- Citizenship and the Memory of the American Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Political Culture
The memory of the Revolution is the American origins myth. For many Americans, the idea of a collective historical memory of the Revolution might bring to mind what could be called the "schoolbook narrative." In this all-too-familiar narrative, the American colonists, motivated by high-minded ideas of liberty and equality, bravely resisted attempts by the power-hungry tyrant King George III to tax them unreasonably by declaring independence. To secure that independence, American farmers took up arms to defend their homes and, directed by exceptionally virtuous leaders, defeated the combined military forces of the largest and most powerful empire since Rome. This narrative is a constructed memory of the Revolution that has roots dating back to the very first histories written of the Revolution by men and women who lived through it and has served ever since to inculcate a sense of national identity and patriotism in the nation's schoolchildren. For centuries, American schoolchildren have learned a version of this narrative and many have carried it with them throughout their lives. Indeed, historians who currently teach the American Revolution in colleges and universities can feel as though no small part of their work is devoted to complicating this narrative that was ingrained in students at a young age.
Yet, the story of our national collective memory of the American Revolution is not primarily one of the development and perpetuation of this simplistic narrative. Rather, it is a story of construction, contest, and conflict composed of a continuous, many-sided struggle [End Page 30] throughout American history between various groups to define the meaning and legacy of the Revolution for their own political and cultural purposes. And while the specific groups and the memories they create have changed over time, the nature of the memory of the Revolution as something that is constructed and contested and its importance in American political culture has not.
Unlike other periods of American history and European history generally, the field of early American history largely missed out on the "memory studies boom" that followed the cultural turn in the 1980s and 1990s. This can be partly attributed to the fact that, at the same time that memory studies were growing, scholarly interest in the American Revolution was waning. The most direct work on the broad topic of the memory of the Revolution is Michael Kammen's A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination, published in 1978. Kammen focused on cultural forms such as historical fiction, theater, and art to highlight Americans' fraught relationship with tradition. He argued that the Revolution was increasingly treated throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century as the national adolescence, or "a totally successful national rite de passage."1 This was a necessary process for a new nation, but as that nation matured and became more conservative, he argued, its revolutionary history became like so many embarrassing memories of one's own awkward youth. In this sense, the Revolution appeared to have been something to get through and beyond rather than the more familiar and omnipresent touchstone it has been since the early twentieth century (and continues to be).
Kammen's portrayal of the memory of the Revolution was defined by consensus. He worked on the book during the Bicentennial and its intellectual approach to cultural history is based, as much of his work was, on a belief in the existence of an "American mind," or shared forms of national thought and culture. Throughout, he claims small numbers of individual producers of cultural forms as those who "preserved and enhanced the revolutionary tradition" at any given time. When, at the end of the book, he raises the question of whether there has "been no alternative reading of the American Revolution," Kammen says, "Yes, we have in fact had some half a dozen significant authors who tried to offer dissenting versions. They are too few in number, however, too discontinuous in sequence, and too neglected by their contemporary popular cultures to comprise a nay-saying tradition."2
Since Kammen's A Season of Youth, however, there...