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Past as Prologue

In 1783, John Adams wrote that”it is too Soon to attempt an compleat History” in the American Revolution. It would call for rigorous research, including documents regarding the earliest settlers; moreover, many of the most important congressional documents cataloging the choice to announce Independence remained”yet secret”
About that identical time, James Madison started collecting materials in an effort to write such a history. In addition, he started collecting firsthand proof of the deliberations resulting in Independence from leading figures like Thomas Jefferson.
Ultimately, Madison abandoned the project before finishing it. To Adams’ caution–it was too soon to write a history that would be intact –he added a further concern about achieving impartiality:”a private knowledge and an impartial judgment of things, can rarely meet in the historian.” The most crucial characters in political events cannot escape the bias engendered by their participation in the exact events. He therefore considered that the best contribution that historical actors could make to future historians was to bequeath trusted records (such as the Notes he’d taken of those debates in Congress and the Constitutional Convention)”into successors who’ll make an impartial utilization of those.”
Hattem’s assumption is that historians cannot understand the American revolutionary period unless they know the historical comprehension of the revolutionaries–their fast evolving understanding of the history.
The book not only examines formal histories written around the time of the Revolution; it also examines early America’s”history civilization”–all of references to and applications of the past, whether in literature, papers, art, politics, or pedagogy–over the period immediately prior to, during, and following the War.

Hattem convincingly argues that there have been “rhetorical turns” in the Patriots’ arguments before the war, although the exact epochs and traces of all are not always easy to delineate. The first stage, from roughly 1764 to 1767, finds the colonists promising their equivalent standing and political solidarity with indigenous native Britons.
Americans were steeped in British history at this time, they considered their particular history, at least prior to the 1760s. They have been proud of the English tradition, jealous of their rights they enjoyed as Englishmen, and united with the motherland in celebrating the Glorious Revolution which had secured those rights by assigning Parliament into the supremacy which they thought was its original and legitimate status.
When fissures within this bond emerged, disrupted by England’s effort to impose fresh taxes, the colonists initially appealed to a source story that highlighted this motto. The earliest settlers to North America were faithful Britons, they contended, who had sought to enlarge the political and commercial dominion of Great Britain.
As relations frayed with Parliament, the rhetoric shifted to signify that anxiety. Following 1768, the source story of the colonies was changed: rather than faithful Britons willingly expanding the empire, the earliest settlers had fled to North America to escape persecution. And the origin of that persecution was not exactly that the Stuart kings but Parliament. The Glorious Revolution hadn’t restored ancient liberties; it’d been the beginning of the end of that liberty, because unchecked power allowed Parliament to act arbitrarily.
Colonists now claimed that Parliament had no jurisdiction over the colonies; their own imperial charters meant the Crown alone exercised any jurisdiction over themand they appealed to George III straight for redress.
The final shift was a twist into”an ostensibly ahistorical debate” of natural rights; this started after 1773 and was hardened when the King refused to rear the colonists’ claims in 1775. It was just”ostensibly ahistorical,” nevertheless, because many colonists were urging that law and also the British Constitution were basically the same. Much more dubiously, they now recast the first settlers as pioneering souls who had arrived on these shores with their Lockean principles packed into their portmanteaux.
Post-War History Culture
The second half of this novel recounts the explosion of history culture following the War, as preceding entities of Great Britain and recently independent citizens of American states sought innovative approaches to investigate and reimagine their particular history. Not only did the booming market in history publications attests to this attention, but each magazine and newspaper article, painting, poem, obelisk, also schoolbook–also collections of short stories, spellers, and geographies–became an opportunity to provide a history or civics lesson in yesteryear.
This explosion in historical curiosity is the first of four developments which Hattem describes as marking the transformation from provincial to national history culture. The second transformation was that the democratization of history culture. Both the writers and the consumers of historical works were found among the laboring classes and even girls; it wasn’t any more the domain name of their elites.
Prior to the war, American history was mostly British history, and secondarily it comprised a fragmented group of histories of human colonies. For the first time, Americans started viewing their history as a coordinated and separate narrative. A lot of this retelling was strained, as historians read their present into the past and superimposed a sense of unity.
Abandoning their heritage, they hunted a fresh”deep national past” by adopting the Spanish explorer Columbus. A perfect illustration of this transformation was that the decision by King’s College to change its name to Columbia College.
At length, history culture became institutionalized. What started as informal networks of human historians, antiquarians, publishers, and historical figures solidified into associations for advancing historical knowledge. The first historical societies and museums were established within this period. For the first time, the significance of maintaining ephemera–like newspapers and election sermons–started to be appreciated.
Hattem repeatedly insists upon the sincerity of early Americans’ dedication to their past while on each page providing ample grounds for denying that sincerity.Was Early American Devotion into the Past”Sincere”?
The narrative that Hattem tells is a compelling one; however, there’s one serious defect in how it is told. In the Prologue, Hattem objects into the manner that Progressive historians–and a historians critical of their Progressives–seen consistency as the primary standard for”both sincerity and importance” in cultural histories. The question of sincerity drops from consideration here.
As the novel progresses, however, Hattem repeatedly insists upon the sincerity of early Americans’ devotion to their past while on each page providing ample grounds for doubting that sincerity.
