J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 04, 2021

“A version of its origin story it can love?”

This weekend the New York Times published Jennifer Schuessler’s dispatch “The Battle for 1776,” about the relationship between the ongoing political battle over historical memory and the upcoming Sestercentennial.

Schuessler asked, “does America still need a version of its origin story it can love?”

I think that’s the wrong question. Nations develop origin stories that they love, even if those stories are mythological, exclusionary, or incomprehensible to outsiders. (Indeed, there’s an argument that some degree of incomprehensibility is a plus because acceptance of the story regardless helps to distinguish insiders from outsiders.) The American nation will naturally have an origin story.

The bigger question is whether that story will serve the needs of our nation going forward. In my opinion, that requires deep grounding in historical evidence, including acknowledgment of what might even be considered national embarrassments, as well as commitment to shared ideals. Is that easy? No.

The article then asks if the “complexity, context and contingency” that academic historians emphasize might get in the way of an origin story rather than enrich it. Fortunately, Schuessler goes on to quote some historians who offer ways to deal with such complexity.
Americans have been fighting over the history — and mythology — of the Revolution from almost the moment it ended. “There’s no one memory of the Revolution,” said Michael Hattem, the author of “Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution.” “And the way we remember it has always been shaped by contemporary circumstances.”

As its public mythology evolved, various groups laid claim to its memory and symbols, as a way of defining the nation and anchoring themselves to citizenship. It was Black abolitionists of the 1840s who first promoted the story of Crispus Attucks, the mixed-race Black and Native American sailor said to be the first to die for the Revolution in the Boston Massacre. . . .

Philip Mead, the chief historian of the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in Philadelphia in 2017, said he hoped the 250th anniversary would help move past the perception of American history as either hagiographic or iconoclastic. . . . What we need from 1776, he said, isn’t an origin story, but a transformation story. “We learn who we are by understanding how we have changed,” he said. “And the Revolution was a huge inflection point in that change.”
With that perspective, the U.S. of A.’s origin story isn’t set in 1776. It’s older, and ongoing, and still to be written.

[The photo above was taken by Charles Rich in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, in 1976. Check out his whole collection here.]

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