“Real Objects of Pity”: American Revolutionary Veterans in Early National Memory, 1776-1832
Knox, Duncan McCain
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’Real Objects of Pity’: American Revolutionary Veterans in Early National Memory, 1776-1832,” explores how the process of using military experience from the Revolutionary War to further political goals developed from the Revolution itself up through the Age of Jackson. The thesis utilizes personal correspondence, other manuscript sources, published pension narratives, and predominantly features newspapers in an effort to chart the image and influence of the veteran throughout this evolution. During the Revolution, I argue, the image of the suffering prisoner of war supported the ideological framework of the “common cause.” These images held an elevated position in lived experience of the war, but only the practice of using military service to bolster political ideals carried over, not the image of the prisoner itself. In the contentious postwar years and up through the passage of the Pension Act of 1818, I argue that this use of military service to capture and appropriate Revolutionary nostalgia and ideals faced opposition based in a variety of social factors that are explored throughout my analysis of the period. It was only as nation-building efforts in the post-war decades produced new requirements for political campaigning, and the need to meet an outside military threat did the common soldier, and his sacrifices, merge into the American public imagination of the Revolution, and its meaning as a symbol in popular political culture. Presidents Monroe, Adams, and Jackson navigated their various connections to the Revolution to capture the mood of the nation, and their raising of military service, as something to be honored within the popular memory of the Revolution, which had not only political benefits for themselves, but for the surviving veterans of the war now a half-century in the past. As the success of the Pension Act of 1818, and its various amendments or reforms over the next fifteen years, provided assistance and recognition to veterans, the application process also gave them a voice. The “narratives” that asked each applicant of the Revolutionary era to provide details of that service. The narratives survive, and provide, not only a record in the voice of the common soldier, but a glimpse into what, decades after that service, even Americans who served themselves had come to think important about that service and their role in it.