Past as Prologue

In 1783, John Adams wrote that”it’s too Soon to attempt a compleat History” of the American Revolution. It would call for voluminous research, such as records regarding the first settlers; moreover, a number of the most crucial congressional documents cataloging the decision to declare Independence stayed”yet secret”

About that identical time, James Madison started collecting materials in an attempt to write just such a background. As a member of Congress, he had access to most of their documents, such as their key ones, and in 1782 he started to take notes of congressional debates in real time. In addition, he began collecting first-hand documentation of the deliberations leading up to Independence from leading figures such as Thomas Jefferson.

Ultimately, Madison abandoned the job before finishing it. To Adams’ warning –that it was too soon to compose a background that could 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 crucial characters in political events can’t escape the bias engendered by their involvement in those exact events. He therefore believed that the best contribution that historical actors would cause future historians was to bequeath reliable records (including the Notes he’d taken of those discussions in Congress and the Constitutional Convention)”to successors who will make an unbiased use of those.”

Hattem’s assumption is that historians can’t realize the American radical period unless they understand the historic consciousness of the revolutionaries–their fast evolving understanding of their history.

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

Hattem convincingly argues that there were three”rhetorical turns” in the Patriots’ arguments prior to the war, although the precise epochs and traces of all are not always easy to delineate. The very first point, from approximately 1764 to 1767, finds out the colonists asserting their equivalent status and political solidarity with native Britons.

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

When fissures in this bond emerged, interrupted by England’s effort to impose new taxes, the colonists initially appealed to a source story that highlighted this unity. The first settlers to North America were faithful Britons, they contended, who had sought to expand the commercial and political dominion of Great Britain.

As relations frayed with Parliament, the historical rhetoric altered to reflect that anxiety. After 1768, the source story of the colonies was transformed: rather than loyal Britons willingly expanding the empire, the oldest settlers had fled North America to escape persecution. And the origin of the persecution wasn’t that the Stuart kings but Parliament. The Glorious Revolution had not restored early liberties; it’d been the beginning of the end of this liberty, because unchecked power enabled Parliament to act arbitrarily.

Colonists now asserted that Parliament had no authority over the colonies; his royal charters supposed the Crown alone exercised any authority over them, and they sentenced to George III right for redress. As one member of the Continental Congress declared:”We’re rebels from parliament;–we all love the King.”

The last change was a turn to”an ostensibly ahistorical debate” of rights; this started after 1773 and was hardened if the King refused to reverse the colonists’ claims in 1775. It had been only”ostensibly ahistorical,” yet, because most colonists were urging that organic law and the British Constitution were essentially the same. Much more dubiously, they recast the first settlers as pioneering spirits who’d arrived on these shores with their Lockean principles packed into their portmanteaux.

Post-War History Culture

The next half of this book recounts the explosion of background culture after the War, as preceding subjects of Great Britain and recently independent taxpayers of American nations sought innovative methods to investigate and reimagine their particular history. Not only did the flourishing market in history books attests to this attention, but each magazine and newspaper article, painting, poem, obelisk, and schoolbook–also collections of short stories, spellers, and geographies–became an opportunity to give a history or civics lesson in yesteryear.

This explosion in historic interest is that the very first of four improvements that Hattem clarifies as indicating the transformation from colonial to national history civilization. The next transformation was that the democratization of background culture. Both the authors and the consumers of historical works were found among the laboring classes and even women; it was no more the domain name of the elites.

Prior to the war, American background was primarily British background, and secondarily it included a fragmented collection of histories of individual colonies. For the very first time, Americans started viewing their background as a unified and independent narrative.

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

At length, history culture became institutionalized. What started as informal networks of individual historians, antiquarians, publishers, and historic figures solidified to institutions for advancing historic knowledge. The very first historical museums and societies were established in this age. For the very first time, the value of maintaining ephemera–such as newspapers and election sermons–started to be valued.

Hattem repeatedly insists upon the sincerity of early Americans’ devotion to their previous whilst on each page providing ample grounds for denying that sincerity.Was Early American Devotion to the Past”Sincere”?

The narrative that Hattem tells is a persuasive one; nevertheless, there’s one serious defect in how it’s told. In the Prologue, Hattem objects to the way that Progressive historians–and some historians critical of their Progressives–viewed consequences as the major criterion for”both sincerity and importance” in political histories. Instead, Hattem counters,”patriot arguments and ideas are that a lot more interesting, important, and worthy of serious thought just because they shifted.” Interestingly, the issue of sincerity falls from consideration .

As the book progresses, however, Hattem repeatedly insists upon the sincerity of early Americans’ loyalty to their previous whilst on each page providing ample grounds for doubting that sincerity.

Colonists needed a”reverence for heritage,” according to Hattem, plus they”clung to the authority of the past.” When they discovered that Parliament was”no more bound by the authority of the past,” this understanding”caused political and cultural anxiety.” Hattem dwells with this emotional distress at any length. Parliament’s break with the last”proved disconcerting,” and encouraged”an anxious sense of instability and insecurity.” This”rupture” with the last group the colonists”adrift in a sea of doubt.”

