H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 7

Last week we focused on the economic and political crisis in the British empire in the aftermath of its 1763 triumph over its French and Spanish rivals at the end of the Seven Years War.  The North American and Caribbean colonists shared in the grandeur of the British empire, and in a conviction that Britain had achieved the most prosperous, most powerful, and most free empire in human history.  The ensuing comprehensive crisis, so close on the heels of triumph, unsettled the empire in Britain and in the colonies.  Even as political disputes intensified and escalated in the colonies into a question of sovereignty (i.e., not who pays, but who rules), we saw at the same time the sheer reluctance of colonists to shed the British imperial identity that they had felt so much connection to and pride in for so long, and we saw the tremendous difficulty of organizing new political institutions to supplant an existing government and sustain first a rebellion and then a war of independence.

Even after the outbreak of war itself, colonists continued to struggle with their allegiance.  Some remained wedded to the security and prosperity of the imperial past; some were frightened by political turmoil and lawless violence; others were tempted by new opportunities for political and military office on local committees and in continental armies; others were drawn to the alluring potential of an independent future.  Yet choosing sides remained difficult, and the increasingly stark choice between loyalty versus rebellion would divide families and communities throughout the colonies and then the newly independent states.  Simultaneously a civil war as well as a war of independence, the war would be prolonged, arduous, testing, and punishing.  France, Holland, and Spain would use the war as an opportunity to seek vengeance against the British.  Meanwhile, many coastal Native American nations would be manipulated by the British and assaulted by the colonial rebels, both of which would turn to their disadvantage.c

In the documents this week we shall encounter people who contributed to the war effort, yet were not readily welcomed:  enslaved blacks, women, and Jews.  And even after the war of independence ended in triumph for the colonial rebels, the level of anxiety would remain extraordinarily high as people struggled to turn their common wartime sacrifice into a new “American” identity, an identity which had not existed before.  According to “founder” Benjamin Rush, a long, bitter war was actually the easy part; the hard part was still to come in the construction of a new nation....


Connecticut slaves’ petition for freedom (1779):  The two enslaved men who submitted this petition recognized that they in particular and slaves in general lacked the resources to use “violent measures” to gain their freedom, which is what rebellious white Americans were able to do to gain their independence from the British empire.  More dire, the two petitioners wrote in a context of virulent racism in rebel propaganda which throughout the war would doggedly accuse the British military of fomenting slave revolts in the colonies-becoming-independent states.  So, how did the two petitioners try to appeal to the consciences of the elite white men who ran the Connecticut state legislature?  What were some of the keywords they invoked which they hoped would create a common bond with their audience, crossing the boundary imposed between slavery and freedom, black and white?  (That common bond was, of course, rejected by most, though not all, whites.)

“The Sentiments of an American Woman” (1780):  The War of American Independence would be a long and severe war, which challenged the morale of the civilian population as well as the Continental Army.  In highlighting the contributions of heroic women to wars of liberation in human history, the author of this newspaper essay was trying to revivify flagging morale, both by inspiring women to contribute more, and by persuading men to welcome such contributions from women.  As an upper-class woman the author overlooked the fact that many poor women were already accompanying the Continental Army in service roles (cooking, cleaning, et cetera), but how did she rationalize an expanded new role for “women” during wartime?  At the same time, how did she seek to preserve what were then considered to be traditional roles for elite and middling women?


Appeals for religious freedom (1783, 1786):  In its 1783 petition, the Philadelphia synagogue reacted against a provision in Pennsylvania’s new constitution which restricted holding political office to “Christians” only.  What rhetorical strategies did the petition use to claim that Jews were equally qualified to hold office as Christians?  In 1786, meanwhile, the Virginia legislature took the lead in finally abolishing the customary English and European link between church and state, opening the door for the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights (like the Constitution as a whole, under very grave threat in the present day, alas).  How did the legislature argue that the link between church and state led to harmful discrimination against people and their consciences, as well as to a dangerous concentration of government power?  Why did it argue that any link between church and state harmed religion itself?

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787):  Even though the British empire was vanquished by and evicted from the thirteen rebellious colonies become the United States, Jefferson in this moment of his career (planter and politician, but not yet Secretary of State as in 1789-1793, Vice President as in 1797-1801, or President as in 1801-1809) still perceived daunting threats to the fragile stability of the independent United States, a sense of fragility and uncertainty that prevailed throughout American culture in the aftermath of war in the 1780s.  One threat he perceived was the presence of slavery, and another was the rise of manufacturing.  Why did Jefferson fear slavery — for the sake of enslaved blacks, or for the sake of free whites?  What did he argue would be the effect of continued slavery upon the strength and resilience of freedom in the United States?  Likewise, why did Jefferson fear manufacturing?  What did he argue would the effect of increased manufacturing upon the durability of freedom in the United States?  In his view, what was the connection between habits of freedom in individual people, and the collective freedom of an entire nation?

Benjamin Rush, “An Address” (1787):  A medical school professor, hospital director, and signer of the U.S. Constitution, Rush voiced the notion that the War of Independence was only the first step in what needed to be a much broader and more creative effort to foster and then to preserve “liberty” in the United States.  Even though many people were exhausted from the disruptions, dislocations, and traumas of such a prolonged war, Rush tried to inspire a new round of patriotic sacrifice (among middle-class white men, if not white women).  Why did Rush distinguish between war and revolution?  In his view, what remained to be done?  What did he hope for in terms of the government?  What did he hope for in terms of “the people” (i.e., middle-class white men)?