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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism

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Declaring Independence, 1710-1850

The Enlightenment brought new ideals and a new notion of selfhood to the American colonies. This program begins with an examination of the importance of the trope of the self-made man in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and then turns to the development of this concept in the writings of Romanticist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Instructor Overview

In his answer to the difficult question “What is an American?” Farmer James, the narrator of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, claims that Americans are characterized by their lack of distinction between rich and poor, by a “pleasing uniformity of decent competence,” and by their respect for the “silken bands of mild government.” As his letters continue, however, James’s idyllic picture of American life becomes increasingly troubled. A horrifying encounter with a tortured African American slave in South Carolina, doubts about the morality and civilization of Americans living in backwoods settlements, and intense distress brought about by the violence of the Revolution leave the narrator uncertain about exactly what and who is an American. The ambiguities and tensions surrounding this question characterized much of the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the young nation struggled to define its values and beliefs, debates raged about what America should stand for and what it should be. Unit 4, “The Spirit of Nationalism: Declaring Independence, 1710-1850,” examines the work of a wide variety of writers who participated in these debates, including Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Thomas Jefferson, Phillis Wheatley, Royall Tyler, Susanna Rowson, William Apess, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. The unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the role these texts have played in the formation of American values and in the creation of enduring myths about America.

The video for Unit 4 focuses on Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two influential writers who articulated American ideals and celebrated the potential of the American individual. Franklin helped shape the foundational myth of the “American dream” by narrating his own rise from obscurity through hard work and virtue. His Autobiography served as a model that inspired many later Americans and helped define the autobiographical genre. Forty years later, Emerson built on Franklin’s practical ideas of self-improvement and made them more personal and spiritual. He encouraged Americans to look inward, trust their intuition, and develop their own principles. His spiritual philosophy of the correspondence among nature, the individual soul, and God was influential both in his own time and for subsequent generations. Emerson’s optimistic belief in the potential of all individuals had far-reaching implications and repercussions. Although Emerson was not especially active in social reform movements, he articulated ideas that inspired individuals to make America a more inclusive and equal society.

In its coverage of Franklin’s and Emerson’s development of American ideals, the video introduces students to the complexities and evolution of ideas about individualism and the national character. What makes an American? To whom is the ethos of individualism available? How did ideas about the rights and potential of the individual change over time? How were American ideals influenced by people’s relationship to the natural world? How did changing spiritual beliefs shape national ideals? Unit 4 helps to answer these questions by situating Franklin and Emerson within their cultural contexts, as well as connecting them to other units in the series and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials fill in the video’s introduction to the spirit of nationalism by exploring writers who represented other, diverse experiences, such as Phillis Wheatley (an African American slave who composed and published poetry), Susanna Rowson (an English-born novelist whose best-selling book portrayed the social consequences of the sexual double standard), and William Apess (a Pequot Indian who became a Methodist minister and champion of Native American rights).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials locate the writers featured in Unit 4 within several of the historical contexts and artistic movements that shaped their texts: (1) ideas about individualism, from the Enlightenment through the beginnings of Romantic Individualism; (2) the early national interest in classical Greece and Rome and the aesthetic of neoclassicism; (3) the symbolic connection between American natural history and the American nation; (4) the aesthetic of the sublime; and (5) the representation of America as the female allegorical figure Columbia.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how the authors and texts featured in Unit 4 relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How have ideas of individualism changed over time? How have they influenced the genre of the autobiography and the slave narrative? How did later nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writers challenge and expand the definition of who should be considered an American? What is the place of nature and the wilderness in American philosophy and in American society?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. explain the meaning of the term “individualism” and discuss the way ideals of individualism changed over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
  2. discuss the importance of race and gender in negotiations of American political and cultural independence;
  3. explain the relationship between eighteenth- century Enlightenment ideals and nineteenth-century Romanticism;
  4. discuss transformations in American spiritual beliefs between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from the Great Awakening to Deism to more Romantic conceptions of divinity.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Who’s Interviewed:
Michael J. Colacurcio, professor of American literary and intellectual history to 1900 (University of California, Los Angeles); Bruce Michelson, professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Carla Mulford, associate professor of English (Pennsylvania State University); Dana Nelson, professor of American literature (University of Kentucky); John Carlos Rowe, professor of English and comparative literature (University of California, Irvine); Rafia Zafar, director of African and Afro-American studies (Washington University, St. Louis)

