Past as Prologue

In 1783, John Adams wrote that”it’s too Soon to attempt an compleat History” of the American Revolution. It might call for voluminous research, including documents in regards to the earliest settlers; furthermore, a lot of the most significant congressional documents cataloging the decision to announce Independence stayed”yet secret”
About that identical period, James Madison began collecting stuff in an attempt to write such a background. As a part of Congresshe had access to their records, including their key ones, and in 1782 he began to take notes of congressional debates in real time. In addition, he began collecting first-hand documentation of their deliberations resulting in Freedom from leading figures such as Thomas Jefferson.
Ultimately, Madison abandoned the job before finishing it. To Adams’ warning –it was too soon to write a background that could be complete–he included a further concern about attaining impartiality:”a private knowledge and an unbiased judgment of items, can scarcely meet in the historian.” The most crucial characters in political events cannot escape the prejudice exerted by their participation in those exact events. He therefore believed that the best contribution that ancient actors could cause future historians was to bequeath reliable records (such as the Notes he’d taken of the debates in Congress and the Constitutional Convention)”into successors who’ll make an impartial usage of them.”
Hattem’s premise is that historians cannot comprehend the American revolutionary period unless they know the historic comprehension of the revolutionaries–their fast evolving understanding of their own history.
The book not only examines formal histories composed around the time of the Revolution; it also assesses ancient America’s”history civilization”–all references to and uses previously, whether in newspapers, literature, art, politics, or pedagogy–over the period immediately prior to, during, and after the War.

Hattem convincingly claims that there were “rhetorical turns” in the Patriots’ arguments prior to the war, even though the precise epochs and outlines of each are not necessarily easy to delineate. The very first stage, from approximately 1764 to 1767, finds out the colonists asserting their equivalent standing and political solidarity with indigenous native Britons.
Americans were steeped in British history currently, which they believed their history, at least until the 1760s. They have been proud of their English tradition, covetous of the rights they enjoyed as Englishmen, and combined with the motherland in celebrating the Glorious Revolution that had procured those rights by restoring Parliament into the supremacy that they thought was its original and legitimate standing.
When fissures in this bond emerged, interrupted by England’s attempt to impose fresh taxes, the colonists first appealed to a source story that highlighted this unity. The earliest settlers to North America were faithful Britons, they contended, who had sought to expand the commercial and political dominion of Great Britain.
As connections frayed with Parliament, the rhetoric altered to signify that anxiety. After 1768, the origin story of the colonies was transformed: rather than loyal Britons willingly expanding the empire, the oldest settlers had fled to North America to escape persecution. And the source of the persecution wasn’t that the Stuart kings but Parliament. The Glorious Revolution hadn’t revived ancient liberties; it had been the beginning of the end of the liberty, because unchecked power allowed Parliament to behave arbitrarily.
Colonists now claimed that Parliament had no authority over the colonies; their own royal charters meant the Crown alone exercised any authority over themand they sentenced to George III straight for remedy. As one part of the Continental Congress declared:”We’re rebels against parliament;–we still adore the King.”
The last shift was a twist into”an apparently ahistorical debate” of rights; this began after 1773 and has been merged when the King refused to reverse the colonists’ claims in 1775. It was only”apparently ahistorical,” nevertheless, because many colonists were urging that law and the British Constitution were basically the same. Much more dubiously, they now recast the first settlers as pioneering spirits who’d arrived on these shores with their Lockean principles packed in their portmanteaux. Nevertheless Hattem suggests that, despite the”unprecedented reception” of Thomas Paine’s books in this age, the rebels never fully embraced his advice to leave their”ancient prejudices,”–to shed their attachments into historic goodwill –and”begin the world over again”
Post-War History Culture
The second half of this book recounts the explosion of background culture after the War, as preceding subjects of Great Britain and newly independent citizens of American states sought innovative methods to research and reimagine their particular history. Not only did the flourishing market in history publications attests to the interest, but each magazine and newspaper article, poem, painting, obelisk, and schoolbook–even collections of short stories, spellers, and geographies–became an opportunity to provide a history or civics lesson in yesteryear.
This explosion in historic interest is that the very first of four improvements that Hattem describes as marking the transformation from provincial to national history culture. The second transformation was that the democratization of background culture. Both the writers and the consumers of ancient works were found one of the laboring classes and possibly even women; it wasn’t any longer the domain of the elites.
Before the war, the American background was primarily British background, and secondarily it comprised a fragmented assortment of histories of colonies. For the very first time, Americans began viewing their background as a unified and separate story.
Abandoning their British heritage, they hunted a fresh”deep national past” by embracing the Spanish explorer Columbus.
Finally, history culture became institutionalized. What began as informal networks of human historians, antiquarians, publishers, along with historic figures solidified to institutions for advancing historic knowledge. The very first historical societies and museums were created in this period. For the very first time, the significance of maintaining ephemera–such as newspapers and election sermons–began to be valued.
Hattem repeatedly insists upon the sincerity of ancient Americans’ devotion to their past whilst on each page supplying ample reasons for denying that sincerity.Was Early American Devotion into the Past”Sincere”?
The story that Hattem informs is a persuasive one; nevertheless, there is one serious flaw in how it’s told. From the Prologue, Hattem objects into the manner that Progressive historians–and a historians critical of this Progressives–viewed consistency as the primary standard for”both sincerity and importance” in cultural histories. The issue of sincerity falls from consideration .
As the book progresses, however, Hattem repeatedly insists upon the sincerity of ancient Americans’ dedication to their past whilst on each page supplying ample reasons for doubting that sincerity.
