10 Questions with Michael D. Hattem

Sponsored by BYU Studies — Michael D. Hattem is the author of ‘Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution‘ (Yale University Press, 2020).

Who is Michael D. Hattem?

Michael D. Hattem: I am a historian of the American Revolution, early America, and historical memory. I have been interested in history ever since I was young. During my 20s, given that I had no college degree, I mostly worked menial jobs, but I read constantly. In my late 20s, I developed an interest in the history of the American Revolution. I read everything I could find, which was mostly typical popular histories of the war.

At some point, I realized that I had learned enough background information about the period to be able to disagree. That made me want to go further. So I went to the Brooklyn Public Library to look for more “scholarly” books about the Revolution. Their collections were not very up-to-date but I found a bunch of books with very grand, scholarly-sounding titles like The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and The Liberal Tradition in America.

So I began reading their histories of the Revolution going all the way back to the nineteenth century. Within just a few years, I had developed a pretty good understanding of not just the history of the period but also its “historiography,” which is how the history that was written about the Revolution changed over time. That fascinated me almost as much as the history of the period itself.

Fast forward to 2007, I had a newborn son and my current jobs didn’t even pay enough to support myself, let alone a family. My life was going nowhere, so, at the age of 32, I decided to enroll in the Borough of Manhattan Community College with the ultimate (though seemingly unattainable) goal of pursuing a graduate degree in early American history.

After two years at BMCC, I transferred to the City College of New York, and, thanks to the CUNY BA Program, I was fortunate to study with three amazing early American history professors in the CUNY system—Edwin G. Burrows, Carol Berkin, and Darren Staloff—who became my mentors. With their support and encouragement, I applied to graduate programs in history and was lucky enough to be offered admission to Yale to do my PhD, where Joanne Freeman was my advisor.

After graduating with my PhD, I spent a few years on postdoctoral fellowships and teaching at The New School and Knox College before accepting my current position as Associate Director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and the Yale National Initiative to strengthen teaching in public schools®.

How has Joanne Freeman influenced Michael D. Hattem’s approach to history?

Michael D. Hattem: Joanne Freeman was my advisor in graduate school. I first became aware of Joanne from seeing her in some History Channel documentary years before I went back to school and I had read her book before meeting her. My interests aligned with hers in the broad sense of wanting to explore the political culture of early America, specifically in the long revolutionary era.

I’ve learned way too much from Joanne to be able to cover it all here, but, generally speaking, she taught me a great deal about how to BE a historian. And by that I don’t necessarily mean about how to do history, but how to be a historian in a variety of contexts—professional or public.

But, perhaps above all, the biggest gift she gave me was that she believed in me and had confidence in me. That was no small thing for an older non-traditional graduate student who had come to Yale via community college and City College. I felt out of place initially at Yale but Joanne played a major role in making me feel like I belonged and that I could succeed there.

I have heard nightmare stories from many friends and colleagues about having had horrible advisors in graduate school but, because of Joanne, I just cannot relate to those experiences. She was wonderful in every way and a truly genuine person (which is not necessarily common in academia).

The book cover for Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution, by Michael D. Hattem.

What is the backstory for Past and Prologue?

Michael D. Hattem: Past and Prologue started as my dissertation at Yale. The origins of the project were in a paper I did as an undergraduate about the debates over the founding of King’s College (later Columbia) in 1750s New York City.

While my paper was focused on other questions, I noticed how both sides in the debates—Anglicans and Protestant dissenters—used terminology from seventeenth-century British history like “Whigs,” “Tories,” “Cromwells,” “Levellers,” etc….

That got me thinking about the influence of the British past on colonial political culture. When I thought it could be a dissertation topic, I initially expected to focus on the colonial period specifically and end the study with independence. But, while I was on fellowship at the New-York Historical Society early in the process, I came across an unidentified manuscript from the 1780s in the John Jay Papers entitled, “History of the American Revolution, found among the papers of William Livingston.”

Having worked on New York City, I knew Livingston well and knew he did not write a history of the Revolution so I attempted to identify this document, which contained six manuscript chapters on over 500 (badly) handwritten pages.

