Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books

Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books

Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books

Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books


In the long nineteenth century, the specter of lost manuscripts loomed in the imagination of antiquarians, historians, and writers. Whether by war, fire, neglect, or the ravages of time itself, the colonial history of the United States was perceived as a vanishing record, its archive a hoard of materially unsound, temporally fragmented, politically fraught, and endangered documents.

Colonial Revivals traces the labors of a nineteenth-century cultural network of antiquarians, bibliophiles, amateur historians, and writers as they dug through the nation's attics and private libraries to assemble early American archives. The collection of colonial materials they thought themselves to be rescuing from oblivion were often reprinted to stave off future loss and shore up a sense of national permanence. Yet this archive proved as disorderly and incongruous as the collection of young states themselves. Instead of revealing a shared origin story, historical reprints testified to the inveterate regional, racial, doctrinal, and political fault lines in the American historical landscape.

Even as old books embodied a receding past, historical reprints reflected the antebellum period's most pressing ideological crises, from religious schisms to sectionalism to territorial expansion. Organized around four colonial regional cultures that loomed large in nineteenth-century literary history--Puritan New England, Cavalier Virginia, Quaker Pennsylvania, and the Spanish Caribbean-- Colonial Revivals examines the reprinted works that enshrined these historical narratives in American archives and minds for decades to come. Revived through reprinting, the obscure texts of colonial history became new again, deployed as harbingers, models, reminders, and warnings to a nineteenth-century readership increasingly fixated on the uncertain future of the nation and its material past.


Let our printers whose types preserve knowledge, bring forth
things old as well as new.

—James Butler, “Deficiencies in Our History,” 1846

I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the
acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.

—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” 1931

Sometime after 1766, William Bradford’s manuscript history, “Of Plimoth Plantation,” vanished. It had circulated among prominent New England thinkers and historians since its composition in 1630 and was believed to be last in the hands of Thomas Hutchinson, Tory historian and Massachusetts governor, whose priceless library was strewn onto the streets of Boston and used as kindling. Post-Revolutionary historians blamed British forces for this loss, though it was angry colonists who led the raid on Hutchinson’s house. Later accounts held that the manuscript was “stolen!—beyond all question unlawfully purloined and carried off ” precisely because of its value as a founding document; anachronistically, this manuscript history of the Plymouth colonial settlement would be imbued with national significance, its destruction a threat to a nation that didn’t yet exist at the moment of its vanishing. the Bradford manuscript became a phantasm; “All our historians speak of it as lost,” Senator George Hoar recounted in 1898, “and can only guess what had been its fate.”

The manuscript’s fate, it turns out, was less eventful than a colonial bonfire. It was not “irrecoverably lost,” as it had long been characterized, but simply misplaced and mislabeled. William Bradford’s vaunted account sat, unread and unremarkable, in the Bishop of London’s library in Fulham for decades, the title “The Log of the Mayflower” scrawled on its spine. It was only discovered because it had been cited in the Lord Bishop of Oxford’s 1844 history of the . . .

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