Memory and Early Histories of the Revolution

views updated


Memories of the American Revolution have been a powerful element in American nationalism from the beginning of the country. Even while the Revolution was taking place, Americans hoped they were participating in a series of events that would long be remembered and commemorated by their fellow countrymen and -women, and this helped them cast the Revolution and the Revolutionary War in glorious terms. Afterwards, Americans remembered the Revolution by reading books, buying artwork, marching in parades, and passing on oral traditions. Many of the important themes and patterns in this remembrance were set from the start, and although some of the meanings assigned to the Revolutionary past have shifted over the decades, some remain almost unchanged into the twenty-first century.

revolutionary memory in the early republic

Almost as soon as Revolutionary events occurred, Americans concerned themselves with how they would be remembered and commemorated, and Revolutionary memory was one of the most important components of public culture in the United States during the entire early national period. At the heart of that public memory lay images of Revolutionary War heroism and sacrifice. Decisive battles and the contributions of well-born gentlemen, especially of those who died for the cause, were the most common subjects of the early commemorations.

Although many commemorations took place on a local level (and often praised the actions of local men), the burgeoning print culture helped to spread important Revolutionary War memories to the entire nation. For example, beginning in the first year after the Battle of Lexington, which began the Revolutionary War, local residents held commemorative exercises on the Massachusetts battlefield. They gathered to hear commemorative sermons, to praise the men who gave up their lives, and to ensure that the events of April 19, 1775, would be remembered. Their local actions took on a wider importance when the annual sermons were subsequently published as pamphlets and newspapers around the country began reporting on the activities. The local ceremonies took on even greater formality once the war ended, and by the end of the 1790s Lexington residents had raised funds to erect a monument on the battlefield. The monument drew visitors to the town and helped perpetuate the memory of the battle.

Even more important were commemorations of Revolutionary War heroes, which came to be linked to the same kind of ceremonies, print culture, and monuments—albeit on a much larger scale. Richard Montgomery, who was killed in the early American invasion of Canada, and Joseph Warren, who lost his life at the Battle of Bunker Hill, became the two most prominent martyrs of the war. For decades after 1775, when they were killed, each was commemorated in countless pamphlets, stage plays, poems, songs, toasts, ceremonies, paintings, and engravings, and each was commemorated with a monument. Important military officers who survived the war—most especially George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Nathanael Greene—also became the subjects of a great deal of heroic writing, singing, and other forms of public culture.

Public memorials to these war heroes invited Americans to ponder their national allegiance as they gathered together (either literally or figuratively) to praise the symbols of their Revolution. Local commemorative occasions—like the battle anniversaries celebrated each year in Bennington, Vermont, or Charleston, South Carolina—sometimes took on a regional character. Occasions like the Fourth of July, which was popularly celebrated all over the United States from 1776 onward, formed the basis of the national civic calendar, even though localities might shape the festivities to suit their own regional tastes. By the time of the Civil War, both Southerners and Northerners believed themselves heirs to the memory of the Revolutionary War, but they disagreed violently over what that legacy meant.

early revolutionary histories

Some writers began to craft formal histories of the period, most of them driven by the same nationalistic impulses that shaped the early public commemorations. The conventions of historical writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries shaped their writing, and most of the early histories of the American Revolution were highly partisan in tone; many of them also contained material that was not entirely original to their authors. But at the same time that these authors helped bolster American nationalism, they simultaneously moved toward a more modern and objective form of historical writing.

Several modern scholars have argued that the early Revolutionary historians began to separate themselves from an earlier tradition of historical writing, which attributed most events to the workings of Providence, but that they nonetheless communicated a strong message that America was destined to become a great nation. None of the early writers were full-time professional historians. David Ramsay, who published his History of the Revolution of South Carolina in 1785 and expanded his analysis four years later with his History of the American Revolution, took a strongly nationalist tone. Ramsay was a successful South Carolina physician, but most other early historians were New Englanders. Jeremy Belknap, William Gordon, and Jedidiah Morse, all New England ministers, presented heroic narratives of the nation's founding and of the war. The other major Southern historian of the war was the future Chief Justice John Marshall, who published a highly popular heroic biography of George Washington at the turn of the nineteenth century.

These early histories advanced a laudatory view of the Revolution, but they were also caught up in the domestic political battles that began in the 1790s. The authors supported the Federalist Party, which developed under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton and whose aristocratic leanings fitted well with their great man approach to historical writing. The main exception also stands out because she was female. The most prominent history of the Revolution written by a supporter of the rival Democratic-Republican Party was penned by Mercy Otis Warren, a Massachusetts patriot and writer whose husband was a prominent Revolutionary politician. Warren's 1804 History of the Revolution openly criticized many postwar Federalist policies. Warren's version of events caused a rift with her friend the Federalist former president John Adams, who was openly critical of the idea of a woman historian.

Although Warren's Democratic-Republican version of events was controversial, it was nowhere near as unpopular as histories that questioned the Revolution. For example, Andrew Oliver, a famous Loyalist, could find no publisher for his highly critical history, and it remained unpublished until the twentieth century. No book that questioned the Revolution appeared until well after the war ended.

revolutionary memory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The mixture of patriotic memory and histories praising the American Revolution continued well into the nineteenth century, and only in the twentieth century did many historians adopt a less openly patriotic tone. Popular memory of the Revolutionary War continued its patriotic tone, although it did become a bit more democratic in the years following the War of 1812, when a number of common soldiers' memoirs became popular and some historians broadened their focus to take in more than just the greatest war heroes. By midcentury, historians like Benson Lossing and Elizabeth Ellet had published books focusing to a degree on the common experience in the Revolutionary War, although they still retained a strong patriotic tone.

Popular symbols of the Revolutionary War, including some of the original war heroes such as George Washington, retained their status, but they were joined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by other symbols and myths that stressed the bravery of average men and women. Stories of the suffering of average soldiers at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and of heroic actions by people like Molly Pitcher began to give a more egalitarian sense of American nationalism.

Whatever their political tone, memories of the American Revolution retain great cultural power in the United States, and they continue to inspire a sense of American nationalism. In the celebration of Independence Day and in the near-religious reverence for the founding fathers, memories of the country's founding period, and especially of the war, stand at the heart of American national myth-making.


Cohen, Lester H. The Revolutionary Histories: Contemporary Narratives of the American Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Kammen, Michael. A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Purcell, Sarah J. Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Sarah J. Purcell

See also:Bunker Hill Monument; Flags; Fourth of July; Spy, The: First American War Novel; Valley Forge.

About this article

Memory and Early Histories of the Revolution

Updated About content Print Article