Looking to the Past to Find Ourselves

Michael Hattem–

For a few decades, American history has played a prominent role in the most current iteration of culture wars in the United States. We saw this most recently in some of the ways that President Trump motivated his base in the 2020 presidential election. These included holding “the White House Conference on American History” in September and signing an Executive Order to establish the “1776 Commission” just a few days before the election. Both of these efforts were explicit responses to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which offered a narrative outline of American history with slavery at the center. But the crucial role of American history, particularly that of the Revolution, in our political culture is not new; American history has always been contested.

Mercy Otis Warren, one of the nation’s first prominent historians, painted by John Singleton Copley circa 1763.

The roots of partisan politicization of American history can be found in the years around the election of 1800, which resulted in the United States’ first peaceful transfer of power between parties. The first national histories of the nineteenth century—most notably John Marshall’s Life of Washington and Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution—were decidedly partisan and presented interpretations of the recent revolution that fit the emerging ideologies of their authors’ party affiliations. During the middle of the nineteenth century, southern slaveowners created their own narrative of and meanings for the Revolution as part of their efforts to justify their proslavery ideology and to protect the institution against the rising tide of northern abolitionism. At the same time, abolitionists themselves drew heavily on the legacy of the Revolution, particularly the Declaration of Independence, in making their case to the broader American public. So too did the early woman’s rights movement in their Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848. By the eve of the Civil War, both antislavery northerners and proslavery southerners claimed to be the true inheritors of the legacy of the Revolution and the founders of the nation. Later, in the 1940s, both American communists and anti-communists claimed the mantle of the Revolution for their movements There are many more such examples littered throughout American history. Indeed, opposing groups defining and redefining our history in light of the present for partisan purposes is a tradition in American political culture.

A promotional item from the 2004 Hamilton exhibition at The New-York Historical Society.

This tradition of partisan historical memories of our national past continues in our current moment in a variety of ways. For example, we can see it playing out recently in the contrasting ways both conservatives and liberals have lionized Alexander Hamilton. In 2004, a major exhibit about Hamilton in New York funded by conservative donors called him “the Man who made modern America” and focused on his role in establishing the new nation’s financial system, defining him, in the words of historian Mike Wallace, as a “business-class hero” and patron saint of Wall Street. Just over a decade later, in the liberal glow of the waning Obama era, Hamilton was the subject of a major musical on Broadway that defined his legacy as an immigrant who made a crucial contribution to the birth of the nation. While both of these treatments must be understood in the specific context in which they emerged, interestingly, they both shared a focus on the importance and role of individual founders in the Revolution and our national history, which has been a feature of our collective memory from Parson Weems’s inventive biographies of George Washington following his death in 1799 to David McCullough’s hugely popular biography of John Adams published just over 200 years later.

“The Apotheosis of Washington,” painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865 and installed in the dome of the Capitol rotunda.

As we approach the 250th anniversary of independence, the Cold War-era memory of the Revolution retains its emotional purchase for many Americans who lean politically to the right. In this narrative, the Revolution was defined by resistance to centralized government and taxation. It was fought by simple farmers led by great leaders who, imbued with the righteousness of their ideas, defeated the world’s largest empire. At the same time, however, many Americans on the opposite end of the political spectrum are reconsidering the legacy of the Revolution. In their narrative, which was reflected in the 1619 Project, the Revolution is defined by the hypocrisy of founders who wrote of “liberty” while also owning enslaved persons. It was fought by common white colonists who wanted the freedom to dispossess Indigenous Peoples from their land and elite planters who wanted primarily to protect the institution of slavery and, by extension, their own fortunes. Moreover, the Revolution failed to end slavery, establish equality for women, and protect Indigenous peoples. As a result, many have called for displacing the Revolution from its central place in our national historical memory, deeming it at best insufficient if not wholly unsuitable as a civic touchstone for an increasingly diverse nation and polity.            

But while various opposing groups throughout American history have defined the Revolution in ways that would allow them to claim to be the true inheritors of its legacy, this dynamic of rejecting a long-held memory of a foundational revolution also has precedent. In the eighteenth century, most British colonists shared an emotional connection to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that was not wholly dissimilar from that of many contemporary Americans and our own revolution. The Glorious Revolution, which removed James II and increased the prerogative of Parliament over that of the monarch, was seen as the foundation, both in principles and institutions, for the rapid growth and success of the British empire. Such views of the Glorious Revolution were widespread in the colonies until the 1760s when, after decades of constant war with France and Spain, Parliament began passing a raft of unprecedented legislation to exert increased control and oversight of the colonies. As a result, many patriots began reconsidering their understanding of the Glorious Revolution over the course of the crisis. They came to believe that the Glorious Revolution had not ended tyranny so much as it had simply reversed the roles of the King and Parliament, with the latter now having the power to act as arbitrary and beyond reproach as any previous English monarch. In other words, they went from understanding it as the foundation of their prosperity to the source of their crisis with Britain. As many patriots questioned the legacy of the revolution that had been foundational to their civic identities as proud British subjects, they also came to question their own Britishness, which, in turn, helped make independence possible.

An inset from David Ramsay’s A Map, Historical and Biographical Chart of the United States (1810). Note that the chart depicts many colonies as having lost their “free government” in 1688 because of the Glorious Revolution.

Historical memories do not rely on accuracy for their power. Instead, that power comes from their ability to emotionally reinforce previously held beliefs and ideologies. Currently, we find ourselves at another moment in American politics where one’s understanding of the past is influenced more often than not by their political persuasion. For these reasons, arguing over the accuracy of finer historical points rarely changes minds. Instead, an awareness of the historical relationship between history and politics in the United States should lead us to ask questions like why certain historical memories and narratives about our national past appeal to certain segments of the population? And what are the purposes to which they are put by politicians and others with a partisan agenda? As for generations of Americans before us, the ways in which we engage with our history tell us just as much, if not more, about ourselves and our present as they do about our past.

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