Michael A. McDonnell, Clare Corbould, Frances M. Clarke, W. Fitzhugh Brundage. Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War. Public History in Historical Perspective Series. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. xi + 327 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-033-7; $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-032-0.
Reviewed by Joshua Camper (University of Tennessee Martin)
Published on H-War (July, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
The American Revolution and American Memory
The significance and meaning of the American Revolution has resonated throughout the course of U.S. history as numerous politicians, talk radio shows, books, and various political functions have used the memory of the Founding Fathers to shape modern-day issues with the ideas the Founders had for the nation. Michael A. McDonnell, Clare Corbould, Frances M. Clarke, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage have edited a collection of essays from nineteen different historians and literary scholars that explores how the first three generations of Americans interpreted the origins of the United States from 1776 through 1865. Collectively, these essays illustrate that the memory of the Revolution became politicized early in the nation’s history as different interest groups sought to harness its message for their own agendas.
The chapters are grouped into three major themes. The first six chapters form a theme entitled “The Revolutionary Generation Remembers,” as the essays discuss how those who lived through the War of Independence remembered and forgot their experiences. The authors emphasize that there was not a unified collective memory of the Revolution, but that politicians, military officers, and key influential figures cultivated and transformed the events of the 1770s into an effort to galvanize the people and solidify the nation. The next five chapters coalesce into a theme entitled “Transmitting Memories,” as Americans during the antebellum period faced a number of daunting tasks from fighting a second war with England, to industrializing the North and developing the slave economy in the South, to expanding territorially toward the Pacific Ocean by fighting a war with Mexico. In the face of such obstacles, many Americans during this period called upon the memories of the Founding Fathers to forge a unity with the citizenry as they spread across the continent. The final six chapters form a theme called “Dividing Memories.” The essays demonstrate just how fragile the union was in the United States as the country approached the Civil War in the 1860s. These chapters show that the debates over the meanings of the Revolution divided Americans and helped drive the country toward the Civil War.
The essays in Remembering the Revolution are well-written pieces that cover political history, social and cultural history, women’s history, and African American history. The highlights of the book are Peter Bastian’s piece, “Forgotten Founder: Revolutionary Memory and John Dickerson’s Reputation,” which explains why some of America’s Founding Fathers are remembered while others stepped into obscurity. Bastian explains that Dickerson did not self-promote his activities during the Revolution and he made political enemies that minimized his contributions to American independence. Seth Bruggeman’s interesting essay “More Than Ordinary Patriotism: Living History in the Memory Work of George Washington Parke Custis” describes Custis’s efforts to keep his adopted grandfather’s memory alive through what would be called today “living history” for newer generations to learn about George Washington. Finally Keith Beutler’s “Emma Willard’s ‘True Mnemonic of History’: America’s First Textbook, Proto-Feminism, and the Memory of the Revolution” reveals an interesting study of how classroom textbooks would continue to transmit the Founding Father’s idea to future generations of American children.
While the editors have assembled impressive essays, there is one area of memory studies that they could have developed further. The phrase “usable past” is used a couple of times but the editors never provide a clean definition on what they mean by this term. This might be a point of discussion in upper-division history classes and graduate seminar classes to decide what the phrase means and its importance to the historical profession. Despite this vague term, Remembering the Revolution is a superb book that illustrates quite well that the American Revolution was not a unifying event and that subsequent generations of Americans have held contested and varied ideas over its meaning. It demonstrates that the debates among our political parties who reference the Founding Fathers and their agendas is nothing new in our nation’s history.
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Joshua Camper. Review of McDonnell, Michael A.; Corbould, Clare; Clarke, Frances M.; Brundage, W. Fitzhugh, Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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