But the founding generation themselves actively revised history. Whether it was rethinking the British history that informed their identities as British subjects or, later, refashioning their own colonial histories to better fit with the times, revising history was a crucial part of the American Revolution. It was also a part of the founding generation’s attempts to make the new nation work.
Before the American Revolution, most White British American colonists were proud subjects of Britain and thought of the British past as their history. In particular, they drew on the historical righteousness of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Referring to it as “our Glorious Revolution,” they celebrated how it expanded the authority of Parliament at the expense of the power of the monarch.
However, as Parliament continued to pass unprecedented legislation aimed at consolidating Britain’s control over the colonies in the 1760s, American colonists, including many subsequent Founders, began to see the Glorious Revolution differently. Rather than creating a bulwark against tyranny, many colonists thought that the Glorious Revolution had merely created a situation in which Parliament could act as arbitrarily and tyrannically as any 17th-century monarch. This “revisionist” rewriting of the meaning of the Glorious Revolution by colonists was a fundamental change from how they had long viewed their history. In short, rethinking and rewriting their British past was part of the process that led to independence.
Once the war was over and independence had been won, the new United States had a national history that dated back only a few years to 1776. Many prominent individuals in the 1780s understood that creating a national history for the new republic could help forge a bond between Americans from the various states. Such Founders as George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson understood the value of and need for a new national history and went out of their way to support the efforts of individuals engaged in creating it. For example, Washington allowed William Gordon, who wrote the first history of the Revolution, to stay at his home at Mount Vernon for more than two weeks in the spring of 1784 to copy the general’s wartime correspondence. Meanwhile, Jefferson, Adams and other political and military figures corresponded with individuals in the process of writing histories of the Revolution and the new nation.
The first histories of the new nation after the American Revolution had a political agenda: to help states to overcome their conflicts with one another. Americans had to overcome their own local prejudices, and the nation at large had to overcome its former subjection to Britain. To address these issues, the histories produced in this period reimagined the history of the colonial era by foregrounding the themes of unity and independence. They highlighted sporadic events from the colonial past — such as the New England Confederation of the 1640s and the Siege of Louisbourg in 1745 — that seemed to exhibit these traits. At the same time, they played down other issues — such as conflicts over land and intercolonial trade — that revealed divisions among them. This was especially the case with the issue of slavery. Because slavery contradicted the ideas of independence and unity they wanted to celebrate, these historians largely left it out of their narrative of American history.
While the historians of the 1780s and 1790s wrote their histories to support the new federal government, after the emergence of the first political parties, the history of the United States would be increasingly viewed through partisan lenses. John Marshall’s “Life of Washington” (1804-7) was a history of the Revolution from a Federalist perspective. In 1802, President Jefferson noted that Marshall’s history was “intended to come out just in time to influence the next presidential election” and “written therefore principally with a view to electioneering purposes.” Mercy Otis Warren’s “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution” (1805) offered a decidedly Democratic-Republican take on the history of the new nation. John Adams, a longtime family friend of Warren and a Federalist, accused her of “gratify[ing] the passions, prejudices, and feelings of the party who are now predominant.” Further into the 19th century, the creation of interpretations of the history of the nation, and especially its revolution, for political purposes would become commonplace in American political culture, whether done by abolitionists, Confederates, the women’s rights movement or many others.
These early historians set the geographical and temporal boundaries of “American history” as including only the 13 colonies that would become states and starting the national history with their settlement. Indeed, the terms they set to define and create “American history” have been passed down for centuries. These perspectives have only come to be challenged by historians in the last few decades by those who have tried to expand our notion of early American history and recover parts of the narrative of our national history left out by this first generation of American historians.
Trump has accused the 1619 Project of “rewrit[ing] American history.” And in some ways, he is right. But, in doing so, the writers and historians of the 1619 Project are engaging in an American tradition as old as the republic itself and one that played a key role in the founding of the nation.