by Mary Beth Norton (Knopf, 528 pp., $32.50)
by Michael D. Hattem (Yale University Press, 320 pp., $40)
If one thing has emerged unscathed from the past year, it is our indefatigable culture war. After all, plagues tend to heighten the internal tensions and contradictions that pull societies apart at the seams. That the nature and purpose of American history—and the American Founding era in particular—have been central points of contention is unsurprising. The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the extent to which the United States is a nation almost schizophrenically alienated from itself. While one end of our polarized cultural spectrum struggles to preserve an idealized vision of our national origins, the other fights to popularize revisionism that paints the American project as irredeemably corrupt from its inception.
Mary Beth Norton’s 1774: The Long Year of Revolution and Michael D. Hattem’s Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution, both published in late 2020, offer an escape from the horns of the historiographical dilemma embodied by factions like the New York Times’ 1619 Project and President Trump’s 1776 Commission. Neither Norton nor Hattem are interested in painting a picture of the Founding that fits within the borders of current-day grievances. Instead, their books offer a nuanced exploration of the imaginative and turbulent societies that created the United States. In addition to complicating the notion that the American Founding can be pinned to a single year, these works illustrate how the paired forces of liberalism and conservatism, chaos and order, and building and breakdown are inherent in our origins. They force us to reckon with a past that is as messy and complicated as our present. They also prove that the American yearning for a coherent national story is as old as the Republic itself.
Norton’s thesis in 1774 is deceptively simple. In December 1773, seven ships carrying taxed East India Company tea reached the American colonies, setting in motion a series of events that accelerated the transformation of colonial identity over the course of a single long year. By tracing, month by month, the rapidly shifting contours of the colonial debate over how to respond to Great Britain’s Tea Act, Norton deconstructs the stereotype of New Englanders in headdresses that has belied the significance of the Boston Tea Party in American history. Yet 1774 offers little comfort to anyone expecting her story to be one of gentle and unified patriotism.
It is generally understood that the colonists viewed the Tea Act as a threat to self-government. But 1774 details the social and political context that caused the Tea Act, rather than earlier contentious pieces of imperial legislation, to carve such a deep fissure between the colonies and their mother country. The Tea Act was not a significant source of revenue for Britain (in fact, it was part of a convoluted design to help the East India Company compete with American smuggling markets), so many colonists interpreted it as a naked assertion of parliamentary power. The arrival of East India Company ships thus presented the colonies with major ports—like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—with a dilemma. After vitriolic local debates over what accepting the tea would mean for colonial rights and sovereignty, each colony attempted to find its own solution, such as destroying the tea, letting it rot in port warehouses, or selling shipwrecked cargo on the black market. In response, Parliament doubled down on its efforts to control colonial governments, which in turn escalated the colonial reaction from fitful protests to full-fledged boycotts of British tea.
This story may sound familiar, but Norton’s background as a Cornell historian who specializes in studying Loyalists during the Revolutionary period allows her to draw into focus the “patriotic terror” that local decisions to boycott British tea unleashed. She reminds her readers that a significant number of colonists still believed it was better to submit to a small tax than to threaten “our Rights and Liberties” as British citizens by following the whims of “Male Contents and Violent Liberty People.”
And they were violent. Norton’s tale bursts with accounts of angry mobs that set ships ablaze, broke into the homes of those rumored to be hoarding tea, and tarred and feathered customs officials. Many dissenters were even chased out of their home colonies. Those unfortunate enough to be caught criticizing the notion of allowing “a set of commite men, to examine into what we eat, and what we Drink, and what we are cloathed withal” had their names and addresses published in newspapers alongside threats of social or economic ostracism unless they publicly apologized for their intransigence.
Even if some preferred rule by “the Grand Turks Government” to these “curious [specimens] of American LIBERTY,” the local organizations responsible for so much brutality were themselves an outgrowth of a critical development in intercolonial cooperation that the Tea Act made possible. What began as “committees of correspondence” organized to determine how other colonies were handling deteriorating relations with Great Britain evolved into the First Continental Congress, which used “committees of observation” to enforce a unified boycott of British tea. This represented a monumental shift in how the colonies governed themselves. As Norton explains, “No previous governmental entity in America had attempted to control people’s consumption of any item . . . but most colonists seemed to concur, [the committees] were enforcing laws.”
