Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 14, 2012

Understanding the Uses of the Past

I haven’t yet mentioned the new early Americanist blog in town, The Junto, so I would encourage you to head over there and check it out. As Ben Park wrote in the opening post on Monday:

Staffed by a host of junior academics studying a broad range of topics—our brief bios are found at the end of the post, and more details are found on each individual author’s page—we aim to provide frequent content related to the academic study of America prior(ish) to the Civil War. But more than just serving as a sounding board for our authors and a clearinghouse for various news, events, and calls for papers, we hope that The Junto will become a vibrant community for the field of early American studies.

I am one of those signed on to write for the blog, and I look forward to being part of that conversation, but you will still be able to find me here.

In that spirit, I want to pick up on a conversation that Ken Owen began there yesterday with a post on Herman Husband and historical imagination. In that post, Ken suggested that using figures such as Husband as a counter to Founders Chic does a disservice to history by reinforcing the notion of history as the realm of “Great Men,” even as we try to find different (and, as Ken notes, less conservative) figures to describe.

Part of the discussion in the comments has led me to think more deeply about historical memory as the key to creating a better sense for students (and by extension the public) of how to make a useable past. To expand on that here, I’d like to ironically return to the Founding Father among the Founding Fathers, George Washington. As loyal readers may know, today (December 14) is the anniversary of Washington’s death in 1799, an event that precipitated broad mourning across the young nation and launched a cottage industry of merchandising. The most important of those efforts may have been Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, published in several editions in the early 1800s by the noted itinerant book salesman.

I bring up Weems because I’ve been using his chapter on Washington’s death in my survey course to have precisely the kind of discussion about the uses of history that Ken points to. If you’ve never read it, it’s near comical in its maudlin description of the deathbed scene:

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father– around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life. When Joseph the prime minister of Egypt heard that his shepherd father was sick, he hastened up, to see him; and fell on his face, and kissed him, and wept a long while. But Joseph had never received such services from Jacob as you have received from Washington. But we call you not to weep for Washington. We ask you not to view those eyes, now sunk hollow, which formerly darted their lightning flashes against your enemies–nor to feel that heart, now faintly laboring, which so often throbbed with more than mortal joys when he saw his young country- men charging like lions, upon the foes of liberty. No! we call you not to weep, but to rejoice. Washington, who so often conquered himself, is now about to conquer the last enemy.

Much of the discussion in the class period centered around how to use a document such as this to learn anything about Washington (it’s useful as biography for the things we can trust that he got from other sources, as the newspaper accounts of Congress’s mourning would have been broad public knowledge) and to learn about Weems and his goals (the deathbed scene with not a soul present, and surely no one who gave an exclusive interview to Weems). Through the discussion, I want to help my students understand not just the past but also how people attempt to use the past. In other words, as I mentioned in my comments to Ken, Al Young may have had the right approach to helping students understand the past as a process of historical memory. (Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy thwarted the class days devoted to Shoemaker and the Tea Party – so I can’t discuss the pairing of Hewes and Weems until April).

The important part, therefore, is not just to engage in mythbusting, which can be useful even if it’s not a complete process. As important, to my mind, is to encourage students not just to engage in historical thinking, but also to engage in thinking about the uses of history through an engagement with historical memory.



  1. I join the conversation on historical imagination and memory with George Washington, new at Publick Occurrences:

    Comment by Joseph Adelman (@jmadelman) — December 14, 2012 @ 9:14 am

  2. Joe, thanks a lot for the contribution to the discussion – it’s certainly given me a lot to think about as well. As it happens, I used The Shoemaker and the Tea Party in my methods course this semester. Students really liked it for the most part, but if they lost their way anywhere, it was in the section on historical memory (though where they did get it, it led to some of the most interesting and enjoyable discussions I’ve ever had in class. When one of my students said ‘I now realize that I need to spend more time considering who actually wrote the history I’m reading’ I had to restrain myself from punching the air). I wonder if pairing it with some of Francois Furstenberg’s work on the historical uses of Washington would be a profitable route to go down in the future.

    Interestingly, where Young was most useful, I think, was in talking about the approach to sources – the scarily impressive level of archival digging that went into the recreation of Hewes’s life really shone through to the students. But it was also really valuable to show the importance of thinking laterally in constructing narratives about the past. Their difficulty, I think, came in looking at the second half of the book as it rushed through a cast of characters (both from primary and secondary sources) familiar to professional historians but not necessarily to students. That comes back to the crux of the issue we’ve been discussing here – how do we introduce new material and a new interpretive framework at the same time? Maybe we need to have the alternative set of great men made more widely known before we can shift to a different focus?

    Comment by Ken Owen — December 14, 2012 @ 10:39 am

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