The generation that lived through the American Revolution never doubted the need to remember it.
Whether in James Madison’s belief that the American experience knew “no parallels in human society,” John Adams’ vision of the United States as “a Temple of Liberty,” or a humble Irish immigrant’s conviction that The Revolution “ought to be immortal,” advocates soon elevated a colonial struggle against Great Britain into a transcendent moment in human history.
If Americans could establish and sustain self-governing institutions on an unprecedented scale, if they could diminish the immense diversity and provincialism of the former colonies in favor of creating a viable union, then the United States might forever serve as an example and a beacon of hope for the entire world.
Like the event itself, remembering The Revolution was physical — visual, auditory, tactile and bodily. Members of the founding generation saved everything — from cannonballs to the portable desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. They remembered, too, in veterans’ baring of old war wounds that came to be known as “scars of liberty,” in pilgrimages to sites connected to war and nation-building, especially Mount Vernon, in celebrations of the Fourth of July and Washington’s birthday and in musical exhalations and funeral orations.
By the time Lafayette, the last surviving general officer of the Continental Army, returned to the United States in 1824, the American people had created a grand narrative and countless lesser narratives that gave meaning and purpose of the nation’s founding. Each genre complemented and reinforced the other.
The grand narrative enshrined The Revolution’s highest ideals, including liberty and rights, self-sacrifice for the common good and even the pursuit of happiness. For their part, the lesser narratives held inexhaustible detail reflecting individual and local experiences. In a vast and expanding nation, telling of The Revolution linked people and communities as nothing else could.
Lafayette’s 1824-25 tour became an astonishing finale for the revolutionary generation, a feast of remembering and national self-congratulation. Hundreds of thousands of people saw and feted him as he traveled through every state in the Union. Together, they celebrated the achievements of the nation that, in his words, had shown the world “the superiority of popular institutions and self-government.” Together, they affirmed the narratives that enshrined what they claimed as The Revolution’s meaning and purpose.
Before taking leave of the country whose potential had fired his youthful passion and for whose independence he had fought and bled, Lafayette offered the America people one final gift, if they would accept it. Gently but clearly — and without directly mentioning slavery — he held up independence, liberty and equality as the “essential requisites of national and personal dignity and happiness.” The work of The Revolution remained unfinished.
The OLLI course, “Meaning and Memory: The American Revolution, 1775-1876,” is being offered this fall 1-3 p.m. on Oct. 22, 29 and Nov. 5. OLLI membership is open to all adults who love to learn. For a free fall catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit www.olli.psu.edu.