Historical Memory and Nostalgia in the Early Republic

AHA Session 24
Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Zara Anishanslin, University of Delaware
Erin Holmes, American Philosophical Society

Session Abstract

In the first half of the nineteenth century, a collection of forces transformed the ways in which people lived and worked. Market and industrial revolutions, urbanization and westward migration, reconfigurations of the body politic, and widespread political change all worked to undermine and invert longstanding traditions and hierarchies. Throughout the nineteenth century the past was an object both of mourning and desire, even as it remained broken and unfamiliar. As past and present floated free from each other, contemporaries reimagined their relations with the past in multiple ways.

Through the lens of a variety of media—a painting, poem, and stitched text—this session considers the ways in which people in the Early Republic produced and consumed historical texts, paintings, objects to connect their personal ordeals with larger social narratives.

Liz Kiszonas’s paper centers a line of poetry, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” penned in 1726 by Bishop George Berkeley. She traces the influence of the poem on an enormous swath of America’s cultural landscape over nearly two centuries. Originally formulated as an Old World vision of New World millennial empire, the poem underwent a series of re-interpretations and misreadings in the American context to ultimately emerge as a potent claim to American exceptionalism, a justification for an expansive conception of American empire, and a rallying cry for manifest destiny. Kiszonas’ paper focuses on the use of Berkeley’s poem in Revolutionary War commemorations as part of early attempts by Americans to historicize the new nation. The historicizing, legitimating, and not least of all, political, usefulness of Berkeley’s poem would come to a head in John Quincy Adam’s 1802 oration at Plymouth in which he paired Berkeley’s prophetic announcement with the Mayflower Compact to create a thick and complex web of history for a young nation that had too little.

Kelsey Salvesen examines how girls and young women in the Early Republic imagined a new nation and asserted their places in through stitched imagery and text. Salvesen looks in particular at needlework samplers like the one crafted by Julia Ann Fitch in 1806, in which the stitcher grafted herself into the genealogy of a fledgling America by evoking the memory of both personal and national milestones—from the birth and death of a brother, to the birth and death of President George Washington. In the middle of the sampler, Julia Ann embroidered an image featuring four female figures, asserting a place for women at the center of both her family and national history trees.

Nicole Mahoney looks at Daniel Huntington’s 1861 idealized painting of Martha Washington holding court at the presidential home in New York. Mahoney juxtaposes Huntington’s romanticized image, featuring the first lady posed atop a raised platform in front of marble columns, with Rufus Griswold’s The Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of Washington(1855), to interrogate the deliberate legacy created by two men just before the Civil War of a cordial and amiable national founding heralded by politically active and prominent women.

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