History and Biography
HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY
Over the period 1750 to 1830, the writing of history in America emerged as a discipline intended to illustrate truths about human behavior and the natural world that would enable people to comprehend the present. Although historians and biographers scrupulously pursued an ideal of objectivity, their accounts of the past possessed an unmistakably didactic quality. Historians sought to persuade readers to embrace certain behaviors and ways of living; they also hoped to persuade government leaders to adopt specific policies. Histories written in this period, consequently, illustrate both the evolving practice of a scholarly discipline and the larger political, cultural, and social disputes of the era.
As a result of the growing influence of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on exploring causation through documentation and observation, American historians began to investigate primary sources (such as governmental records, court cases, and individual recollections) to provide readers with an accurate account of the past. Such accounts, they believed, would reveal the larger principles that governed human behavior, for both better or worse. Following independence, these efforts culminated in the establishment of libraries and historical societies to preserve the raw material on which contemporary and future authors could draw to write regional and national histories. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York were the first states to establish such societies in the 1780s and 1790s, and by 1830 they could be found in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
As the colonies grew both in material prosperity and intellectual sophistication, colonial authors sought to validate their cultural, social, and political institutions to interested, and often skeptical, European observers. At the same time, their own anxiety about the viability of colonial communities prompted them to instruct their fellow Americans in manners and sensibilities. Thus history writing and biography joined rational observation and objective analysis with a political and cultural agenda.
Several colonial authors used the official records of their colonies to illustrate the failings of imperial policies and chart various paths for reform. These include William Smith, Jr., History of the Province of New York (1757); Samuel Smith, History of the Colony of Nova Caeseria, or New Jersey (1765); and William Stith, History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia (1747). Robert Beverley, in History and Present State of Virginia (1705), combined his less thoroughly researched but equally passionate criticisms of imperial policy with an ethnographic discussion of Native American culture intended to refute charges that societies degenerated in North America. In Chronological History of New England (1736), Thomas Prince used the diaries and recollections of the founders of Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies to remind readers, and particularly the royal governor, of the debt the present generation continued to owe to the ideals of these first Puritan settlers. Thomas Hutchinson, in History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (1764, 1767), used official records and the recollections of a wide array of observers of Massachusetts Bay Colony to persuade his readers that its development into a cosmopolitan community was an improvement over its Puritan origins.
The same didactic and partisan tone reappeared after the American Revolution. Concerned over the fragility of republics in general and eager to answer European skepticism about the effects of the New World on human development, historians began a concerted effort to mold the character of their fellow citizens. In every region of the new nation, histories appeared that presented the development of particular states or the experiences of the nation as a whole—particularly during the American Revolution—and prescribed republican values. The exclusive purpose of biographies of the era was to provide young Americans with models of republican virtue to emulate.
Despite the historians' universal ambition to present accurate accounts of the past free of party politics, few histories lived up to that ideal. The Federalist sympathies of David Ramsay, in History of the American Revolution (1787), and Jeremy Belknap, in History of New Hampshire (1785–1791), were thinly veiled, as were the Democratic Republican sentiments of James Sullivan, in History of the District of Maine (1794), and Samuel Williams, in Natural and Civil History of Vermont (1794). The most partisan accounts, reflecting the time in which they were written, were Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) and John Marshall's Life of George Washington (1804–1808). Warren freely criticized what she saw as the corruption of the body politic through the spread of commercial interests at the expense of patriotic sentiment. She also warned of the monarchical aspirations of several leading figures in the Washington and Adams administrations. Marshall wrote from the opposite perspective. He used his life of Washington to illustrate the naivete of those who feared a strong central government and vigorous commercial economy. His account of the political turmoil of the 1790s offered tempered but unmistakable criticism of the Democratic Republican opposition and praise for the individuals in the Washington and Adams administrations, as well as the policies they pursued.
Some authors tried to avoid the political controversies of the age. The most famous and successful in this regard was Mason Locke Weems, whose Life and Memorable Actions of Washington (1800) celebrated his character as an exemplar of republican virtue but paid scant attention to partisan politics. It is from Parson Weems's enormously successful biography that we have received many of the myths surrounding Washington, notably the story of young George chopping down the cherry tree.
The first historians of the United States were also embroiled in the cultural politics of their time. Sullivan, weighing in on the debate over the role of religion in a republic, praised the privileged place that the founders of Massachusetts Bay had given religion in their communities. On the other hand, William Gordon, in History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States (1788), reminded readers that people with no identifiable religious affiliation had not only served in Pennsylvania's government but had done so with distinction. John Lendrum, in Concise and Impartial History of the American Revolution (1795), offered scathing criticism of both the institution of slavery and those who defended it; Marshall carefully pointed out the institution's centrality to the economic viability of the South. Hannah Adams, in Summary History of New England (1799), and Warren used their accounts to call for a greater role for women in the public life of the nation. Most authors, notably Williams, sought to find a place for Native Americans in the new Republic, usually arguing for their transformation into members of Euro-American society.
The historians and biographers of the colonial and post-Revolutionary eras were important players on the political and cultural stage of the new nation. These authors reflected the anxieties of the young Republic and sought to strengthen it by promoting particular values among its citizens. In the process of recording the emergence and development of the United States, they laid the groundwork for the modern discipline of history.
Cohen, Lester. The Revolutionary Histories: Contemporary Narratives of the American Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Leder, Lawrence, ed. The Colonial Legacy. 4 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1971–1973.
Ramsay, David. The History of the American Revolution. Edited by Lester H. Cohen. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics, 1990.
Shaffer, Arthur. The Politics of History: Writing the History of the American Revolution, 1783–1815. Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1975.
——. To Be an American: David Ramsay and the Making of the American Consciousness. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Van Tassel, David. Recording America's Past: An Interpretation of the Development of Historical Studies in America, 1607–1884. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Warren, Mercy Otis. History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution: Interspersed with Biographical, Political, and Moral Observations. Edited by Lester H. Cohen. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics, 1988.
Peter C. Messer