Historical Memory of the Revolution
HISTORICAL MEMORY OF THE REVOLUTION
Even before the American Revolution officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the battle over the memory and meaning of the Revolution had begun. Particularly in the early years of the Republic, every group attempted to establish its legitimacy and gain popular support by laying claim to the Revolution. Thus memories of it became hotly contested terrain and played a central role in shaping the political life of the nation. Virtually every important political battle in the early Republic was also a battle over the memory and the meaning of the American Revolution.
The complicated relationship of memory, myth, tradition, and history became even more tangled in this highly charged atmosphere. By 1811 John Adams, the first vice president and second president of the United States, was so disgusted by how political conflict had distorted the history of the Revolution that he begged a friend to write a treatise on "the
corruption of history," arguing that "both tradition and history are already corrupted in America as much as they ever were in the four or five first centuries of Christianity, and as much as they ever were in any age or country in the whole history of mankind."
remembering the declaration
Perhaps nothing better illustrates both the centrality and the contentiousness of memories of the Revolution than the history of the Declaration of Independence. Today, the Declaration stands as one of the country's foundational documents, and no American would question its importance to the nation's political tradition. But it did not always have such a secure place in the hearts and minds of citizens. At first, the Declaration was almost entirely forgotten by Americans, and Jefferson's authorship was not common knowledge. Then, as Democratic Republicans and Federalists waged an increasingly fierce political contest in the 1790s, the Republicans attempted to elevate the historical significance of the Declaration as a means of burnishing Jefferson's reputation and, consequently, bolstering the party's popularity. In the nineteenth century memories of the Declaration continued to prove changeable, as other Americans attempted to reshape the memory of the American Revolution. In the Gettysburg Address in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln did not mention the Constitution but chose to concentrate instead on the Declaration's promise of equality so as to change the meaning of the Civil War from a political struggle to a much more profound battle to create equality. Lincoln gave the document a fresh historical twist and, in the process, reshaped the memory and meaning of the Revolution once again. Of course, even though the founders had never imagined that the declaration's principles applied to anyone but white males, women and African Americans were quick to seize on its revolutionary implications for themselves almost from the moment it was first published.
politics and memory
The Declaration of Independence is only one example of the ongoing struggle among different groups over the memory of the Revolution. Every important debate in early American history was also a battle over the memory of the Revolution. For example, the intense fight over ratification of the Constitution pitted two opposite understandings of the Revolution against one another. Anti-Federalists and Federalists both used memories of the American Revolution to justify their arguments. The capaciousness of Revolutionary experience allowed the two sides nearly equal validity. Anti-Federalists recalled the origins of the Revolution as an assertion of local self-government over the imposition of imperial, centralized control and argued that the proposed Constitution would erase those hard-won freedoms. Federalists pointed to the increasing unity of the colonies, including greater centralized control, as essential not just to winning the war but to surviving as a nation and saw the Constitution as the only means of preserving the gains of the Revolution.
Ratification failed to end the contest. The debate grew even more ferocious as Federalists and Republicans opposed one another in the 1790s. Was Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's financial scheme a brilliant rescuing of national finance or a usurpation of state power? Once again, disagreements about the memory of the Revolution were
central to this debate. Other questions—whether the United States should lean toward England or France in foreign policy, how democratic politics should be—also revolved around memories of the Revolution.
popular memories of the revolution
The battle over how to remember the Revolution was not simply fought among elites—there was a popular front as well. A variety of quasi-political events, such as Fourth of July celebrations, served as arenas in which groups who were frequently excluded from political life, such as women and men with little property, could offer their own symbolic understanding of the Revolution and contest elitist conceptions of political life. The Revolution itself always remained open to reinterpretations that challenged the status quo. For example, even African Americans found resources within memories of the Revolution to challenge slavery, despite the founders' refusal to include them as part of a new political order ostensibly based on liberty and equality. At an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1852, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalled the American Revolution not to praise it but to challenge it, openly contesting the contented celebration of the Revolution by white citizens. "What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?," he asked, reminding his audience that the truly revolutionary aspects of the war for independence remained unfulfilled for some. "This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn," he said. In coming years Douglass's challenge would be taken up by others to expand the promises of the Revolution to groups never imagined by the founders. Even today, memories of the Revolution continue to prove elastic and capacious and are used by groups who want to expand the boundaries of American politics.
the revolution as remembered by today's society
With the victory of the Republicans in 1800 and their increasing dominance of national politics during the subsequent years, the passionate debates about how to remember the Revolution began to cool, allowing the memory of the Revolution to serve as a force for national unity rather than division. Of course, politicians still recognized the importance of associating themselves with the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson referred to his election as the "revolution of 1800" so as to present himself as the embodiment of the "true" meaning of the American Revolution. Increasingly, however, Americans began to remember the Revolution as a source of national, rather than partisan, pride.
The best example of this transformation is George Washington, the preeminent man of the Revolution. As the first president of the United States, Washington had become a deeply politicized figure, serving as the Federalists' most important weapon and as the Republicans biggest obstacle. In the early 1800s, Mason Locke Weems wrote an astoundingly popular—and not altogether factual—biography of Washington that restored his national popularity by draining him of his political specificity and repositioning him as an American hero. It proved to be a winning formula; indeed the nation's current celebrations of the Revolution revolve largely around entertainment, not politics, which represents perhaps both a loss and a gain. The political apathy that afflicts a significant percentage of the electorate is nothing to celebrate, yet that apathy is a sign that the nation no longer has to fear dissolution.
Some contemporary commentators complain that today's Americans hardly bother to remember the Revolution at all, that the country suffers from a kind of collective historical amnesia. Even this problem can be traced to the Revolution. The break with Great Britain also promoted a break with tradition. As many writers at the time exhorted their fellow citizens to look to the future, rather than the past, the entire historical project of remembering the Revolution could seem suspect. There remains a powerful strand of American thought that continues to question the relevance of the past. Perhaps this explains why the country has frequently been slow to commemorate its own Revolutionary past. For example, the construction of the Washington monument was not begun until 1848 and not completed until 1885.
Memories of the Revolution remain at the center of American national identity, although not perhaps in the way that they once did. Today, most Americans have an uncritical and even worshipful attitude toward the founders. When towns and cities across the country hold their annual Fourth of July parades, it is difficult to remember that these memories once served to divide, rather than to unite, the nation.
See alsoAmerican Character and Identity; Anti-Federalists; Citizenship; Declaration of Independence; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1800; Federalists; Founding Fathers; Fourth of July; Hamilton's Economic Plan; Holidays and Public Celebrations; Jefferson, Thomas; Washington, George .
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Andrew S. Trees