- Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution, and: Revolution in America: Considerations and Comparisons, and: Stories of Independence: Identity, Ideology, and History in Eighteenth-Century America
Two of these books are collections of articles written by two of the most distinguished historians of the Revolutionary period, published over the course of several decades, and now collected for the first time. The third is a single volume and the first book of a younger historian. Two common themes, however, link all three books. First, the three deal with the complicated issues surrounding historical memory. Second, to different degrees, the books raise questions about the role of ordinary people in the revolutionary era. This focus is greatest in Alfred Young’s book, while the other two seem at first to focus on the elite.
Young’s essays look at the issue of historical memory from two points of view. First, he takes the perspective of the present day, writing outstanding essays on ways to improve Boston’s Freedom Trail and on the [End Page 517] memory (or lack thereof ) of the liberty trees and liberty poles that were focal points for popular resistance in Boston and several other Revolutionary cities and towns. Second, he looks at some of the ways that Revolutionary-era Americans themselves evaluated the past, devoting a large section of one essay to the image of Oliver Cromwell among the Revolutionary generation and another to the question of how and why Thomas Paine’s popularity decreased dramatically within his own lifetime. He also looks at the historical origins of many of the forms of popular protest engaged in by the ordinary people of the Revolutionary era, although in some cases, such as tarring and feathering and the liberty tree itself, Young shows that the methods of popular protest were as much novel as time-tested. Don Higginbotham devotes less space to the subject of memory, but in some essays he examines issues of historical reputation, including how historians’ accounts have affected the posthumous reputations of three women in Washington’s life (his mother Mary, his friend Sally Fairfax, and his wife Martha). In perhaps his most interesting essay, Higginbotham questions the common belief that the antebellum South had an especially strong martial tradition, provocatively arguing that in fact the militia of many southern states was in shambles and there was an equally strong, perhaps even stronger, martial tradition in the New England states.
Peter Messer confronts the subject of historical memory most directly and pervasively, since the very subject of his book is how historians of the Revolutionary era shaped their attitudes toward the past. He postulates that the historians of the colonial era can be divided into two groups, which he calls the provincial and imperial schools. The former gave credit for the prosperity of the American colonies to those who had actually settled the colonies, while the latter deprecated the colonists, often criticizing their mistreatment of the Indians and sometimes even their owning of slaves, while giving credit to the British imperial framework for imposing order on the colonists and saving them from the mess they would have created had they been left to their own devices. The later portion of the book traces the fate of these provincial ideas during and after the Revolution in the hands of writers and historians such as Thomas Paine, Jeremy Belknap, David Ramsay, Hannah Adams, and Mercy Otis Warren.
Messer himself makes a notable contribution to present-day historical debate through his analysis of the intellectual roots of these two schools of historians, which naturally leads him to the question of who were the [End Page 518] primary intellectual influences on the founding generation. Messer accepts the...