Norton also employs keyword analysis of colonial newspapers to prove that the year 1774 saw the introduction of the neologism “unconstitutional” into the colonial vocabulary, demonstrating the extent to which this was fundamentally a brewing civil war over “the source of legitimate authority in society.” What was a greater violation of foundational British political principles: the extralegal bodies accumulating haphazardly in colonial cities, or Parliament’s dictatorial attitude toward the colonies? That Virginia and Massachusetts—two colonies divided by history, culture, and economics—individually produced public resolves denouncing parliamentary tyranny and calling for the creation of an inter-colonial association is evidence of the extent to which the democratic chaos of 1774 was actually a crucible forging an independent nation.
That is not to say that this new union was perfect. Norton avoids leaning on the writings of famous colonial leaders, choosing instead to focus on the middle- and lower-class citizens involved in the everyday controversies arising from the Tea Act. She spotlights women, who, as the primary consumers of tea, were actively involved in supporting or protesting the boycott despite being shut out of the political arena. But while Norton’s analysis of gender during this period is excellent, she fails adequately to integrate the voices of the enslaved or other racial minorities, largely relegating them to footnotes. Readers should not have to conduct their own research to hear those who challenged colonial leaders for their selective understanding of terms such as “liberty” and “slavery” during this period. As “A Son of Africa” sharply noted in a Massachusetts newspaper in February 1774,
Sir, do you apply for your liberty in a right way? You are taxed without your consent, because you are not represented in Parliament (I grant that a grievance) and have petitioned for relief and cannot get any. . . . Are the Britains hearts harder than yours? Are not your hearts also hard, when you hold them in slavery who are intitled to liberty, by the law of nature, equal as yourselves? If it be so, pray, Sir, pull the beam out of thine eye, that you may see clearly to pull the mote out off thy brother’s eye: And when the eyes of your understanding are opened, then will you see clearly between your case and Great-Britain and that of the Africans.
Voices like these are also an indelible part of the story of 1774.
To survive, a nation needs more than just a common enemy. It needs a common understanding of its own inheritance and mission, and it needs to begin weaving this story long before its birth. Norton’s work references several examples of the story colonists were fitfully forging as they struggled through 1774. But Yale historian Michael D. Hattem’s Past and Prologue tackles this subject in detail, examining the origins of American historiography and conveying why it was essential to the Revolution’s success.
In Hattem’s telling, the colonial interpretation of history featured a contradictory mix of religious millennialism, cyclicity, and Enlightenment meliorism. Of these three, the belief that history was made up of cycles of rising and falling civilizations was preeminent and accounted for the attention colonists paid to pursuing “first principles” in politics and culture. As Hattem explains, colonial Americans understood that “those laws, statutes, and decisions that remained in force had done so because they had stood the test of time. The passage of time conferred authority on them.”
The anxiety-induing nature of colonial life informed this conservative view of history. By the mid-1760s, colonial Americans had lived through more than a century of natural disasters, conflict with Native American tribes, internal rebellions and persecutions, and a series of international wars. Hattem is careful to observe that, although the colonists were not reactionaries, they certainly treated the past as a guide offering direction as they developed their communities in the New World.
But when tensions with Great Britain mounted following the end of the Seven Years’ War, it became increasingly apparent that their mother country had an entirely separate conception of the past—one informed less by the Magna Carta, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution and more by a modern vision of a centralized empire that embraced parliamentary supremacy. Hattem notes that this “innovation”—a word that in the 18th century carried a decidedly negative connotation—“created a cultural as well as political crisis as colonists repeatedly sought to reconcile their understanding of the past with their new unprecedented present and unpredictable future.”