I eventually figured out it was a draft of the first six chapters of David Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution (1790), one of the most popular histories of the Revolution until the mid-nineteenth century. Later, I found letters from Ramsay where he mentioned sending drafts of the first few chapters to certain people looking for feedback.

The manuscript at the New-York Historical Society that I identified is the only known extant copy of those drafts he sent out.

The first page of the previously unidentified manuscript at the New-York Historical Society of David Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution. The image is a scan from microfilm held at the John Jay Papers, New-York Historical Society.

But what was really important about the document is that after I transcribed it and compared it to the later published version, there were some obvious changes. The most important was that the draft spent much of the first chapter recounting British history in the seventeenth century as context, but, by the time it was published, Ramsay had taken much of that out and replaced it with brief histories of the settlement of individual colonies.

The more I thought about it, the more it struck me that I was seeing in his manuscript a reflection of an important cultural change I had not seen historians really address: when and how did Americans stop thinking of the British past as their history and how did they go about replacing it with the new idea of “American history.”

That question became the new focus of the dissertation, which took me well beyond independence.

When did the idea of “American history” begin to appear?

Michael D. Hattem: In many ways, this is the question at the core of Past and Prologue. It can be easy to assume that “American history” as we know it was a fait accompli. In other words, it couldn’t have been any other way than that it would begin with the colonial histories of each of the thirteen original states.

But that was not the case.

For example, some early postcolonial historians in nineteenth-century South America did not include their colonial past in their new national histories. Besides, Americans’ colonial histories had been very different from one another and did not lend themselves to telling any kind of coherent story.

The second half of my book explores how Americans after the Revolutionary War went about trying to create a coherent story or narrative out of their disparate colonial histories and how the choices they made ended up defining what Americans from then on would think of as “American history,” both in terms of its chronological and geographical boundaries.

When (and why) did Americans stop thinking of themselves as British subjects?

Michael D. Hattem: For over a century from the end of the Revolution until the mid-twentieth century, most historians believed that Americans had developed a shared identity between themselves prior to independence. In recent decades, historians have come to largely believe that the creation of a shared national identity was something that only really happened in the decades after the war was over.

My book argues that this was, on an important level, a cultural process, one which began before independence and continued afterward.

That said, beginning to think of oneself as American is different from stopping thinking of oneself as British. That, too, was a process that did not begin and end the day the Americans declared independence.

In my book, I argue that one of that ways Americans began to stop thinking of themselves as British was through their changing understandings of the British history that had been so central to their imperial identities as British subjects.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 specifically had been a foundational historical event in their imperial identities, not unlike how the American Revolution is a foundational origin myth to many Americans’ sense of national identity today. Without going into the details, colonists during the 1760s, spurred by Parliament’s unprecedented actions, began to reconsider what they previously believed about the Glorious Revolution.

As that touchstone of their imperial identity came under question, so did their imperial identity itself.

Michael Hattem at Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University. Credit: Michael Hattem.

Why did Americans increase the importance of their past rather than scrub it from memory?

Michael D. Hattem: I argue that the past played very important roles in a variety of aspects of colonial culture and society, from how they understood their imperial identities to how they understood their regional, local, familial, and even religious identities. The “authority of the past” was embedded in colonial culture, partly through the common law which gave great weight to custom, precedent, and tradition.

Therefore, many colonists looked at the present through the lens of the past.

That is, the past helped them make sense of the present. So I think that the reason the past became even more important during the Revolution was because it had been such a deep part of their culture for generations beforehand.

The reason this is interesting from a historical perspective is because many people (some historians included) have assumed and argued that the Revolution, in the minds of Americans at the time, represented a distinct break with the past. But while it may have represented a break with the Old World of Europe it was not a break with the past generally.

When a society finds itself in the midst of uncertainty and instability like you find during a time of upheaval and revolution, people often look for ways to regain a sense of connection, a sense of mooring.

For Americans of the revolutionary era, the past provided that, with the distinct caveat that they were creating a new past, i.e., “American history,” for that very purpose.

What is “history culture” and “historical memory”?

Michael D. Hattem: “History culture” is an umbrella term that combines all the ways in which a society understands, uses, and represents the past.

For the purposes of my book it was useful because the last sustained work done on historical understanding in this time period was from the Bicentennial era and focused mostly on a few of the most popular histories of the Revolution. The idea of history culture allowed me to think beyond just published histories and take into account how the past was represented in other places, from other literary genres like poetry and historical fiction to other institutions like the first natural history museums and historical societies.

