Thursday, January 14, 2021

Michael D. Hattem's "Past and Prologue"

Michael D. Hattem is Associate Director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. He has taught history at Knox College and Lang College at The New School.

Hattem applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Colonists saw distinct parallels between the years leading up to the Civil Wars and their circumstances early in the imperial crisis. “As the King,” one patriot noted, “cannot by his sole authority lay a tax on the people of Britain without their consent, as in the famous case of ship money ... so the King and Parliament cannot, for the same reason, lay a tax on America without their consent.” Another asked rhetorically, “Was not the raising taxes by ship money, &c. Without the consent of the good people of England who were to pay them, and arbitrary courts of trial, contrary to the rights of Englishmen and the ... principal grievances and causes of civil war in the reign of Charles I?” The issue of taxation at the start of the imperial crisis—and, more broadly, the issue of the relationship between the authority of the state and the liberty of the subject—brought colonists’ historical memories of Charles I and the Civil Wars to the fore…. Describing the situation in 1768, the Reverend Andrew Eliot wrote to a friend, “I am sure this will put you in mind of 1641.”
At its heart, Past and Prologue is a book about how colonists (and, later, Americans) during the revolutionary era understood the past, how those understandings changed, and how they informed how people made sense of the present. Page 99 discusses how colonists during the crisis with Britain in the 1760s understood the history of England’s Civil Wars and how, to some extent, they saw their present through the lens of the past. So, while not somehow being indicative of the book’s arguments as a whole, page 99 of Past and Prologue, as shown by the excerpt above, is somewhat emblematic of the book’s memory-based approach to the topic of the American Revolution.

Page 99 is part of the crucial third chapter, which is a turning point in the book’s narrative because it explores how colonists started to think very differently about the meaning and legacy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Previously, the Glorious Revolution had served as a foundation of colonists’ identity as free subjects within a British empire. Much like many Americans today, colonists in the 1760s believed they enjoyed more freedom and liberty than people from other countries or empires and that 1688 had made it possible. But as Parliament sought to strengthen Britain’s administrative grip on the empire in the 1760s and 1770s, many colonists began to reconsider the Glorious Revolution, seeing it not as having laid the foundation of their liberty but as having created a situation in which Parliament could act as arbitrarily and without redress as any seventeenth-century tyrannical monarch. This reconsideration of British history contributed to colonists’ perception that perhaps they were not as British as they had thought and helped make conceiving a political break in the years that followed a viable possibility.

In many ways, this, too, is reminiscent of the present as many Americans in the last few decades have begun to reconsider the meaning and legacy of the American Revolution in a much more critical manner than previous generations. In addition to introducing readers to the topic of memory and its role in the American Revolution specifically, I hope Past and Prologue will also give readers the intellectual tools to think critically about how the past is used in our own contemporary political culture and society and to make these kind of connections for themselves.
Learn more about Past and Prologue at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue