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Past as Prologue

It might require voluminous research, such as documents in regards to the earliest settlers; furthermore, a number of the most essential congressional documents cataloging the decision to announce Independence stayed”yet secret.”

About that same time, James Madison started collecting materials in an effort to write just such a history. As a part of Congress, he had access to their records, such as their secret ones, and in 1782 he started to take notes of diplomatic discussions in real time. In addition, he started collecting firsthand documentation of the deliberations leading up to Freedom from major figures like Thomas Jefferson.

Finally, Madison abandoned the project before completing it. To Adams’ caution–that it was too soon to write a history that could be absolute –he added a further concern regarding achieving impartiality:”a private wisdom and an impartial judgment of things, can scarcely meet from the historian.” The absolute most significant figures in political events cannot escape the prejudice exerted by their participation in those same events. He therefore believed that the best contribution that ancient actors would cause future historians would be to bequeath trusted records (like the Notes he’d taken of those discussions in Congress and the Constitutional Convention)”into successors who will make an impartial utilization of those.”

Hattem’s assumption is that historians cannot see the American radical period unless they understand the historic comprehension of the revolutionaries–their own fast evolving understanding of their history.

The book not only examines formal histories written around the time of the Revolution; it also examines early America’s”history culture”–references to and applications previously, whether in literature, papers, art, politics, or pedagogy–over the period immediately prior to, during, and after the War.

Hattem convincingly claims that there have been three”rhetorical turns” from the Patriots’ arguments prior to the war, even though the exact epochs and outlines of each are not always easy to delineate. The very first stage, from roughly 1764 to 1767, finds the colonists promising their equivalent status and political solidarity with indigenous native Britons.

Americans were steeped in British history right now, which they considered their own history, at least before the 1760s. They have been proud of their English heritage, covetous of the rights that they enjoyed as Englishmen, and combined with the motherland in celebrating the Glorious Revolution which had secured those rights by imitating Parliament into the supremacy that they believed was its first and legitimate status.

When fissures within this bond emerged, disrupted by England’s attempt to impose fresh taxes, the colonists first appealed to a source story that emphasized this unity. The earliest settlers to North America were faithful Britons, they argued, who had sought to enlarge the commercial and political dominion of Great Britain.

As connections frayed with Parliament, the historic rhetoric altered to reflect that anxiety. Following 1768, the origin story of the colonies was transformed: instead of faithful Britons voluntarily enlarging the empire, the earliest settlers had fled North America to escape persecution. And the source of that persecution wasn’t exactly the Stuart kings but Parliament. The Glorious Revolution had not restored historical liberties; it had been the start of the end of that liberty, because unchecked power enabled Parliament to behave arbitrarily.

Colonists now contended that Parliament had no authority over the colonies; his imperial charters supposed the Crown independently exercised any authority over them, and they sentenced to George III straight for remedy. As one part of the Continental Congress declared:”We are rebels against parliament;–we still love the King.”

The last shift was a twist into”an apparently ahistorical argument” of rights; this started after 1773 and has been hardened if the King refused to rear the colonists’ asserts in 1775. It was only”apparently ahistorical,” nonetheless, because most colonists were urging that natural law and also the British Constitution were essentially the same.

Post-War History Culture

The next half of the book recounts the explosion of history culture after the War, as preceding subjects of Great Britain and recently independent taxpayers of American states sought innovative ways to investigate and reimagine their own history. Not merely did the thriving market in history publications attests to this interest, but every magazine and newspaper article, painting, poem, obelisk, and schoolbook–even collections of short stories, spellers, and geographies–turned into an opportunity to provide a history or civics lesson from the American past.

This explosion in historic interest is the very first of four developments that Hattem explains as indicating the transformation from colonial to national history culture. The next transformation was the democratization of history culture. Both the writers and the customers of ancient works were found among the laboring classes and possibly even women; it wasn’t any more the domain name of the elites.

Before the war, American history was mostly British history, and secondarily it comprised a fragmented assortment of histories of human colonies. For the very first time, Americans started viewing their history as a unified and separate narrative. A lot of this retelling was strained, as historians read their gift to the past and superimposed a sense of unity.

Abandoning their heritage, they hunted a fresh”deep national past” by embracing the Spanish explorer Columbus.

Ultimately, history culture became institutionalized. What started as informal networks of individual historians, antiquarians, publishers, and historic figures solidified to institutions for advancing historic understanding. The very first historical museums and societies were created within this age. For the very first time, the significance of sustaining ephemera–like papers and election sermons–started to be appreciated.

Hattem repeatedly insists on the sincerity of early Americans’ dedication to their own past while on every page providing ample reasons for doubting that sincerity.Was Early American Devotion into the Past”Sincere”?

The narrative that Hattem tells is a compelling one; nonetheless, there’s one serious flaw in how it’s told. From the Prologue, Hattem objects into the manner that historians–as well as a historians critical of their Progressives–viewed consistency as the most important standard for”both sincerity and significance” in cultural histories. Instead, Hattem counters,”patriot arguments and thoughts are that a lot more interesting, significant, and worthy of serious consideration just because they changed.” The issue of sincerity falls out of consideration here.

As the book progresses, however, Hattem repeatedly insists on the sincerity of early Americans’ dedication to their own past while on every page providing ample reasons for doubting that sincerity.

