To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature contact us | site guide | search 
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersLiving the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Topic: Predicaments of Early Republican LifeTopic: ReligionTopic: PoliticsTopic: ExpansionTopic: Equality
Topic: Predicaments of Early Republican Life
Overview of Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Resource Menu: Predicaments of Early Republican Life
Text 1. Benjamin Franklin
Text 2. Venture Smith
Text 3. Washington Irving
Text 4. Royall Tyler
Text 5. Benjamin Rush
Text 6. Noah Webster


  Resource Menu

National Archives  
Sketch of design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782
Sketch of design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What was the nature of the society that formed in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution?
  •  What did the citizens of the early republic hope for?
  •  What did they fear?
  •  How did they seek to balance freedom and order?

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
1.  Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1771-1788, first two thirds

An essential text for your seminar. The Autobiography is widely taught. Excerpts appear in many textbooks. Feel free to use what you have on hand in your anthologies in lieu of what we have provided. Today Franklin's Autobiography is usually read as the quintessential American rags-to-riches story. In it we see the shaping of an American archetype—the practical, pragmatic individual who claims to be self-made through planning, persistence, hard work, and a keen eye for the main chance. But readers in the eighteenth century did not know that the Autobiography would become a defining document of the American character. In fact, they were not quite sure what an American was or how to be one. The Revolution had lopped off society's elite. For white males life in the new nation was fluid and open; choices abounded. Consider the tours of potential futures on which Franklin's father led young Benjamin through the streets of Boston: "He . . . sometimes took me to walk with him to see Joiners, Bricklayers, Turners, Braziers, etc. at their work." The freedom to create a life is today a fundamental tenet of the American experience, but in the eighteenth century it was a new idea that bred anxiety as much as exhilaration. In many ways it still does. The Autobiography poses the basic predicaments of life in the early republic: How does one make order in such a fluid, open society? How does one live in the new nation? Franklin sought to answer these questions through the example of his own life. 54 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
2.  Venture Smith (Broteer Furro), A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa, 1798, excerpts

A very teachable text, useful to contrast with Franklin's Autobiography. In Guinea, where he was born, his father named him Broteer, but at the age of eight, on a slaver bound for Rhode Island, the ship's steward bought him for "four gallons of rum and a piece of calico" and renamed him Venture, because he had become venture capital. In the preface his editor explicitly compares Venture to Franklin, and, indeed, like Franklin, he makes his way through thrift, hard work, and his own initiative. Yet his life, "with no foundation in reason or justice," turns out quite differently. Is he the black Benjamin Franklin? 15 pages (plus 7 supplemental pages).

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
3.  Washington Irving, "Rip Van Winkle, A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker," from The Sketch Book, 1819-1820

A quintessential tale of the period, it is often taught as an early example of American Romanticism, or as the first American short story, or as a revolutionary war commentary, or as a metaphor for the relationship between the colonies to the mother country. It is also useful to illustrate how different gender roles were being established at the beginning of our literature. However, for the purposes of your seminar, you might want to consider how the tale celebrates certain values of the time but also articulates distinct anxieties and worries. The new republic bristles with energy. It is "busy, bustling, disputatious," independent, and politically charged. But how will it accommodate those who, like Rip, do not share the republican temperament? Is there a place for someone who has "an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor," is essentially apolitical, and simply does not want to grow up? The answer seems to be yes. Doing nothing and yet in the end finding a revered place in village society, Rip represents the successful rejection of Franklinesque values and in so doing offers a critique of republican virtue. 12 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
4.  Royall Tyler, The Contrast: A Comedy in Five Acts. Written by a Citizen of the United States, 1787

Sex, seduction, peer pressure, money, clothes, being cool, being nerdy. Sounds like high school, doesn't it? Here's a play about all of the above and more. An easy and enjoyable read. The characters are large and uncomplicated. Your students might have fun acting out some of the scenes. Tyler wrote The Contrast for much the same reason Franklin wrote his Autobiography, to instruct his countrymen how to behave and what to value. Following the style of British eighteenth-century drama, The Contrast is a web of intrigues spun out of lust and greed. Will Dimple marry the virtuous Maria or the rich Letitia? Will he seduce the impressionable Charlotte? Will the sophisticated New Yorkers defeat the stolid Manly? In the end The Contrast is about the role books, education, experience, and the broader values of society play in the creation of the men and women who will populate the American republic, and that sounds like high school, too. 67 pages (wide margins).

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
5.  Benjamin Rush, "Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," from A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania, 1786

Here Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, sets forth a way "to adapt our modes of teaching to the peculiar form of our government." His plan reflects the tremendous faith the early republic, as a creation of the Enlightenment, placed in education. By establishing "places of education"—he also calls them "nurseries of virtue"—in every part of the state, the Pennsylvania legislature can usher in a new golden age. However, the authoritarianism of his plan reflects the early republic's fear of the freedom that is abroad in the new nation. Rush recognizes that the Revolution has created an especially promising but dangerous moment. "The minds of our people have not as yet lost the yielding texture they acquired by the heat of the late Revolution," he writes. "The spirit of liberty now pervades every part of the state," and "the influence of error and deception are now of short duration." But the moment is fleeting and may soon yield to "improper rivalship" and "party spirit." Like Franklin, he fears the disputation of faction and is eager to fix the American character before it becomes corrupted. 7 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
6.  Noah Webster, Oration on the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, 1802

Sobering and cautionary, this is not your typical Fourth-of-July speech. Webster wants to alert the nation to and protect it from the enthusiasms he sees in the Declaration of Independence and the contradictions he perceives in the Constitution. Webster considers "history and observation" the "surest guides in political affairs," and when he consults them, they cause him to worry about the future of the nation. Surveying the vast expanse of the past, he sees the failure of one form of government after another and asks, "If such has been the fate of all former systems of government, must we indulge the melancholy thought, that such is to be the fate of ours?" After calling into question the distinctive features that, in the opinion of most Americans, would save our government from failure, he asks, "Ought we to renounce our predilection for a republican government, and abandon, in despair, the experiment which our fathers have begun?" "By no means," he says, but as we move ahead, we should remember that "our revolutionary schemes were too visionary." If you want a carefully reasoned formulation of what the citizens of the early republic feared, add this speech to your syllabus. 18 pages.

Toolbox: Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Predicaments | Religion | Politics | Expansion | Equality

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © 2003 National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: May 2003