Image credit: Equestrian Statue of King George III, Bowling Green, New York City by Charles M. Lefferts / Wikimedia
In his book, Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2020), Michael D. Hattem discusses the creation of an American historical memory that started at the founding of the nation. His book traces the shifting narratives that would become “American history” and how that history was created during the revolutionary period. As he explains in an interview with Max Pierce, the way that we think and talk about the past has a large effect on what we think and do in the present—in reshaping and reimagining the past, we reshape and reimagine our present.
Max Pierce [MP]: Can you tell me how you chose the topic of your book?
Michael D. Hattem [MDH]: The book originated in an undergraduate paper I wrote when I was at City College. I was working on a paper about the founding of King’s College and the conflict between the Anglican establishment in New York City and non-Anglican Protestants. I noticed when I was reading newspaper essays and pamphlet debates that both sides were using a lot of terminology from seventeenth century English politics—references to Cromwell, Levellers, and Archbishop Laud. So I took a mental note: it’s one of those things that you notice, and then it just floats in the back of your mind for a long time.
Then, when I got to the point of needing to find a dissertation topic, I thought memory would be a good one, partly because of this prior interest, but also because there really wasn’t a lot of early American scholarship on memory. Finding a topic that there hasn’t been a lot done on is not always an easy thing to do in any American history field.
I thought, originally, that the dissertation would look at what I had found in the 1750s in New York City: how did English or British historical memory translate into a colonial society? There was a transatlantic cultural angle, and the story could go up to about 1776, which was the original plan.
But when we work on a project like this, any kind of research project, it’s always perpetually subject to change depending on what is in the sources. That’s what happened to me. I found some really interesting sources that forced me to expand the chronological scope of the project into the Revolutionary period.
MP: When you discovered new sources that changed the direction [of the project], how did you decide what you wanted to include?
MDH: I struggled with that. The main source that changed the project was at the New York Historical Society. I was looking at the John Jay papers, and I saw a manuscript in the catalog entitled, “The History of the American Revolution.”
I knew that John Jay hadn’t written a history of the revolution. Then, I saw that there was a notation on the cover that said, “Found among the papers of Governor William Livingston.” Livingston became the governor of New Jersey in 1776 and was originally from New York and a big part of those King’s College debates. I also knew that he didn’t write a history of the revolution either.
It was 550 pages of horrible handwriting. I transcribed a bunch of it, then just started throwing sentences—sentence fragments basically—into Google Books to see what popped up and if the manuscript had ever been published. The first couple of tries didn’t produce any results, but eventually, I got a few hits. It was a manuscript copy of David Ramsay’s 1790 History of the American Revolution, which was not the first, but the most important history of the Revolution to be published in the early national period.
I did some more research in Ramsay’s papers and found some letters where he talked about sending out the first six chapters of his manuscript to various people, looking for feedback, not unlike what historians do now. The manuscript had sat in the New York Historical Society for 150 years without having been properly identified and authenticated. It was a really neat find just from an antiquarian perspective, but [that] its real value was that it really changed my thinking about the chronology of the project.
MDH: When I compared the manuscript to the final published version, it was largely the same except for the first chapter, which in the draft gave an outline of seventeenth century English history, much like the stuff that I had seen from the 1750s. But by the published version, most of that was taken out and replaced with individual, more expanded histories of the settlement of the individual colonies.
That put this question in my head: how, and when, did these British colonists, now Americans, stop thinking that the British past was their history? And how did they come to replace it with what we now call “American history”? That question then became the project’s overarching framework: reckoning with the creation of “American history.”
One of the things I found shocking was how similar the narrative, and its structure, of what they came up with in the decade or two after the Revolution was to what I learned in high school back in the early nineties. That was something that was created. It was manufactured. And it was created by specific people in specific places who made very specific choices about what would originally be included in American history. They made hugely consequential decisions that then shaped how generations of Americans would understand American history.
MP: A lot of your work has to do with historical memory and the creation of historical memory, but some of our readers might not know exactly what you mean by that.
MDH: Historical memory—well, there’re lots of names for it. Some people call it cultural memory. Others call it popular memory. To me, historical memory is a narrative about a specific event in the past that conveys a specific meaning to a specific audience. We can see this in public discourse today. There’s a way to talk about the history of the American Revolution as though it was all about these high-minded ideals. There’s another way to talk about it that doesn’t take [those] ideas into account at all, and focuses on the experiences of people who have traditionally been left out of those kinds of popular narratives.
Neither of those stories is necessarily wrong. They’re not, not in a factual sense. Usually, historical memory reinforces previously held beliefs. It’s a way to make the past useful in the present by how you shape the narrative and the meanings that you want people to take from that narrative.
MP: But I think a lot of people think that history is just one thing: that there’s a story that’s simply true. We’ve also seen, recently, how history and memory can be manipulated. What contributes to that malleability?
MDH: I have a line in the book where I say that memory lives in the shadow cast by history. History is, in one definition of the word, everything that’s happened in the past. It’s everything that’s come before. That casts a large shadow. But when historians try to recover the past, there’s a process of selection that goes on. What do you include? What do you leave out? Because you can’t include everything.
