Past and Prologue: The Politics of Memory in the American Revolution (under contract to Yale University Press)
This manuscript argues that changing cultural memories of the historical past were crucial in shaping both the political dynamics of coming of the Revolution and the origins of early American nationalism. It uncovers a wealth of historical writing and representations throughout the period’s cultural production that had been outside the bounds of previous scholarship on eighteenth-century historiography by being the first to apply the methodological concept of “history culture” to early America. Past and Prologue shows how the conflict with Britain forced Americans to construct, revise, and deconstruct a number of shared historical pasts as part of a decades-long process of identity formation necessary to establishing political and, later, cultural independence from Britain.
Past and Prologue traces the role of historical memories in shaping that process through three developments: the reconsideration and deconstruction of colonists’ relationship to the British past before independence; the creation of a newly shared colonial past for the first time during the imperial crisis and the revision of that colonial past after the war; and, the cultural construction of a “deep national past” or American antiquity in the decades following the war.
In doing so, Past and Prologue challenges a number of well-worn notions. First, rather than claiming the Revolution “liberated Americans from the past,” it argues that the Revolution actually made the past matter more than ever before. Second, rather than claiming that early American nationalism differed from European nationalism because it rejected the past, my work argues that Americans did seek to base their developing sense of national identity on a shared past constructed specifically for the purpose. Thirdly, countering the consensus that national identity did not begin to emerge until the early national period, Past and Prologue argues that the origins of American national identity can be found in the shared historical pasts created as a product of the political crisis with Britain in the decade before independence. Finally, my work reveals the tension between postcolonial and colonial tendencies in the treatment of our national history, which continues to the present, to have been a defining factor in the creation of the very idea of “American history.”
Before 1760, most British colonists thought of the British past as their own and had no sense of a coherent shared past that incorporated all of the colonies. By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, that was no longer the case. Past and Prologue examines how colonists went about disowning a past that had been so fundamental to their identities as British subjects for a new shared past that had to be constructed almost in its entirety in the midst of unprecedented upheaval and political instability. That is, rather than having been a product of the Revolution, this work argues that the idea and creation of “American history” was actually a driving force behind it. Past and Prologue shows that the political and cultural construction of history and memory––an issue at the heart of a number of current political debates––is not only not a contemporary development but one that was central to the founding of the nation and embedded in American nationalism from the very beginning.
“‘All remembrance of themselves’: Creating the Colonial Past in the Revolutionary Historical Imagination, 1764-1812”
- Drawn from two dissertation chapters, this article explores how colonists created for the first time a shared colonial past in the political rhetoric of the 1760s and 1770s and how they revised that colonial past after the war in light of the political and cultural challenges of the early national period, particularly the fostering of national identity and cultural independence from the former mother country.
“Networking and the Institutionalization of History Culture in the Early Republic, 1783-1812”
- This article looks at the interconnected relationships between historians, antiquarians, poets, essayists, painters, politicians, publishers, and booksellers in the early republic. It argues that this informal networking played a significant role in the rapid growth of historical cultural production and informed the creation of the nation’s first historical institutions.
“Cultural Authority and the Creation of Civil Society in Colonial New York City, 1747-1770”
- This article examines attempts by a group of young, enlightened dissenters in New York City to foster the development of the city’s cultural life through the creation of journals, magazines, libraries, and voluntary, professional, and economic societies. However, unlike the cultural development of Philadelphia and Boston, which they sought to emulate, their efforts in New York City ran into strong opposition from the city’s Anglican establishment, particularly its clergy who correctly saw these developments as a direct challenge to their longstanding cultural authority in the city.