- Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War ed. by Michael A. McDonnell etc.
Revolutionary War, Founding fathers, Early republic, Revolutionary memory
Perhaps, nearly two decades since its onset, we might think that “founders chic” is running its course. But the perceptive essays in this fine volume implicitly argue otherwise: In fact, as this volume persuasively demonstrates, portrayals of the American Revolution have fascinated the nation since John Hancock quilled his John Hancock on the nation’s self-proclaimed birth certificate. This book is a significant contribution to our understanding of how Americans in the early republic molded the memory of the nation’s founding event. Edited by an international team of scholars with a combined expertise in the Revolution and in memory studies, the contributors apply an impressive array of approaches to early republic cultural productions.
The book is apportioned into three roughly chronological sections. “The Revolutionary Generation Remembers” considers how those who lived through the Revolution first negotiated what would be recalled and, in some cases, what would not be. In what serves to reinforce the premise of the introduction’s assertion that constructing memories was a necessary condition for nation-building, Michael McDonnell’s piece surveys the disorder of the War of Independence. He offers a sweeping view of the chaos, with significant populations of loyalists and disaffected, and people who switched sides like weathervanes in the variable winds of war. Two essays in this section elucidate the process of forming strains of nationalistic memory: Daniel Mandell’s on African American petitions in New England, and Evart Jan van Leeuwen’s on gothic-inflected graveyard poetry. Conversely, two others focus on how personal memories [End Page 489] could be at odds with such celebration: Carolyn Cox shows how the details of veterans’ pension narratives diverged from celebratory July 4 speeches, and William Huntting Howell suggests that Joseph Plumb Martin’s memoir represents an “antinarrative” in which soldiers’ real memories of war were less of battles and glory than of pervasive physical privation occasionally sprinkled with hijinks. As for who’s forgotten, there is the case of John Dickinson. Peter Bastian argues that this colonial colossus of the 1760s did not tend to his memory like others of his cohort, thereby dooming himself to memorial twilight rather than spotlight.
The second section, “Transmitting Memories,” chronicles how two subsequent generations grappled with the shining Revolutionary legacy that they cherished, and yet could not live up to. These Americans constructed a national pantheon. Seth Bruggemen illuminates how George Washington Parke Custis made a career out of aggrandizing himself by further apotheosizing his step-grandfather. Molly Pitcher, as Emily Lewis Butterfield discovers, did not emerge as a composite figure with that name until the 1830s. With personal memories fading or dying off, written memories gained increasing weight. Eileen Ka-May Cheng details the subtle efforts of early republic historians to creatively repackage the scholarship of loyalist George Chalmers.
With personal memories of the Revolution fading, knowing how to retain Revolutionary memories was an important civic skill; Keith Beutler finds that pioneering 1820s and 1830s textbook author Emma Willard not only imparted knowledge of the Revolution but also employed the theory of “mnemonics” to teach students how to associate memories with objects in a room to help their recall (readers of Sherlock Holmes will recognize this method). Of course, there can also be a purpose to forgetting, as James Paxton reminds us in his reading of early republic histories of the Mohawk Valley, which painted Indians and loyalists as savages, so as to erase the intimacy of the community before the Revolution as well as to justify Whigs’ vicious reprisals.
Thus, memory can serve the purposing of unity and also be crafted to highlight difference. The book’s third section, “Dividing Memories,” carries the story through the Civil War. Sometimes, without the necessary documentary trail, memories may be...