When they discovered that Parliament was”no longer bound by the authority of the past,” this realization”caused political and cultural stress.” Hattem dwells on this emotional distress at some length. Parliament’s break with the past”proved disconcerting,” and promoted”a nervous sense of instability and insecurity” This”rupture” with the past place the colonists”adrift on a sea of uncertainty.”
The authenticity of the angst is analyzed when Hattem defends the numerous cases when Americans merely used their real or imagined past to warrant current action. Curiously, he asserts that these utilitarian corruptions of background shouldn’t be regarded as”a reflection of hypocrisy or disingenuousness. Rather, they reflect the intricate interrelationship between history and politics.”
Hattem acknowledges that the colonists owned neither a thorough nor an accurate knowledge about their own past, which unreliable and shallow knowledge produced their”interpretations more malleable than they could otherwise have been.” Yet he dismisses the notion that these concerns should detract from their validity. The colonists’ political arguments might not have been”according to historic facts, but historic thoughts do not demand historical accuracy.” Moreover, attempts”to arrive at an accurate rendering of the past” have been”a comparatively contemporary academic improvement.” He therefore implies that foundations of the time shouldn’t be judged by apparently contemporary academic criteria.
However the historians that he explains in this book clearly professed a loftier code to get historic research in relation to just sole Hattem defends. Besides the rigorous standards for thoroughness and impartiality demanded by dominant men such as Adams and Madison (summarized at the beginning of the review), the numerous small figures in Past and Prologue shared an emerging consensus about the meticulous and detached research required by the discipline of history. By Hattem’s own showingthis newly established network of historians frequently criticized each other about the cornerstone of inaccuracies or bias using a self-conscious understanding that they were leading to the Enlightenment project of progressing true knowledge.
Objectionable History
In accordance with Past and Prologue, the ancient Americans’ understanding of attachment to the past was frequently erroneous, quirky, inconsistent, biased, self-interested, and pragmatic. Their alignments using their forebears were radically rebuilt before they had been abandoned altogether. Nevertheless Hattem maintains that their attachment to the past shouldn’t be regarded as insincere or disingenuous for any of those reasons. Does it then follow that there is no such thing as objectionable history? No, there is 1 instance of hypocrisy that earns the writer’s disapprobation.
Hattem explains a case of really shameful cultural appropriation (notwithstanding that the expression now becomes applied to everything in taco pubs to Halloween costumes). At the identical time that Americans were pursuing policies that could extinguish Native American cultures, they had been constructing a mythical past to the native peoples and co-opting their previous as an important facet of their own history.
Part of this”deep nationwide past” that ancient historians were producing was that the mythology that America’s personification, Columbia, was leading her European progeny to forge the abrupt growth of Enlightenment ideals and Christianity. The natives who were living in those western lands prior to Columbia’s birth were, in accordance with the mythology, merely anticipating her civilizing influence. Nevertheless this mythology glossed on the real effects of the encounters between the European settlers and the native inhabitants, which weren’t benign to the latter, but much less were they civilizing. American policy at this time consciously sought to obliterate Native cultures, yet Americans were simultaneously giving Native American names to states and cities which forged an imagined historic goodwill between Native American and European background.
Hattem describes this appropriation of Native American background as”fundamentally utilitarian,” and he rightly condemns it. Yet why are pragmatic approaches to background censured only in this situation?
It seems that manipulating historic narratives and distorting the past to serve political ends may be defended, so long as it’s done to get a”good cause,” like undermining Britain’s hegemony over the colonies. The exact methods are illegitimate, but when they have been employed to advance American hegemony over marginalized classes, such as Native Americans. The ends justify the means.
In other words, Hattem’s starting point savors a lot of this postmodernist’s radical skepticism of objective reality in history. This perspective holds that the activity of constructing historical narratives is obviously an attempt to obtain or maintain energy, and the”legitimate” historian is that the person who uses this power permanently.
Much more disconcerting than the book’s implicit sanctioning of several pragmatic histories, the writer seems to superimpose that present worldview on the past. As Gordon Wood has recently written, postmodern historians deny that the chance of truly understanding the past, hence they have abandoned the attempt”to understand that the past in its own terms” Rather,”they need to use history to enable men and women in the current.” Hattem not only judges ancient American historians based on these suspicious criteria; he also portrays ancient American historians as if they shared the very same criteria as the postmodern historians. By so doing, he infuses the book with questionable criteria of historic excellence; he also uttered the grave historical mistake of anachronism.
A Flaw, although Not a Fatal One
The postmodern thread that 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 growth of history culture in ancient America, Hattem’s book is convincing, even essential reading. As an impartial criticism of the historic development, though, Past and Prologue is still another example of viewing the past through the lens of the current.
To paraphrase the book, the simple fact that ancient American historians frequently failed to attain the criteria they professed only makes those criteria even more interesting, meaningful, and worthy of serious consideration.
Maybe Madison wasn’t cynical enough. He believed that, so long as good documents could be bequeathed to”hands able to do justice to these,” future histories of America”may be expected to contain more reality, and courses definitely less valuable, than that of any Country or age whatever.” Hattem’s history of the creation of American history provides a case study for doubting that chronological arrangement alone can ensure impartiality in the pursuit of historical truth.
As the current dueling narratives of this 1619 Job and the 1776 Report illustrate, there’ll always be temptations for co-opting yesteryear –the remote past–and assembling historical narratives in the pursuit of contemporary political goals. But so long as historians adopt the postmodern posture that it is valid to”reimagine” the past, given only that these recreations adapt to this slippery standard of ideology, we can make sure that future foundations of America will offer neither reality nor edification.