This cultural dissonance allowed the Enlightenment language of natural rights to embed itself in colonial discourse. If the past could no longer be trusted, perhaps it was time to begin the world anew. Hattem uses Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to illustrate this conceptual evolution, but he could just as easily have relied on a speech Norton cites in 1774 by a Massachusetts town committeeman: “If there is any force in the Late acts of Parliament, they have Sett us, a float, that is have thrown us into a State of Nature; we Now have a fair Opportunity of Choosing what form of Government.”
However, man does not live by Locke alone, and the historiographical turn toward a novus ordo seclorum—which produced the Declaration of Independence—did not survive the Revolution. Even before the war ended, an intricate network of historians, artists, essayists, politicians, and booksellers began collaborating to produce a usable “deep national past” for the United States. A new “history culture” attenuated the American connection to Britain by drawing an unorthodox line from antiquity to Native American tribes, Christopher Columbus, the settling of the colonies, and finally to the Revolution and new Republic.
This nationalistic project, like so much else about America, contained many paradoxes. Early ethnographers (like Thomas Jefferson) studied and preserved Native American languages as they twisted and erased their histories. Women wrote popular histories and educated their children using meticulously preserved documents from the Revolutionary period that privileged male authors. Phillis Wheatley’s poetry elevated George Washington from a general to a classical legend, while white authors uncomfortably glossed over the origins of slavery in their works on the colonial past.
Although we may be living in a culture that does not find the past to be quite as usable, Hattem measuredly concludes that American historians today still depend on the sources and methods created by their 18th-century predecessors. Nevertheless, there are many moments in Past and Prologue where he scoffs at the historiography of the colonial and early Republic period, arguing that “historical memories do not require historical accuracy and the power of the past does not rely on it.” This is certainly true, but Hattem does not point his readers much in the direction of the sources that would have corrected these “revisionist” histories. Perhaps doing so would have required a much longer book. But after 250 pages of thought-provoking analysis of what historians of the early Republic believed, one is still left wondering just why they believed these things in the first place—and whether they may have misrepresented their nation’s origins less flagrantly than Hattem suggests.
This brings us to the crux of our current problem. What do we do when the prerogatives of modern historians collide with our desire for a coherent and accessible national story? Is it possible to embrace too much of what many in the historical field are now calling “Vast Early America”? Do we sacrifice coherence when we draw out the figures that history has ignored and the events that complicate established narratives? “Innovations” in British historiography frayed the bonds between Great Britain and its colonies until they finally began unraveling in 1774. Is our society due for a similar crack-up?
The thing is, our information age can no longer support Founding myths. Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen incisively noted during a recent American Enterprise Institute webinar with historian Wilfred McClay that the attempt to “hide the hard histories” from students always backfires, precisely because the voices of the forgotten have begun to seep back into modern “history culture”—as is both right and inevitable. The result is that history teachers are set up as “liars” and civic education is understandably distrusted.
This need not be the case. Our history can be both comprehensive and coherent. But it depends upon integrating, rather than obscuring, the many stories of violence, destruction, pain, and subjugation that undeniably shaped the early Republic. This does not mean that alternative interpretations of the Founding—such as the notion that the United States was founded to preserve slavery—are necessarily correct. In fact, both 1774 and Past and Prologue provide ample evidence of the extent to which the Revolution was the product of a long-simmering debate among civilians and leaders in both the American colonies and Great Britain on the nature of rightly ordered political liberty. But if this feels like an unconvincing stereotype, perhaps it is precisely because it is a story that has been told too neatly to be believed. Liberty has always been at the center of the American question. That different groups have received different answers to this question at different times has been the enduring struggle, and one that history must help us to understand.
The best works on early American history help us avoid the quagmire of the culture wars not by throwing “hard histories” down the memory hole, but by thoughtfully sifting through the residua of thousands of interconnected human lives to produce something recognizable. The results may not make us comfortable, but they do not mean that we should lose faith in the ideals that are at the heart of the American experiment. By throwing past struggles in sharp relief, wide-angled histories can in fact help us better appreciate what the Founding generation achieved despite its profound imperfections and hypocrisies. Moreover, they can give us hope that we can build good and durable things in our own troubled times. We just need to accept that America, like the art of writing history itself, is still a work in progress.
Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Originally published January 6, 2021.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe