Artifacts and Anecdotes: The Role of Antiquarian Culture in Constructing National Identity in Antebellum America

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 4:10 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Amy Henderson, independent art historian and museum consultant
In recent years, scholars of the early republic have gained a new appreciation for the 19th-century antiquarian historians who served as our nation’s earliest chroniclers. Scholars have returned to the publications of Rufus Griswold and Elizabeth Ellet for personal anecdotes and memoirs of George Washington’s republican court, and to the prints, photographs, objects, and spaces collected by the likes of John F. Watson, Benson Lossing, and Ann Pamela Cunningham for visual evidence of the founders’ material lives. With the rediscovery and evaluation of these antiquarian sources has come the realization that social and political history—just like public and private spaces—are more often than not overlapping and intimately connected. As Griswold astutely concluded in the 1855 edition of The Republican Court, it is impossible to exhibit the social aspects of the past without also chronicling the political, thus the home and its material culture can be a reflection of political ideologies.

In this paper, I delve into the publications and relic collections of the antiquarians not to understand America’s eighteenth-century past, but rather to illuminate the social and political landscape of the antebellum period that produced this generation of preservationists. With an eye on the rising tensions that define this period, such as sectionalism and nationalism, I explore what political motivations lay behind this early movement to preserve the material culture of the founding generation. I demonstrate that the material lives of the founders—as captured in artifacts, images, and anecdotes—can reveal as much about the generation of Americans who collected and treasured them as it can about the founders themselves. Griswold, Ellet, and their contemporary antiquarians coined the term “Republican Court” in the 1850s to define the political ideals of the past, yet the term has as much to express about the material politics of their era.

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