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Past as Prologue

In 1783, John Adams wrote that “it is too Soon to attempt a compleat History” of the American Revolution. It would require voluminous research, including records about the earliest settlers; furthermore, many of the most important congressional documents cataloging the decision to declare Independence remained “yet secret.”

About that same time, James Madison began collecting materials in an attempt to write just such a history. As a member of Congress, he had access to all their documents, including their secret ones, and in 1782 he began to take notes of congressional debates in real time. He also began collecting first-hand documentation of the deliberations leading up to Independence from leading figures like Thomas Jefferson.

Ultimately, Madison abandoned the project before finishing it. To Adams’ caution—that it was too soon to write a history that would be complete—he added a further concern about attaining impartiality: “a personal knowledge and an impartial judgment of things, can rarely meet in the historian.” The most important figures in political events cannot escape the bias engendered by their participation in those same events. He therefore believed that the best contribution that historical actors could make to future historians was to bequeath reliable records (such as the Notes he had taken of the debates in Congress and the Constitutional Convention) “to successors who will make an unbiased use of them.”

Michael D. Hattem’s recent book, Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution, will make even the most idealistic historians question whether an unbiased history of America has ever been attempted, much less attained. Hattem’s premise is that historians cannot understand the American revolutionary period unless they understand the historical consciousness of the revolutionaries—their rapidly evolving understanding of their own history.

The book not only examines formal histories written around the time of the Revolution; it also examines early America’s “history culture”—all references to and uses of the past, whether in newspapers, literature, art, politics, or pedagogy—within the period immediately before, during, and after the War.

The Three “Rhetorical Turns” in the Patriots’ Arguments

Hattem convincingly argues that there were three “rhetorical turns” in the Patriots’ arguments prior to the war, although the precise epochs and outlines of each are not always easy to delineate. The first stage, from roughly 1764 to 1767, finds the colonists asserting their equal status and political solidarity with native Britons.

Americans were steeped in British history at this time, which they considered their own history, at least until the 1760s. They were proud of their English heritage, jealous of the rights they enjoyed as Englishmen, and united with the motherland in celebrating the Glorious Revolution that had secured those rights by restoring Parliament to the supremacy which they believed was its original and legitimate status.

When fissures in this bond emerged, disrupted by England’s attempt to impose new taxes, the colonists first appealed to an origin story that emphasized this unity. The earliest settlers to North America were loyal Britons, they argued, who had sought to expand the commercial and political dominion of Great Britain.

As relations frayed with Parliament, the historical rhetoric shifted to reflect that tension. After 1768, the origin story of the colonies was transformed: instead of loyal Britons willingly expanding the empire, the earliest settlers had fled to North America to escape persecution. And the source of that persecution was not the Stuart kings but Parliament. The Glorious Revolution had not restored ancient liberties; it had been the beginning of the end of that liberty, since unchecked power allowed Parliament to act arbitrarily.

Colonists now argued that Parliament had no authority over the colonies; their royal charters meant the Crown alone exercised any authority over them, and they appealed to George III directly for redress. As one member of the Continental Congress declared: “We are rebels against parliament;—we adore the King.”

The final shift was a turn to “an ostensibly ahistorical argument” of natural rights; this began after 1773 and was hardened when the King refused to back the colonists’ claims in 1775. It was only “ostensibly ahistorical,” however, because many colonists were urging that natural law and the British Constitution were essentially the same. Even more dubiously, they now recast the first settlers as pioneering souls who had arrived on these shores with their Lockean principles packed in their portmanteaux. Yet Hattem suggests that, despite the “unprecedented reception” of Thomas Paine’s books in this period, the rebels never fully embraced his advice to abandon their “ancient prejudices,”—to drop their attachments to historical continuity—and “begin the world over again.”

Post-War History Culture

The second half of the book recounts the explosion of history culture after the War, as former subjects of Great Britain and newly independent citizens of American states sought innovative ways to research and reimagine their own history. Not only did the booming market in history books attests to this interest, but every magazine and newspaper article, poem, painting, obelisk, and schoolbook—even collections of short stories, spellers, and geographies—became an opportunity to give a history or civics lesson in the American past.

This explosion in historical interest is the first of four developments that Hattem describes as marking the transformation from colonial to national history culture. The second transformation was the democratization of history culture. Both the writers and the consumers of historical works were increasingly found among the laboring classes and even women; it was no longer the domain of the elites.

The third development was a retroactive nationalization of history culture. Before the war, American history was primarily British history, and secondarily it included a fragmented collection of histories of individual colonies. For the first time, Americans began viewing their history as a unified and independent story. Much of this retelling was strained, as historians increasingly read their present into the past and superimposed a sense of unity. According to this anachronistic narrative, not only did the settlers in Jamestown share a united purpose with the Puritans in New England, but the common purpose of the former colonies was retroactively synthesized until it resembled the self-identity of what would later emerge as the United States of America.

Abandoning their British heritage, they sought a new “deep national past” by adopting the Spanish explorer Columbus. A perfect illustration of this transformation was the decision by King’s College to change its name to Columbia College.

Finally, history culture became institutionalized. What began as informal networks of individual historians, antiquarians, publishers, and historical figures solidified into institutions for advancing historical knowledge. The first historical societies and museums were established in this period. For the first time, the value of preserving ephemera—like newspapers and election sermons—began to be appreciated.

Hattem repeatedly insists on the sincerity of early Americans’ devotion to their past while on every page providing ample reasons for doubting that sincerity.

Was Early American Devotion to the Past “Sincere”?

The story that Hattem tells is a compelling one; however, there is one serious flaw in the way it is told. In the Prologue, Hattem objects to the way that Progressive historians—as well as some historians critical of the Progressives—viewed consistency as the main criterion for “both sincerity and significance” in political histories. Instead, Hattem counters, “patriot arguments and ideas are that much more interesting, significant, and worthy of serious consideration precisely because they changed.” Interestingly, the question of sincerity drops out of consideration here.

As the book progresses, however, Hattem repeatedly insists on the sincerity of early Americans’ devotion to their past while on every page providing ample reasons for doubting that sincerity.

Colonists had a “reverence for tradition,” according to Hattem, and they “clung to the authority of the past.” When they discovered that Parliament was “no longer bound by the authority of the past,” this realization “caused political and cultural anxiety.” Hattem dwells on this psychological distress at some length. Parliament’s break with the past “proved disconcerting,” and promoted “an anxious sense of instability and insecurity.” This “rupture” with the past set the colonists “adrift on a sea of uncertainty.”

The authenticity of that angst is tested when Hattem defends the many instances when Americans merely used their real or imagined past to justify present action. Curiously, he asserts that these utilitarian corruptions of history should not be taken to be “a reflection of hypocrisy or disingenuousness. Rather, they reflect the complex interrelationship between history and politics.”

Hattem acknowledges that the colonists possessed neither a thorough nor an accurate knowledge about their own past, and this shallow and unreliable knowledge made their “interpretations more malleable than they might otherwise have been.” Yet he dismisses the notion that these considerations should detract from their legitimacy. The colonists’ political arguments may not have been “based on historical facts, but historical memories do not require historical accuracy.” Moreover, attempts “to arrive at an accurate rendering of the past” have been “a relatively contemporary academic development.” He therefore suggests that histories of this time should not be judged by ostensibly contemporary academic standards.

Yet the historians he describes in this book clearly professed a loftier code for historical research than the one Hattem defends. In addition to the rigorous standards for thoroughness and impartiality demanded by prominent men like Adams and Madison (outlined at the beginning of this review), the many minor characters in Past and Prologue shared an emerging consensus about the meticulous and detached research required by the discipline of history. By Hattem’s own showing, this newly created network of historians frequently criticized each other on the grounds of inaccuracies or bias with a self-conscious understanding that they were contributing to the Enlightenment project of advancing true knowledge.

