The Newsletter of the Winthrop Papers Projects Number 3, Spring 1999
Published by The Massachusetts Historical Society Edited by Professor Francis Bremer, Millersville University and Dr. Donald Yacovone, M.H.S.
In 1903 Ulrich B. Phillips proclaimed that "the history of the United States has been written by Boston and largely written wrong." If this is a felony, to borrow from historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., then Boston is the scene of the crime and Robert C. Winthrop is a chief culprit. In his research for the Robert C. Winthrop project, Dr. Donald Yacovone associate editor at the MHS is tracing Winthrop's efforts to forge a shared, national historical memory by sacralizing the legacy of the American Revolution and the memory of the Founding Fathers, especially George Was hington. Robert C. Winthrop (1809-1894), statesman, orator, historian, and philanthropist, was one of the most influential leaders of the nineteenth century. A protegee of Daniel Webster and the chief rival of Charles Sumner, Winthrop played a critical role in every major national political event from 1840 through the Civil War. As head of the Peabody Education Fund from its founding in 1867 until his death in 1894, Winthrop played a pivotal role in the development of public education for African Americans and whites in the South and in the post-war process of national re-unification. A seventh-generation descendant of Massachusetts Bay's first governor, Winthrop held a privileged position in New England society and stood at the center of his era's efforts to forge a common American identity. As an orator and author of countless addresses and pamphlets, he labored mightily to instill a shared view of this nation's history focusing on the achievements of George Washington. As a historian and documentary editor, he endeavored to insure that his family's history remained as it surely was --bound up with American history and his compelling --though racially exclusive vision of the past largely endured until recent times. One of the most exciting new trends in the writing of history is the burgeoning interest in "historical memory." How the past is remembered and who determines what is remembered has become an enormously popular area of historical inquiry on both sides of the Atlantic. The recent controversy at the Smithsonian Institution over the exhibit focusing on the Enola Gay and the dropping of the atomic bomb to end World War II is a good illustration of what historians mean by "historical memory" and how contenti ous such debates over public commemorations of the past have become. In his own day, Winthrop and Boston witnessed a divisive debate over the erection of the monument to Crispus Attucks and the martyrs of the Boston Massacre. Like the Enola Gay controve rsy, the late nineteenth century debate over whether to honor the "saucy rabble" gunned down by his majesty's regulars reveals how public renderings of the past are contested ground, a struggle to determine not only who would gain a place in the nation's historical memory but the very function of that memory in American culture. Winthrop venerated George Washington as the idealized new American, the self-made man educated in common schools, not private academies; trained in war, but dedicated to peace. In all of world history, Winthrop maintained, only two birthdays should command public attention: December 25th and February 22nd; the Winthrop house hold was at its fullest in February. Emblematic of Winthrop's place in nineteenth-century society, Congress chose him in 1848 to deliver the oration at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument and, in 1885, to deliver the oration at its c ompletion. To Winthrop, the unfinished monument in Washington, D. C., to the Founding Father was, sadly, a fitting "emblem of a divided and ruined country." He saw its slow rise to completion accomplished largely because of his efforts and influence as a metaphor for the painful ordeal of national reunification after Reconstruction. This process also attracting the attention of historians today is traced in Winthrop's Peabody Education Fund correspondence where, for twenty-seven years, he led th e Fund and worked intimately with former Confederates to advance public education, uplift blacks, and promote fraternal reconciliation. Through Winthrop, we can trace how the legacy of George Washington and the Revolution reverberated throughout American history.
Work continues on the volume of Religious Manuscripts being prepared by Dr. Bremer and the John Winthrop Jr. Medical Notebooks being prepared by Robert Charles Anderson. Those projects were described in the previous issue of the Groton Gazette, which can be consulted at the Winthrop Papers web page. Margaret Byard is preparing a pamphlet on John Winthrop Jr.'s library for the New York Society Library. Many of Winthrop's books ended up in that Library's collection. Ms. Byard has also gathered information on volumes that ended up in other collections as well. We will post a notice when the work is available.