Points Covered:

  • In the wake of the political revolution that separated them from the Old World, Americans became determined to liberate themselves culturally as well. A new belief in the power and importance of the individual shaped what became a uniquely American philosophy and literary style.
  • Benjamin Franklin helped shape the foundational myth of America and the “American dream.” Relying on his own cleverness and hard work to rise from his station as a poor indentured apprentice and become a successful businessman, writer, philosopher, and politician, Franklin served as a model of the “self-made man.” His witty, endearing representation of himself and his life in his Autobiography set a new standard for the autobiographical genre in America. In Franklin’s time, prejudice and oppression limited the definition of who counted as an American, but Franklin’s work inspired men and women of subsequent generations to strive to expand those boundaries.
  • Forty years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson built on Franklin’s practical ideals of self-improvement and virtue and made them more personal and spiritual. Emerson encouraged Americans to look inward and find power and inspiration within themselves. He turned to nature as a spiritual resource that could energize the nation politically and elevate it morally. His Transcendental ideas about the unity of nature, the individual soul, and God profoundly influenced his peers as well as subsequent generations of American writers and thinkers. His ideas about self-reliance, in particular, inspired such writers as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Anzia Yezierska. In a difficult historical period, Emerson was a prophet of hope and unbounded optimism. His ceaseless efforts on behalf of the individual generated important ideas about social reforms that would make America a more inclusive and equal society.
  • Both Franklin and Emerson championed the rights and potential of the individual and called for independent thought. Through their own works, they gave new power to the genres of the autobiography and the moral essay. By writing about their experiences and offering their own lives as examples, they encouraged other Americans to examine themselves and trust in their own principles and beliefs.


  • Preview the video: In the wake of the Revolution that severed America’s colonial ties to Great Britain, the new nation struggled to liberate itself culturally from the Old World values and aesthetics that structured life and art in Europe. Many Americans turned to the Enlightenment ideals of self-determination and individualism as the basis for the new culture they were in the process of forming. Benjamin Franklin, often called the “first American,” helped shape the national ideal of the “self-made man” in his Autobiograph y, a book that traced his rise to prominence through hard work and virtue. Forty years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson also celebrated individualism, but in a more Romantic and spiritual context. Issuing a clarion call to Americans to break free of European traditions, Emerson encouraged individuals to use their intuition and intellect to cultivate spiritual power within themselves. He looked to nature both as a source of inspiration for the individual and as an expression of the correspondence among humans, God, and the material world. Although their understanding of individualism and their vision of national culture were profoundly different, both Franklin and Emerson committed themselves to championing independent thought and individual development.
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 4 expands on the video’s introduction to Franklin’s and Emerson’s development of an American literature tied to an ethos of individualism. The curriculum materials offer background on a variety of other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers who modified or rejected English models and developed uniquely American literary styles and themes. Unit 4 examines genres not covered in the video–such as plays, novels, and poetry–and pays attention to the ways female, black, and Native American authors built on and transformed Franklin’s and Emerson’s ideas. The unit also offers contextual background to expand on the video’s introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary and aesthetic styles that shaped the development of a “spirit of nationalism.”

Suggested Author Pairings

Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin
Born just three years apart at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin in some ways seem to inhabit different eras. Certainly Edwards’s commitment to the Puritan beliefs of his ancestors and his passion for exploring his own spiritual nature is at odds with Franklin’s secularism and practical drive for financial success and community standing. Nonetheless, both relied on and divergently engaged with their Puritan inheritance. For all his secularism, Franklin’s commitment to virtue, thrift, and industriousness can be traced to Puritan values, while Edwards’s brand of piety–though it is clearly based on strict Puritan models–is inflected with an almost Romantic interest in self-discovery. It might be useful to ask students to compare Edwards’s “Personal Narrative” with Franklin’s Autobiography. While both men were interested in keeping track of their faults and cultivating their virtues, they take very different approaches to this project.

