Introduction to Living Histories
As the Revolution passed into memory, subsequent generations of Americans became increasingly interested in the tumultuous times in which their republic was born. Harriet Beecher Stowe reminded readers how children and adults alike never tired of hearing stories of the war from the last, aged members of the revolutionary generation. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Poganuc People remembering life in a small New England town in the early nineteenth century, Stowe wrote that when the minister’s family invited a veteran Colonel of the Revolution to evening tea, the children “begged that they might be allowed to sit up and hear the Colonel's stories. For, stories of the war it was known the Colonel could tell; the fame of them hovered in vague traditions on the hills and valleys of Poganuc.” On one such evening, the minister prompted his guest, “ And you were there?” and those around the fireplace thrilled to the Colonel’s response: “There? Sir, indeed I was,” answered the Colonel. “ I shall never forget it to my dying day.”
As the those who lived through the war passed away, objects and documents associated with the war, whether cherished heirlooms or those that survived simply by chance, provided visceral connections to the Revolutionary generation who were no more. Local libraries and historical societies large and small became repositories for these treasured artifacts and the stories they told.
The centennial anniversary of American independence in 1876 set off a still larger wave of activity. Membership rolls of legacy organizations like the Sons and the Daughters of the American Revolution swelled. Ceremonies dedicating statues, plaques, and monuments constantly reminded people of the role their communities had played in the struggle for independence. Town histories, many published at the turn of the 20th century, recorded and celebrated their communities’ participation in the war. In this process, stories of family and community strife were buried beneath a celebratory narrative of Americans united in patriotic devotion and purpose. Prominent military and government leaders took center stage. Loyalists were often either conveniently forgotten or caricatured as vicious or clueless opponents of the glorious cause of liberty and the “Spirit of ’76.”
Over time, a more nuanced picture of the Revolution and its grassroots nature began to emerge as 20th-century Americans began questioning the earlier narratives they had learned. Today, local histories and artifacts of the Revolution are revealing long obscured histories and perspectives of ordinary men, women and children who lived in and helped to shape their extraordinary times.
Explore here the many ways in which the American Revolution has been remembered and understood over time through keepsakes, markers and celebrations.