H105, American History I, Fall 2023

Writing assignment #2, 4 pages, due by the beginning of class on Thursday, October 26, as submitted via Canvas

•  Your lecture notes from Weeks 5, 6, 7, and 8.

•  Primary source documents on the course website from Weeks 5, 6, 7, and 8.

•  H105-re-Constitution-debate-1787-1788.docx [found under Files in Canvas].

The course of the 18th century saw a relatively gradual transformation and then a relatively cataclysmic disruption of people’s everyday life in the American colonies.  The transformation portion entailed a dramatic increase in population, free and coerced migration, commerce, and consumerism in the colonies up to the 1776 Declaration of Independence.  These were the same three generations which experienced the rise of the British Empire to ascendancy in the Atlantic world and beyond.  The disruption portion entailed the imperial crisis, a war of independence, and a revolution in a long generation of change starting from 1763 and going forward to 1800 ish.  One common aspect joining these generations of transformation and of disruption was an increasing sense of, concern with, and investment in the future.

In the early part of the 18th century the British imperial government subsidized the colonies in countless ways:  a complex financial and maritime infrastructure, cutting-edge science and technology, naval protection of Atlantic shipping and commerce, warfare against imperial rivals vying over North American territory, et cetera.  With the imperial crisis starting in 1763, the British imperial government increasingly interfered in affairs in the colonies, ultimately dividing white people into loyalists and rebels.  After the War of American Independence, “Americans” were faced with the tasks of creating a new government, a new economy, a new culture, and a new identity.

Yet throughout the century there was special attention to what the future would hold:  in the construction of Pennsylvania and Georgia as new havens for the lower middle class and the working poor, in George Whitfield’s stress on personal conversion as a ticket to “heaven,” in Benjamin Franklin’s praise of early marriage as a tool of empire, in the broadening purchase of printed materials and other consumer goods, in John Adams’s advocacy of education as a tool of revolutionary politics, in Benjamin Rush’s clarion for (white male) citizens to construct and to preserve a durable version of “liberty” and “freedom,” in various efforts to turn Britons into “Americans,” et cetera.

And, of course, in the U.S. Constitution itself:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity....”  Posterity!

Everywhere there was the weight of the future pressing back upon the present.  In other words, if people in the present did not take the future into proper consideration, then the risk was that the future might turn out far less than ideal, politically, economically, socially, culturally.  So, in this paper I want you to focus on evolving and competing visions of the “future” as they changed over time from the earlier 18th century to the latter 18th century.

The central question for you to explain is:  Did various people envision the future increasingly as danger and risk, or increasingly as opportunity and progress, over the course of the 18th century, comparing the time before 1776 to the time after 1776?  Answering this question will comprise the main thesis of your paper.

Please note that, once again, you cannot respond to this question with a monolithic argument — you must account for both historical dynamism (change over time) and social diversity (variation among people).  You obviously must compare both parts of the eighteenth century:  the earlier before 1776 and the latter after 1776.

And you also absolutely must grapple with the 1787-1788 ratification debate over the draft U.S. Constitution.

We have covered many social groups inside and outside the categories constituting “people” in the 18th century:  whites, Europeans, Britons, colonists, “Americans,” enslaved Africans, Native Americans, rebels, loyalists, elite, middle class, working class, consumers, immigrants, sectarian Protestant Christians, Jews, men, women, etc.  Hence you must be mindful and specific about social groups whenever you are discussing “people.”  (In other words, there was and is no such thing as “people” in the real world — it was and is always someone’s vision of “people,” amid other competing visions.  Who was included in that vision?  Who was excluded?  Who had power?  Who did not have power but wanted it?  These are always questions to be kept in mind.)

It should be obvious that, once again, there is no single right or wrong answer to this question.  Rather, you will be evaluated on your ability to develop a forceful yet nuanced argument in response to the question, to select main themes to organize your analysis, and to provide specific evidence from your lecture notes, the primary source documents, and the Constitution debate document to substantiate your argument and analysis throughout the paper.  You must utilize all these kinds of sources available to you, but there is no need to do any additional outside research.

Be sure to endnote/footnote the precise source of any quotations, derivative ideas, or uncommon facts.  You should quote from primary documents produced by people in the past (such as Benjamin Rush) — this is the most persuasive evidence for any historical interpretation.  If you glean ideas from a secondary source (such as your lecture notes), use your own words and simply cite in a footnote or endnote where you found inspiration for a specific idea.

See the course website for other guidelines and resources about writing papers.

Sample endnotes/footnotes:
1. Benjamin Franklin, Observations (1751).
2. Massachusetts Centinel, 1 December 1787.
3. Lecture notes, September 26, 2023.