Stories of Independence: Identity, Ideology, and History in Eighteenth-Century America

By Beutler, Keith | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Stories of Independence: Identity, Ideology, and History in Eighteenth-Century America


Beutler, Keith, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Stories of Independence: Identity, Ideology, and History in Eighteenth-Century America * Peter C. Messer * DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005 * x, 258 pp. * $39.00

Peter Messer's book merges traditional scholarly debate about the ideological origins of eighteenth-century republicanism with burgeoning interest in historical memory. The goal is to make sense of the "babel" of dialects of republican theory in late colonial and early national America that have become audible since historians-following Bernard Bailyn, J. G. A. Pocock, and Gordon Wood-began inclining their ears toward republicanism as dominant in transatlantic eighteenth-century political discourse (p. 4).

Messer examines histories written in late colonial and early national America as sites in which the populace of the emerging nation found and created republican identity. Influential republican theories, Messer shows, were not rote repetitions of Old World ideas, but self-conscious adaptations to what American writers of history argued were unique historical exigencies occasioned by North American settlement. What Messer terms "provincial" histories, written in the English colonies between 1700 and 1776, played up the character-building effects of early colonial founders' "autonomous" struggles with the New World environment to argue and account for American exceptionalism (p. 34). In this era, many Europeans speculated that collateral effects of an inferior American environment on the bodies of European settlers in North America would transform the latter into political savages. Such American authors of provincial histories as Samuel Penhallow, Robert Beverly, and Patrick Tailfer countered that the challenges of the American physical environment were politically beneficent, demanding sacrificial exertions productive of republican virtue that forestalled American social and political decline. These historians, Messer allows, were not obliquely calling for political separation from Britain but were instrumental in promoting "pride of place" that later underwrote the Revolution (p. 44).

A less influential group of loyalist American history writers, including William Douglass, Thomas Hutchinson, and Samuel Peters, saw in American colonial history a countervailing pattern: political health whenever the colonies hewed to the influence and imperatives of the empire, political corruption whenever they did not. …

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