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Building an American Story

Article excerpt

How Early American Historians Used Press Sources to Remember the Revolution

This study examined histories of the American Revolution published through 1899 to see how they used newspapers and magazines as sources. The purpose was to determine how the press helped build America's first real "story" as an independent nation, distinct from native and colonial origins. These histories used press sources in myriad ways. Some included snippets of Revolution-era newspaper content, and others reprinted reminiscences, coverage of anniversaries and monument dedications, and obituaries. And some of the longer and more colorful accounts came verbatim from newspaper articles published decades after the war. Press stories, included in these more permanent histories, helped ensure that the iconic narratives endured in American collective memory.

The Revolution gave America its first real "story" as an independent nation, distinct from native and colonial origins. It is a weighty narrative. Scholars have noted the importance of formative periods to "collective memory," the body of beliefs about a nation's past that informs its present and future. Indeed, sociologist Barry Schwartz argued in 1982 diat die most significant moment in any society's past is its beginning, a period marked by "the magic, attraction and prestige of origins."1 Thus, icons of the Revolution have long stood as major historic symbols for Americans, who, as Michael Kammen wrote in 1991, love hero-worship, patriotism, and nostalgia.2 Whether the "Founders" and "Patriots" are remembered factually has been less important than their place as "objects of consensus among later generations," noted Schwartz.3

The press has played a role from the beginning in telling this American story, first by providing information during the years of conflict and later by recalling the Revolution as a significant historical event. "Many Americans learned dieir history through newspapers and magazines," noted Arthur Shaffer, who in 1975 studied how die history of the Revolution was written prior to 1815. He pointed to periodicals such as the Massachusetts Spy and Columbian Magazine in die late eighteenth century that printed works of the earliest U.S. historians.4 Anothet study found in 2007 that magazines and newspapers throughout the nineteenth century used historical references regularly for context and placement, focusing particularly on America's origins, leaders, and wars. The press, the study argued, during an important period of nation building, "may have publicly contributed to a specific American historical narrative that emerged as collective memory. In doing so diese writers may have shaped a definition of America, giving the United States a national identity."5

The symbiotic relationship between "journalism" and "history" is important to understanding die evolution of the story of America's genesis. But while scholars have considered die myriad ways that history has been used by and in die press, little has been written about how journalism has been used by and in histories. Newspapers and magazines, of course, existed prior to published American histories. Did their content have an impact? This study seeks to fill a scholarship void by examining how American historians through 1899 used newspapers and magazines as sources. Such an examination adds to our understanding ofthe history of American journalism by shedding light on one way it was used, another understudied but important topic, and it will contribute to the growing body of literature about the relationship between the press and American public memory.

That there were any early American histories is a testament to the tenacity and nationalist tendencies of scholars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.6 Publishing a book-length history was expensive and rarely profitable, and while copyright protections were included in the U.S. Constitution, in reality they were difficult to enforce; there also were no international protections. …