Review: Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution


February 1, 2021
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


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Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution by Michael D. Hattem (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2021)

In his new book, Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution, Michael Hattem provocatively attempts to answer an age-old vexing question for the American Revolutionary Era. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the American colonists viewed themselves as British citizens with a common view of British history with those who lived in Great Britain. They adopted crucial historical developments in Britain, such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Protestant monarchy’s restoration, as part of their history. Only a few colonial history books were devoted to British North America; settlers preferred to read about British history and exhibited pride in their British heritage. In essence, there was no shared colonial past or American history, only the British empire’s history; for example, Rapin’s History of England was the most popular history book. However, during only thirteen years between the end of the French and Indian War and the Declaration of Independence, the culturally British North American colonists replaced their British identity with an American one. How did this happen so fast?

Hattem posits that a change in how British and colonial history was conceived in the rebellious colonies played a large role in fostering this transition and creating American nationalism. In the 1760s and 1770s, colonists began deconstructing relationships with British history due to changes in imperial policies towards British North America. As a result, colonists transformed from a parochial view of their individual colony’s history to a shared view of a collective past. After the War of Independence concluded, Americans began to develop a sense of deep national past built upon mythical symbolism and epic renderings of the American history familiar to citizens today.

To understand this unprecedented shift, Hattem defines two new concepts. First, he offers the term “history culture,” which “encompasses all references to and use of the past in a given society.” Adding history culture to existing economic, constitutional, and ideological origin theories that others pose helps define the American identity’s roots. History culture encompasses a period’s books, newspapers, theater, poetry, and other literary forms of expression. The rapidly growing print production in the new United States greatly fostered a shared historical memory and culture. The second concept is that of “cultural nationalists” who helped create, define, and promote a shared American identity. Every country needs its distinctive national identity, supported by founding histories and myths. Leading up to and after independence, cultural nationalists aided the transition from being British to American and creating American history.

In the immediate post-revolution period, cultural nationalists produced impressive literary achievements. Historians such as David Ramsey, Mercy Otis Warren, and William Gordon penned the first American historical narratives. Hattem’s descriptions of these works are captivating and more than repay the book’s cost. Further examples of cultural nationalists abound, including Joel Barlow and David Humphrey’s poetry, and epic oil paintings by Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and John Trumbull. American dictionaries and textbooks appeared to inculcate the next generation in America’s founding myths. Hattem provides an innovative sociogram linking the relationships among these chroniclers of American history, an insightful analytic technique that should be employed more often. Regularly, the participants in this cultural network exchanged primary sources, cooperated on securing patronage, and provided feedback on draft manuscripts.

In the early republic, the “history culture” continued to grow, becoming nationalized, democratized, and institutionalized. In addition to cultural elites, participation expanded to men and women of various backgrounds and professions. While the history culture encompassed new groups, other societal segments were whitewashed from the narratives. For the most part, the early histories omit the role of slavery in the country’s development. They also depict Native Americans as undeserving savages who played minor roles in the county’s heritage. To widen historical literacy, the cultural nationalists preserved and promoted the American history culture through the emergence of historical societies and museums. Lastly, while never setting foot in the United States, Columbus became a principal founder to deepen the United States’ past and provided the rationale for naming the Federal capital “District of Columbia.” These developments aided in creating America’s founding myths, many of which remain in contemporary Americans’ minds.

While the concept of “cultural nationalists” is innovative and compelling, it is not the sole driver behind the American identity. Hattem’s work would benefit from consideration of the impact of sectional and state issues on national identity. From the beginning, Americans also identified themselves as northerners, southerners, and westerners, each with different cultures and interests. Strong regional identities started before the revolution. During the War of Independence, they created significant issues for the rebellion’s national leaders, and problems continued into the new republic. Exemplifying the sectional identity differences, William Hunter, a newspaper editor, toasted at a celebratory dinner Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as, “Skilful pilots of our political ship. She has weathered many a storm; and, under the guidance of her able commanders, will yet reach the port of safety, in despite of [sic] Northern rocks and Southern shoals.” These sectional identity differences would later explode into civil war, and even in contemporary America would not completely disappear.

While requiring a careful read, Hattem includes real and apocryphal stories and anecdotes to illustrate his intellectually meticulous analyses. For example, he recounts several incidents that show differing perspectives of British history and hint at the emerging American history. As pre-war tensions rose, British soldiers loyal to the King and Parliament required a Boston tavern operating under the seventeenth-century rebel Oliver Cromwell’s name to take down its sign. Later, during the siege of Boston, residents referred to the British Army as Parliament’s troops and the Patriot army outside the city as the King’s troops, signaling the colonials’ early views that they resisted Parliament’s abusive and arbitrary exercise of power but remained loyal to the King. To punctuate this point, the author quotes James Lovell, “We are rebels against Parliament—we adore the King.” After the war, a reporter asked a Massachusetts minuteman if he went to war to resist the Coercive Acts or “taxation without representation.” The veteran responded no; “we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to be.” These illustrative chronicles help readers navigate complex, academically rigorous discourse.

Convincingly, Hattem establishes that a shared vision of history is fundamental to national identity and is a vital component of a nation’s culture. I recommend a thoughtful read while periodically pausing to think more broadly about the author’s observations and conclusions. He recounts the fascinating process by which the colonists established a new identity and created a uniquely American history. While Hattem focuses on the Revolutionary Era, he observes that “reimagining the past is a tradition as old as the republic itself.” Further, he warns that discerning readers should be aware that historical accounts can sometimes reflect the writer’s views of the present. The author’s advice is an excellent caution for readers of Revolutionary-era histories.

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