Colonists needed a”reverence for tradition,” in accordance with Hattem, and also they”clung to the jurisdiction of their past.” When they found that Parliament has been”no more bound by the power of their past,” this understanding”caused cultural and political anxiety.” Hattem resides on this psychological distress at any length. This”rupture” with the last place the colonists”adrift on a sea of uncertainty.”
The validity of that angst is tested once Hattem defends the numerous cases when Americans only used their own or imagined past to warrant present action. Curiously, he asserts that these utilitarian corruptions of history shouldn’t be taken to be”a manifestation of hypocrisy or disingenuousness. Instead, they represent the most complex interrelationship between history and politics.”
Hattem acknowledges that the colonists owned neither a comprehensive nor a precise knowledge about their past, which unreliable and shallow knowledge made their”interpretations more malleable than they might have been.” However he dismisses the notion that these concerns need to detract from their legitimacy. The colonists’ political disagreements might not have been more”according to historical truth, but historical memories do not need historical accuracy.” Moreover, attempts”to arrive at a precise representation of the last” have been”a relatively contemporary academic improvement.” He thus indicates that histories of this time shouldn’t be judged by ostensibly contemporary academic criteria.
Yet the historians that he explains in this novel obviously professed a loftier code for historical research than the sole Hattem defends. In addition to the strict criteria for thoroughness and impartiality required by dominant men like Adams and Madison (outlined at the beginning of this review), the numerous minor characters in Past and Prologue shared an emerging consensus about the meticulous and dispersed research needed by the discipline of history. By Hattem’s own showingthis recently created network of historians frequently criticized each other on the grounds of inaccuracies or prejudice with a self-conscious comprehension that they were leading to the Enlightenment project of advancing true knowledge.
Objectionable History
According to Past and Prologue, the early Americans’ understanding of and attachment to the past was often erroneous, selective, inconsistent, biased, self-interested, and pragmatic. Their alignments along with their forebears were first radically reconstructed before they had been abandoned entirely. Yet Hattem maintains that their attachment to the past shouldn’t be considered insincere or disingenuous for any of those reasons. Does it then follow that there’s not any such thing as history? No, there’s one instance of hypocrisy which makes the author’s disapprobation.
Hattem describes a situation of really black cultural appropriation (agreeing that the term now becomes applied to everything in taco bars to Halloween costumes). At precisely exactly the identical time that Americans were pursuing policies which would extinguish Native American civilizations, they had been constructing a mythical past for its indigenous peoples and co-opting their past as an important facet of their history.
The natives who were already living in these western lands before Columbia’s arrival were, according to this mythology, only awaiting her civilizing influence. Yet this mythology glossed over the actual effects of the encounters between the European settlers and the native inhabitants, which were not benign for the latter, so even less were they civilizing. American policy at this time consciously sought to obliterate Native civilizations, yet Americans were simultaneously giving Native American titles to cities and states which forged an imagined historical goodwill between Native American and European history.
Hattem clarifies this appropriation of Native American history as”essentially pragmatic,” and he condemns it. Yet why are pragmatic approaches to history censured just in this situation?
It seems that manipulating historical narratives and distorting the past to serve political ends may be defended, so long as it is done for a”good reason,” like undermining Britain’s hegemony within the colonies. The exact methods are false, nevertheless, when they were used to advance American hegemony over marginalized groups, like Native Americans.
To put it differently, Hattem’s starting point savors too much of this postmodernist’s radical skepticism of objective truth ever. This view maintains that the activity of creating historical narratives is obviously an effort to acquire or preserve power, and also the”legitimate” historian is that the one who uses this power once and for all.
Much more disconcerting than the novel’s implicit sanctioning of several pragmatic foundations, the writer seems to superimpose that existing worldview onto the past. Since Gordon Wood has written, postmodern historians deny that the possibility of really comprehending the past, therefore they’ve abandoned the effort”to understand that the past on its own terms” Rather,”they want to use history to empower people in the present.” Hattem not only judges early American historians according to those suspicious criteria; he portrays early American historians as if they shared the exact criteria as the postmodern historians. By so doing, he not only infuses the novel with questionable criteria of historical excellence; he uttered the grave historical error of anachronism.
A Flaw, however Not a Fatal One
The postmodern thread that runs through Past and Prologue will be the fly in the ointment: a distracting and disorienting insect which mars an otherwise good book. As a description of the growth of history culture in early America, Hattem’s publication is convincing, even crucial reading.
To paraphrase the publication, the simple fact that early American historians often failed to get the criteria they professed just makes those criteria even more interesting, meaningful, and worthy of serious consideration.
Perhaps Madison was not cynical enough. He considered that, so long as fantastic documents may be bequeathed to”hands able to do justice to them,” future histories of America”may be anticipated to contain more truth, and courses definitely not less valuable, than any Country or era ” Hattem’s foundation of the production of American history provides a case study for doubting that chronological distance alone can guarantee impartiality in the pursuit of truth.
As today’s dueling narratives of this 1619 Job and also the 1776 Report illustrate, there’ll always be temptations for co-opting yesteryear –even the remote past–and building historical narratives in the pursuit of contemporary political goals. But so long as historians embrace the postmodern posture that it is valid to”reimagine” the last, provided only that these recreations conform to this slippery norm of political righteousness, we can make certain that future foundations of America will offer neither truth nor edification.