in 1780. It was told in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1848, and then reprinted in White’s history in 1854.[15] Hart’s story has certainly survived as part of the Revolution memory narrative in Georgia – the only county in the state named for a woman is Hart County. The quotations and  “color” provided by journalistic accounts are impossible to verify, yet they have become an important part of the popular perception of the past.

Of course newspaper and magazine articles, which sometimes included folklore as well as fact, were just part of a wealth of sources used to record the events and participants of the Revolution.  Historians also used interviews, government documents, military records, letters, and papers.  But as these more than 60 books show, journalism became a part of the historical record, not just ephemeral content to be discarded. Press stories of the Revolution found an audience far beyond the readers of newspapers and magazines and became a part of the early drafting of the first American story.

 


[1] Barry Schwartz, “The social context of commemoration: A study in collective memory,” Social Forces 61 (December 1982): 375.

[2] Arthur H. Shaffer, The politics of history: Writing the history of the American Revolution, 1783-1815 (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1975), 162.

[3] Janice Hume, Popular Media and the American Revolution: Shaping Collective Memory (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[4] R.C. Romano and L. Raiford, The Civil Rights Movement in American memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), xxi.

[5] Frank Luther Mott, History of American Magazines, IV (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), 2.

[6] “From the Old Colony Memorial, Incidents of the Revolution,” Army and Navy Chronicle 4, no. 21 (May 25, 1837): 332.

[7] “Hutchinson’s third volume,” The North American Review 33, no. 72 (January 1834): 134.

[8] “History and biography. Original: Life of Washington and history of the American Revolution,” The Youth’s Companion 22, no. 25 (October 19, 1848): 98.

[9] “The women of the American Revolution,” The North American Review 68, no. 153 (April, 1849): 362.

[10] The Rev. George White, Historical collections of Georgia: Containing the most interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, anecdotes, etc., relating to its history and antiquities, from its first settlement to the present time (New York: Pudney & Russell, 1854), 443.

[11] For a discussion of the origins of the Nancy Hart story, see E. Merton Coulter, “Nancy Hart, Georgia heroine of the Revolution: The story of the growth of a tradition,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 39, no. 2 (June 1955): 118-151. See Elizabeth Ellet, “Heroic women of the Revolution,” Godey’s Lady’s Book (October 1848), 201-201.

[12] Elizabeth F. Ellet, The women of the American Revolution volume III (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1850), vi.

[13] E.W. Caruthers, Interesting revolutionary incidents and sketches of character, chiefly in the “old north state” (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1856), 353.

[14] Thomas J. Rogers, A new American biographical dictionary; or, remembrancer of the departed heroes, sages, and statesmen, of America (Easton, Pa.: Thomas J. Rogers, 1824), iii-iv.

[15] See Coulter; also Janice Hume, “Press, published history, and regional lore: Shaping the public memory of a Revolutionary War heroine,” Journalism History 30, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 200-209.

3 Comments

  • Thanks for a most interesting article. I had just read Lester Cohen’s Foreword to David Ramsay’s The History of the American Revolution about how early historians, close to or participating in the great events, chose their narrative. But was such writing really history or was it more in the nature of a journalist reporting ‘current events?’ How do we know, in the end, what are facts and what is fancy?

  • A great teaser for your book, Janice. Can’t wait to read it. I hadn’t fully connected the dots: the anecdotal approach to history, so prevalent through the mid-nineteenth century and the source of so many mythologies, was in part the consequence of the emerging medium of magazines. Not that I didn’t notice magazines; I just hadn’t put together how the medium itself fed the anecdotal genre, and hence the mythologies. The medium is the message.

  • Quite interesting article, Ms. Hume. I look forward to reading the new book. In the process of working on my master’s degree, I studied much of what you write about although without the concentration on magazines. While I had a feeling such was the case, once I looked at 19th-century historiography, it really did amaze me just how much of our current view of the Revolution comes from the later century’s drive to create not so much an authentic view of the Revolution but, rather, to use the struggle’s stories to build an American character. I felt writers often altered or expanded upon a story in order to reinforce the American message. It’s not right or wrong–it’s just the period’s approach to American history. I likened it to a young teenager trying to find their identity and place within their world.

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