Colonists had a”reverence for heritage,” based on Hattem, plus they”clung to the authority of yesteryear.” When they discovered that Parliament had been”no more bound by the jurisdiction of the past,” this realization”caused political and cultural stress.” Hattem resides with this emotional distress at some length.

The authenticity of that angst is analyzed once Hattem defends the numerous instances when Americans merely used their real or imagined ago to warrant current action. Curiously, he asserts these functional corruptions of history should not be taken to be”a reflection of hypocrisy or disingenuousness. Rather, they represent the complex interrelationship between history and politics.”

Hattem admits the colonists possessed neither a thorough nor an accurate understanding in their past, which unreliable and shallow knowledge produced their”interpretations more malleable than they could otherwise have been.” However he dismisses the belief that these considerations need to detract from their validity. The colonists’ political disagreements might not have been more”based on historic truth, but historic thoughts do not demand historical precision” Moreover, efforts”to arrive at an accurate rendering of the past” have been”a relatively contemporary academic development.” He therefore indicates that histories of this time should not be judged by apparently contemporary academic standards.

Nevertheless the historians that he describes in this book clearly professed a loftier code to get historic research compared to sole Hattem defends. Besides the rigorous standards for thoroughness and impartiality demanded by prominent men like Adams and Madison (summarized at the start of this review), the numerous minor characters in Past and Prologue shared an emerging consensus regarding the meticulous and detached research needed by the discipline of history. From Hattem’s own showing, this recently created network of historians frequently criticized each other on the grounds of inaccuracies or bias with a self-aware comprehension they were contributing to the Enlightenment project of advancing accurate understanding.

Objectionable History

According to Past and Prologue, the early Americans’ understanding of and attachment to the past was frequently inaccurate, selective, inconsistent, biased, self-interested, and utilitarian. Their alignments along with their native forebears were radically rebuilt before they were abandoned altogether. Nevertheless Hattem maintains their attachment to the past should not be considered insincere or disingenuous for some of these reasons. Does it then follow that there’s not any such thing as history? No, there’s 1 instance of hypocrisy which makes the author’s disapprobation.

Hattem explains a situation of truly shameful cultural appropriation (notwithstanding the term now becomes applied to everything from taco bars to Halloween costumes). At exactly the same time that Americans were pursuing policies which could extinguish Native American civilizations, they were building a mythical past to its native peoples and co-opting their previous as an important aspect of their own history.

The natives who were already living in those western lands prior to Columbia’s arrival were, based on this mythology, only anticipating her civilizing influence. Nevertheless this mythology glossed over the real effects of the encounters between the European settlers and the native inhabitants, which weren’t even benign to the latter, so much less they civilizing. American policy at this time knowingly sought to overthrow Native civilizations, however Americans were concurrently giving Native American names to states and cities which devised an imagined historic continuity between Native American and European history.

Hattem describes this appropriation of Native American history as”fundamentally utilitarian,” and he rightly condemns it. Yet why are utilitarian approaches to history censured only in this situation?

It appears that manipulating historic narratives and distorting the past to serve political ends might be defeated, as long as it’s performed to get a”good cause,” like sabotaging Britain’s hegemony within the colonies. The same methodologies are illegitimate, however, when they have been employed to advance American hegemony over marginalized groups, like Native Americans. The ends justify the means.

To put it differently, Hattem’s beginning point savors too much of the postmodernist’s radical skepticism of objective reality ever. This view holds that the activity of constructing historical narratives is always an attempt to acquire or preserve power, and also the”legitimate” historian is the person who uses this power once and for all.

Much more disconcerting than the publication’s implicit sanctioning of several utilitarian histories, the writer appears to superimpose that existing worldview onto the past. As Gordon Wood has written, postmodern historians refuse the chance of truly understanding the past, so they have abandoned the attempt”to understand the past in its own terms.” Instead,”they wish to use history to enable people in the current.” Hattem not only judges early American historians based on those dubious standards; he portrays early American historians as if they shared the same standards as the postmodern historians. By so doing, he not only infuses the book with questionable standards of historic excellence; he uttered the grave historical error of anachronism.

A Flaw, although Not a Fatal One

The postmodern thread which runs through Past and Prologue will be the fly in the ointment: a distracting and disorienting bug that mars an otherwise fine publication. As a description of the growth of history culture in early America, Hattem’s book is convincing, even crucial reading. As an impartial criticism of that historic development, nevertheless, Past and Prologue is yet another example of viewing the past through the lens of the current.

To paraphrase the book, the simple fact that early American historians frequently failed to get the standards they professed just makes those standards even more interesting, meaningful, and worthy of serious consideration.

Maybe Madison wasn’t cynical enough. He believed that, so long as fantastic documents may be bequeathed to”hands able to do justice to these,” future histories of America”may be expected to contain more reality, and courses certainly less precious, than that of any nation or age whatever.” Hattem’s foundation of the creation of American history provides a case study for doubting that chronological space alone can ensure impartiality in the pursuit of truth.

As today’s dueling narratives of the 1619 Project and also the 1776 Report attest, there will always be temptations for co-opting the past–even the distant past–and building historical narratives from the pursuit of contemporary political goals. But so long as historians adopt the postmodern posture it is legitimate to”reimagine” the past, provided only that these recreations conform to the slick standard of ideology, we can make sure future histories of America will provide neither reality nor edification.