“Who Shall Write the History
of the American Revolution?”
Memory and Meaning
Jefferson once used actuarial tables to calculate that nineteen years was the span of a generation. 1 If true, less than half the residents of the United States in 1799, when Washington died, had been alive that day a quarter century before when British troops landed in New York and Congress debated American independence. By the time Adams and Jefferson perished in 1826, not one American in ten could remember the War of Independence. With stunning swiftness, the American Revolution became a distant historical event for most Americans.
It was always the central event in the lives of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Of the three, Washington appeared the least interested in the history of the American Revolution. When he left the army his reputation was so secure and unassailable that he had little to gain by retelling the events of his lifetime. Furthermore, he died before the emergence of a postRevolutionary generation that sought to understand what the Founders had accomplished. Nevertheless, Washington hardly ignored the great epoch of his time.
In his final years he visited a few battlefields, including Lexington, Camden, and Guilford Court House, where he had not fought, and Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown, where he had commanded. Once or twice he was in the vicinity of Yorktown, the scene of his greatest triumph, and Saratoga, where Gates's victory had helped entice France to enter the war, but did not visit either site. When the Constitutional Convention, of which he was a