Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

" A Brave Man's Child": Theodore Parker and the Memory of the American Revolution

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

" A Brave Man's Child": Theodore Parker and the Memory of the American Revolution

Article excerpt

On July 30, 1845, the Rev. Theodore Parker of West Roxbury, Massachusetts walked fifteen miles to visit his boyhood home at Lexington. Having grown up only a short distance from the place where the "shot heard round the world" was fired, Parker had been raised on stories of his grandfather's heroism on April 19, 1775. Although Captain John Parker, commander of the Lexington minutemen on that fateful day. had died more than thirty years before his grandson's birth, the deeds of the "old Captain" had remained a central part of Lexington's communal past and the central events in Parker family history. By 1845, however, Theodore Parker was becoming fearful that the memories of men like his grandfather were fading from his region's consciousness and culture. He therefore took pains to revisit the battle monument on the southwest side of the town green with Jonathan Harrington, an 87 year old relative who was the only remaining member of the "company" that had encountered the British soldiers. Writing furiously as the old farmer struggled to recall the Captains actions, Parker received a deeply satisfying account of his ancestors courage and leadership in the face of deadly force. "Some offered to run," Harrington remembered, "But Captain P. drew his sword and said he would run through any man who offered to run away."1

Theodore Parker's 1845 pilgrimage to Lexington was a defining moment in the career of one of New England's most influential antislavery activists. Occurring as it did in the very midst of the national crisis over Texas annexation, Parker's mystical connection with the memory of his illustrious revolutionary ancestor emerged as the bedrock of his identity as an abolitionist. Over the next fifteen years, Parker's militant resistance to what he believed was an aggressive southern "slave power" intent upon colonizing the rest of the nation was built firmly upon the symbol of revolutionary manhood that his grandfather represented. Using his vast knowledge of Massachusetts revolutionary history as framework for understanding and organizing resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Parker consciously constructed other roles for himself that explicitly drew upon the experience of John Adams, John Hancock and other Bay State revolutionaries. While studies of the antislavery movement have often pointed out the ways in which radical abolitionists refashioned aspects of Revolutionary-era republicanism in their arguments for immediate emancipation, this article will show that Theodore Parker's abolitionism was distinctive in its more direct and dynamic uses of revolutionary memory in fashioning an individual activist identity. For Parker, the Revolution had bequeathed not only its libertarian political ideology, but also radical and highly confrontational models of personal conduct that were otherwise hard to come by in the "un-Revolutionary" culture of antebellum New England. While other abolitionists frequently claimed the revolutionary tradition for their cause, Parker's antislavery vision also rested upon a deep sense of filial obligation to the revolutionaries themselves.2

Since his own activist identity was constructed upon images of a radical past, Parker's abolitionist leadership also involved a conscious attempt to radicalize New England's culture through a revision of the region's collective memory of the American Revolution. Enormously sensitive to the rituals and symbols through which imagined traditions are transmitted, Parker's public speeches during the 1850s skillfully combined rhetoric and performance in reminding his fellow New Englanders that independence and liberty had been secured by a radical people willing to defy established authority in the name of principle. He was keenly aware that as New England's revolutionary generation passed from the scene, its children and grandchildren were left to remember and interpret the struggle for independence through commemorative oratory, monument building, and the writing of history. …

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