Objectionable History

According to Past and Prologue, the early Americans’ understanding of and attachment to the past was often inaccurate, selective, inconsistent, biased, self-interested, and utilitarian. Their alignments with their British forebears were first radically reconstructed before they were abandoned altogether. Yet Hattem maintains that their attachment to the past should not be considered insincere or disingenuous for any of those reasons. After all, he points out, there never was a time when Americans weren’t “reimagining” their past for political purposes. Does it then follow that there is no such thing as objectionable history? No, there is one instance of hypocrisy that earns the author’s disapprobation.

Hattem describes a case of truly shameful cultural appropriation (notwithstanding that the term today gets applied to everything from taco bars to Halloween costumes). At the same time that Americans were pursuing policies that would extinguish Native American cultures, they were constructing a mythical past for the indigenous peoples and co-opting their past as an important aspect of their own history.

Part of the “deep national past” that early historians were creating was the mythology that America’s personification, Columbia, was leading her European progeny to forge the westward expansion of Enlightenment ideals and Christianity. The natives who were already living in those western lands prior to Columbia’s arrival were, according to this mythology, merely awaiting her civilizing influence. Yet this mythology glossed over the actual effects of the encounters between the European settlers and the native populations, which were not even benign for the latter, much less were they civilizing. American policy at this time consciously sought to obliterate Native cultures, yet Americans were simultaneously giving Native American names to cities and states which forged an imagined historical continuity between Native American and European history.

Hattem describes this appropriation of Native American history as “fundamentally utilitarian,” and he rightly condemns it. Yet why are utilitarian approaches to history censured only in this case?

It appears that manipulating historical narratives and distorting the past to serve political ends may be defended, so long as it is done for a “good cause,” like undermining Britain’s hegemony over the colonies. The same methodologies are illegitimate, however, when they were used to advance American hegemony over marginalized groups, like Native Americans. The ends justify the means.

In other words, Hattem’s starting point savors too much of the postmodernist’s radical skepticism of objective truth in history. This view holds that the activity of constructing historical narratives is always an attempt to acquire or maintain power, and the “legitimate” historian is the one who uses this power for good.

Even more disconcerting than the book’s implicit sanctioning of some utilitarian histories, the author appears to superimpose that present worldview onto the past. As Gordon Wood has written, postmodern historians deny the possibility of truly understanding the past, so they have abandoned the attempt “to understand the past on its own terms.” Instead, “they want to use history to empower people in the present.” Hattem not only judges early American historians according to these dubious standards; he portrays early American historians as if they shared the same standards as the postmodern historians. By so doing, he not only infuses the book with questionable standards of historical excellence; he commits the grave historical error of anachronism.

A Flaw, but Not a Fatal One

The postmodern thread that runs through Past and Prologue is the fly in the ointment: a distracting and disorienting bug that mars an otherwise fine book. As a description of the development of history culture in early America, Hattem’s book is convincing, even essential reading. As an impartial criticism of that historical development, however, Past and Prologue is yet another example of viewing the past through the lens of the present.

To misunderstand or misrepresent the founding generation’s standards of historiography is to miss a crucial aspect of their history culture. To paraphrase the book, the fact that early American historians often failed to achieve the standards they professed only makes those standards all the more interesting, significant, and worthy of serious consideration.

Perhaps Madison was not cynical enough. He believed that, so long as good records could be bequeathed to “hands capable of doing justice to them,” future histories of America “may be expected to contain more truth, and lessons certainly not less valuable, than that of any Country or age whatever.” Hattem’s history of the creation of American history provides a case study for doubting that chronological distance alone can ensure impartiality in the pursuit of historical truth.

As today’s dueling narratives of the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report attest, there will always be temptations for co-opting the past—even the distant past—and constructing historical narratives in the pursuit of contemporary political aims. But so long as historians adopt the postmodern posture that it is legitimate to “reimagine” the past, provided only that these recreations conform to the slippery standard of political righteousness, we can be sure that future histories of America will offer neither truth nor edification.

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