Michael Hattem on the Creation of "American History"

Historians in the News
tags: historiography, intellectual history, teaching history

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 presentin 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 CromwellLevellers, 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.

Read entire article at Public Seminar

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