03 Apr

Matthew Dennis, “Patriotic Remains: Bones of Contention in the Early Republic” (2003)

“Patriotic Remains” explores how early Americans treated the bones of Native Americans, patriots from the American Revolution, and George Washington. These bones were wrapped in political and cultural meaning and used to construct and practice nationalism in the early American Republic.

Summary

Americans, like Thomas Jefferson, dug up the bones of Native Americans that rested in mounds. Disposing of these bones cleared the way for an American heritage and claim to the land. The Tammany Society worked in New York to have the bones of soldiers from the American Revolution entombed. These bones haunted New Yorkers because they belonged to soldiers who had been held prisoner and died aboard British ships anchored off the coast. After the war, the ships were abandoned along with the dead and their bones. The ships eventually sank and the bones washed ashore. The bones remained on shore until the early 1800s. The Tammany Society argued that if the remains of Washington could be entombed then so could ordinary war heroes. According to Dennis, “These remains became holy objects, which served to promote patriotic memory and and national feeling.” The bones were interred, but their importance and memory waxed and waned through American history. The burial and interment of Washington’s bones were no less controversial. The nation went into mourning at the death of Washington. Americans held mock funerals, elegies, and processions to honor Washington. Congress called for his entombment at the Capital. Some Democratic-Republicans, however, argued that such ostentatious display of mourning and memorializing were unsuited to a republican form of government. Republicans and Federalists argued over whither public funds should pay for memorials to Washington. Washington was eventually buried at Mount Vernon, not the Capital. Dennis concludes that “Bones and the nation are linked symbolically: graves of ancestors stake claims to the national landscape and its history. They are political relics, deployed (though not always self-consciously) to gain control of the nation’s collective memory, and in support of particular cultural and political agendas” (148).

Things to Think About

  • John Adams criticized the emerging cult of Washington. He wrote to Benjamin Rush: “When my parson says, ‘Let us sing to the praise and glory of G.W.,’ your church will adopt a new collect in its liturgy and say ‘Sancte Washington, ora pro noobis.” Adams added that if Congress had agreed to fund the Washington mausoleum, he would have been “obliged to do the most unpopular act of my whole unpopular life by sending it back with a negative and reasons.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 143.
  • Given the controversies over memorializing Washington with federal funds, Congress rejected the Tammany Society’s request for money to bury the New York patriots. A congressman wrote to the Tammany Society, “some are of the opinion that Congress ought not to appropriate public money for such purposes,” and others believed the art of printing “has superseded the use and intention of monuments.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 144.

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