A “historical memory” is a narrative of the past that is constructed for a specific purpose, such as reproducing group identity. One difference between “history” and a “historical memory” is that a historical memory does not rely on facts or accuracy. Instead, it relies on tapping into peoples’ emotions and validating their previously held beliefs.

For example, there are two predominant historical memories in our contemporary society of the American Revolution. Many people see it as having been defined by a resistance to centralized government and taxation carried out by simple farmers led by great men fighting for their freedom. Meanwhile, many Americans also see it as having been defined by the hypocrisy of founders who wrote about “liberty” while owning enslaved persons and dispossessing Indigenous Peoples of their land.

There is some truth in both of those historical memories but truth is not the core reason why they appeal to different types of people.

Morning Post, March 3, 1789. The printer is reprinting the entirety of the first history of the Revolution so “the Public” will be “furnished with a valuable historical Treasure at a very inconsiderable Price.” Credit: Readex/Newsbank.

How did painters, poets, and publishers help establish early American history culture?

Michael D. Hattem: In my book, I use the term “historical cultural production” to refer to cultural works of any kind that draw on historical themes and that includes paintings or engravings, poetry, fiction, etc…. This goes back to the idea of “history culture” and looking for the past wherever it is represented not just in traditional works of history.

What I found was that specific interpretations of the colonial past made their way from historical works into other forms of cultural production. This greatly extended the reach of the interpretations made in those historical works. So there were many others besides historians who contributed to spreading these new historical memories. That includes publishers who produced an unprecedented amount of print in the decades after the war and relied heavily on historical content to engage their audience.

For example, in the 1780s and 1790s, many newspapers serialized entire works of history over long stretches of time. This had the important effect of allowing people who could not afford books to read these works of history.

Also, there was an explosion in the production of magazines that had lots of historical content. What I also found was that in many cases, the most prominent individuals engaged in “historical cultural production,” from painters, poets, and publishers to politicians and antiquarians, were in regular contact with one another to discuss all aspects of producing this kind of content.

Why do you think the traditional exceptionalist understanding of early American nationalism is flawed?

Michael D. Hattem: In the last few decades, comparative studies of nationalism have tried to understand the development of nationalism in the western hemisphere relative to its development in Europe. Those historians have argued that, as Europe developed into nation-states in the 18th and 19th centuries, their nationalisms were based on an already shared ethnicity, language, history, and culture.

But these newer nations of the postcolonial western hemisphere lacked all of those aspects.

So then how do they explain nationalism in the postcolonial nations of the western hemisphere (including the United States)? Well, they’ve argued that the US and others based their nationalism or national identity on shared grievances and interests rather than significant differences with their former mother countries or myths of some previous common history.

The first half of Past and Prologue argues that colonists were coming to recognize important cultural differences between them and Britain in the 1760s and 1770s. The second half of the book shows that after the war when they found themselves with a new nation whose history only went back a few years to 1776, they created a previously shared past, which is what we call “American history.”

If there’s anything I hope readers take away from my book it’s that “American history” is not a neutral term but instead represents something that was originally constructed and that revising how we think about the past and our own history is an American tradition that played a crucial role in the founding of the nation.

What variables may predict the impending formation of new history cultures?

Michael D. Hattem: This is a really fascinating question and I can only speculate on generalities. First, it seems that some form of political or social crisis plays an important role. In the case of my work, those crises were the conflict with Britain and the Revolution followed by the challenge of establishing a new nation.

But there are other examples such as the ways in which the aftermath of the Holocaust and the need for the Jewish diaspora to commemorate (and come to terms with) such an event created a new part of Jewish history culture.

Similarly, we might look at Germany’s efforts to transform its history culture in a way that made it possible for the modern society to understand itself as a product of the Third Reich and to reckon with what it did.

I think there are lessons there for the United States as we continue to wrestle with our history of slavery and racism and the degree to which it has been left out of our popular historical memories. Ultimately, new or drastically changed history cultures (or historical memories) arise out of necessity when making sense of current or recent events requires new ways of thinking about the past, whether by groups, communities, or the nation as a whole.

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