History is not a science. In some sense, it’s almost an art, to try to recover something concrete from this mass of ambiguity. And the past is ambiguous until historians make some sense of it. And because of that, there’s a lot of room in that shadow for memory to do its work.
Part of the reason the past is malleable is because there are many ways that you can tell [it]. For example, [in] the story of the Revolution, each [history] could look like an entirely different event. That’s where you start to hear people talk about revisionist history. It’s really an epithet, especially when conservatives use that term.
The way my book tries to address that kind of thinking is to show that the Revolutionary generation that many conservatives idolize were the biggest historical revisionists out there. They totally discarded a history that they had believed was their own for hundreds of years and said, “Well, we’re going to throw that out and make it up as we go along.” One of the broad points of the book is that historical revisionism, or changing how you think about the past, was a fundamental part of the process of the Revolution and its cultural process. That’s a dynamic that continues.
What I’m finding now, especially in my current book project, is that every generation of Americans has defined the Revolution to suit their ideologies, sensibilities, and mores. Every generation has done that. The specific narrative that many Americans, especially conservatives, think of as the narrative, is actually a product of the Cold War. But even though it might have been new, the way they learned it was that this was always the case: “This is how Americans have always thought about the Revolution,” when in reality, it’s actually quite new.
The idea that people have never thought about the revolution differently is not intuitive for most readers. Part of that is because the memory of the Revolution was part of Cold War propaganda—and think about how effective Cold War propaganda was! Some of it outlasted communism and the Cold War itself. It’s a reminder of how powerful historical memory can be, especially when you learn it young.
Historical memory is almost analogous to religion, in that sense. Part of the intention of Sunday school is to instill the values, dogma, and narratives of faith into the child because the earlier they internalize those things, the less likely they will be to question them later on in life.
MP: How have changes that we’ve seen in recent years affected your work or how you view your work as a historian?
MDH: When I started my dissertation research in 2013 or 2014, I didn’t choose the topic for its relevance. But by the time the book came out in November 2020, just a few weeks after the election, popular memory, public memory, and revolution were all over the headlines.
When I started on it, I felt like most historians: I wasn’t pleased with how history was being used in the public sphere. When I would see people saying wrong things, or making what I thought were wrong interpretations of the Revolution, I would instinctively be indignant. I really don’t feel like that anymore. Part of the reason is that I’ve come to realize, not just how common political uses of historical memory are, but how common they have been throughout American history. Making the past suit the present, or a political agenda is fundamental to American political culture and has been since 1800.
The other thing that softened my indignation was that a lot of what I would get upset about was almost always about an interpretation rather than a factual error. If somebody says, “The Declaration was signed in 1777,” then somebody needs to correct that because it’s a factual error. But trying to make sense of the past in light of the present is such an important part of American political culture, [and] it isn’t necessarily the historian’s place to try to dictate what meanings people should take from the past.
It’s one thing to say, “Here’s my book, here’s my interpretation of the coming of the American revolution.” It’s another thing to say, “This is the only possible correct interpretation.” And no historian should think that because historiography moves so fast—books that were written 30–40 years ago are not read anymore and they’re superseded. My book won’t be read in 20 years or 30 years. So there’s no real cause for any kind of certainty in your historical interpretation.
But what is the meaning that people are supposed to take from a certain interpretation of the Revolution? I increasingly think that it’s not my place as a historian to tell people, “This is the meaning of the American Revolution,” or, “This is the meaning of whatever part of American history.” That’s for them to decide as citizens of the United States. People are going to come up with meanings that I don’t agree with or that I think might be wrong, but there’s lots of room for persuasion there, and we should approach that with a bit of humility.
MP: What do you want your readers to come away with after reading Past and Prologue?
MDH: First, I want people to realize that the past is subjective, not an objective thing. We turn the past into history by interpreting and attaching meaning to it. Then, I want people to realize that this process of rethinking the past—what the past means—is a fundamental part of our political culture, and has been since the founding of the nation.
Once you realize that American history was, at some point itself, constructed, then it should be easier to come to grips with the idea that how we think about the past changes over time and is different for different people. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
There’s a very famous essay from the 1940s by Carl L. Becker, presented at the American Historical Association called, with a lack of gender sensitivity, “Every Man His Own Historian,” where he tried to make that point by saying: “Everyday people act and use the skillset of historians to navigate their daily lives.” How do you know when it’s time to do laundry? Because you recall the history of the last time that you did laundry. That’s not meant to downplay the importance of expertise or of specialization. Just because everybody is a historian or everybody comes up with their own meanings doesn’t mean that they’re all equally valid. Expertise can be overvalued, but it still has its place and value because the past is an important part of how we try to make sense out of the present.
Max Pierce is a recent Historical Studies graduate from The New School for Social Research.
Michael D. Hattem is a historian of early America and the Associate Director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.
2 thoughts on “Interpretations of the Past”
One bit of dissent: When Hattem says “My book won’t be read in 20 years or 30 years,” he overlooks the likelihood that someone will be reevaluating the reevaluations of American historical identity in the 2020s.”
He should have been asked his opinion on The 1619 Project.”