The authenticity of the angst is tested when Hattem defends the numerous cases when Americans simply used their real or imagined ago to justify present action. He asserts these functional corruptions of background shouldn’t be taken to be”a manifestation of hypocrisy or disingenuousness. Rather, they represent the most complex interrelationship between history and politics.”

Hattem acknowledges the colonists possessed neither a thorough nor an accurate knowledge about their past, which shallow and unreliable knowledge produced their”interpretations more malleable than they could have been.” Yet he dismisses the notion that these concerns need to detract from their legitimacy. The colonists’ political disagreements might not have been”based on historic truth, but historic thoughts do not demand historical accuracy.” Moreover, efforts”to arrive at an accurate rendering of the last” have been”a comparatively modern academic improvement.” He therefore indicates that histories of this time shouldn’t be judged by ostensibly modern academic criteria.

Nevertheless the historians he describes in this book obviously professed a loftier code to get historic research compared to sole Hattem defends. Besides the strict criteria for thoroughness and impartiality required by notable men such as Adams and Madison (outlined at the beginning of this review), the numerous minor characters in Past and Prologue shared an emerging consensus about the diligent and detached research required by the field of history. From Hattem’s own showing, this recently created network of historians frequently criticized each other on the cornerstone of inaccuracies or bias using a self-conscious understanding they were contributing to the Enlightenment project of progressing true knowledge.

Objectionable History

In accordance with Past and Prologue, the early Americans’ perception of and attachment to the past was often incorrect, quirky, inconsistent, biased, self-interested, and more pragmatic. Their alignments using their British forebears were radically rebuilt before they were abandoned entirely. Nevertheless Hattem maintains their attachment to the past shouldn’t be considered insincere or disingenuous for some of these reasons. Does it then follow that there’s no such thing as history? No, there’s 1 case of hypocrisy that earns the author’s disapprobation.

Hattem describes a situation of really black cultural appropriation (agreeing the term now gets applied to everything in taco bars to Halloween costumes). At precisely the identical time that Americans were pursuing policies which could extinguish Native American civilizations, they were constructing a mythical past for its indigenous peoples and co-opting their earlier as an important part of their particular history.

Part of this”deep nationwide ago” that early historians were creating was that the mythology which America’s personification, Columbia, was causing her European progeny to forge the abrupt expansion of Enlightenment ideals and Christianity. The natives who were already living in these western lands prior to Columbia’s arrival were, according to this mythology, merely anticipating her civilizing influence. Nevertheless this mythology glossed on the actual effects of these experiences between the European settlers and the indigenous inhabitants, which weren’t benign for the latter, so even less they civilizing. American policy now consciously sought to overthrow Native civilizations, yet Americans were concurrently giving Native American titles to cities and states which forged an imagined historic continuity between Native American and European heritage.

Hattem clarifies this appropriation of Native American background as”essentially pragmatic,” and he condemns it. Yet why are pragmatic approaches to background censured only in this instance?

It seems that manipulating historic narratives and distorting the past to serve political ends might be defended, so long as it’s done to get a”good cause,” like sabotaging Britain’s hegemony over the colonies. The exact approaches are illegitimate, but when they have been employed to advance American hegemony over rough groups, such as Native Americans.

In other words, Hattem’s starting point savors too much of this postmodernist’s radical skepticism of objective truth ever. This perspective holds that the action of creating historical narratives is obviously an effort to acquire or maintain power, and the”legitimate” historian is that the person who uses this power once and for all.

Much more disconcerting than the novel’s implicit sanctioning of some pragmatic histories, the writer seems to superimpose that existing worldview onto the past. As Gordon Wood has composed, postmodern historians deny that the possibility of really comprehending the past, therefore they have abandoned the effort”to understand that the past in its own terms” Instead,”they need to use history to enable people in the present.” Hattem not only judges early American historians based on those suspicious criteria; he also portrays early American historians as if they shared the exact criteria as the postmodern historians. By thus doing, he not only infuses the book with questionable criteria of historic excellence; he also commits the grave historical error of anachronism.

A Flaw, but Not a Fatal One

The postmodern thread which runs through Past and Prologue will be that the fly in the ointment: a distracting and disorienting bug that mars an otherwise fine book. As a consequence of the development of history culture in early America, Hattem’s novel is convincing, even crucial reading.

To misunderstand or misrepresent the founding generation’s criteria of historiography is to miss a vital part of their history . To paraphrase the novel, the fact that early American historians often failed to attain the criteria they professed only makes those criteria all the more interesting, meaningful, and worthy of serious thought.

Perhaps Madison wasn’t cynical enough. He believed that, provided that great records could be bequeathed to”hands capable of doing justice to them,” future histories of America”may be expected to contain more truth, and courses definitely not less valuable, than that of any nation or era whatever.” Hattem’s history of the creation of American history provides a case study for mentioning that existing distance alone can guarantee impartiality in the pursuit of historical truth.

As today’s dueling narratives of this 1619 Project and the 1776 Report attest, there’ll always be temptations for co-opting yesteryear –even the remote past–and assembling historical narratives in the pursuit of modern political goals. But provided that historians adopt the postmodern posture it is valid to”reimagine” the past, provided only that these recreations adapt to the slippery standard of political righteousness, we can make certain future histories of America will provide neither truth nor edification.