Michael Hattem’s Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution (Yale, 2020) is a fascinating new look at how eighteenth-century Americans thought about the past. Not merely an academic exercise, history was a catalyst of colonial and early republican identity. This historical consciousness was not, Hattem argues, static—on the contrary, as North Americans went from British subjects to rebels to independent Americans, so too did their attitudes toward the past change.
Hattem roots his analysis in a broad range of evidence spanning from history books to almanacs, newspaper articles, novels, and museums. How did North Americans think about the colonial past? How did they understand their past in relation to the British past? How immediately relevant was the past to their own political activities? How did thinking about the past foster national unity? All these questions and many more besides find nuanced engagement in Past and Prologue, a book that is sure to appeal to anyone interested in how America came to be.
Jonathan Megerian is a doctoral candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University. He works on late medieval and Renaissance England. His dissertation explores the role of historiography in the formation of imperial ideologies in Renaissance England.