Thomas Jefferson and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
Both Jefferson and Crèvecoeur grappled with the difficult question of what it meant to be an American at the end of the eighteenth century. Jefferson wrote a manifesto of American values in the Declaration of Independence, while Crèvecoeur laid out an answer to the broad question “What is an American?” in his Letters from an American Farmer. Crèvecoeur and Jefferson idealized agrarian life as the best expression of American values, though their cosmopolitanism and aristocratic tastes made both of them rather ironic spokesmen for agrarian simplicity. You might ask students to compare Jefferson’s attempt to deal with the issue of slavery in his original draft of the Declaration with Crèvecoeur’s narrator’s problematic account of his meeting with a tortured slave in South Carolina.

Royall Tyler and Susanna Rowson
As writers of plays and novels, both Tyler and Rowson were targeted for participating in what were often considered trivial, immoral, and even dangerous genres. Ask students to think about how these two writers dealt with readers’ and viewers’ hostility toward their projects. Rowson frequently interrupts her narrative to address readers directly, while Tyler prefaces his play with a direct appeal to his viewers and includes a number of soliloquies in which characters address the audience. Both Tyler and Rowson take on the national obsession with female chastity–though their two Charlottes meet very different fates.

Phillis Wheatley and William Apess
As members of minority groups in the young nation, Wheatley and Apess offer poignant challenges to dominant views of who qualifies as an American. Wheatley’s patriotic celebrations of American ideals in her poems are underlain with subtle critiques of the injustice of slavery and the difficulties of her own situation as an African American. Apess is much less subtle in his attacks on European American society–his “Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” is an openly angry protest against racial prejudice. Both Wheatley and Apess occupied difficult liminal positions in their respective societies. As a highly educated and cultivated woman, Wheatley lived a very different existence from other African American women and spent much of her early life among whites. As an ordained Methodist minister, Apess also found himself pulled between white culture and his own Native American community. Both Wheatley and Apess were profoundly religious and may have found Christianity appealing because of its potential to afford them equal status with European Americans as spiritual brethren in the eyes of God. They both draw attention in their work to the discrepancy between whites’ professed beliefs about Christianity and the unfair treatment of racial minorities.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller
Emerson and Fuller, good friends and lifelong supporters of one another’s work, make an obvious pairing. They were both active in the Transcendentalist movement and frequently met to share ideas, discuss philosophy, and critique each other’s work. But despite the fact that they shared important core beliefs about the power and potential of the individual, their writings have very different implications. In her eloquent case for the equality of the sexes, Fuller pushes Emerson’s views in directions he never dared to go. Fuller’s journalistic background and commitment to forwarding practical reforms also separate her from Emerson’s more abstract and philosophical approach to the problems of American society.


auto-American-biography A term coined by literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch for an autobiographical text in which the narrator self-consciously foregrounds his narrative construction of himself as an ideal American citizen. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is often understood as an auto-American-biography.

Deism Eighteenth-century religious belief that privileges reason over faith and rejects traditional religious tenets in favor of a general belief in a benevolent creator. Deists do not believe in original sin and instead assume that human beings are basically good.

Enlightenment Philosophy developed by thinkers such as Isaac Newton and John Locke, who argued that the universe is arranged in an orderly system, and that by the application of reason and intellect, human beings are capable of apprehending that system. Their philosophy represented a radical shift from earlier notions that the world is ordered by a stern, inscrutable God whose plans are beyond human understanding and whose will can only be known through religious revelation.

Great Awakening The revitalization of spirituality and religious enthusiasm that swept through the American colonies from 1734 until around 1750. Ministers like Jonathan Edwards and the itinerant preachers George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent promoted what they called a “religion of the heart,” through which converts would move beyond mere adherence to moral duties into an ecstatic experience of spiritual grace. Great Awakening conversions were often characterized by physical reactions such as shouting, shaking, fainting, or even falling to the ground.

neoclassicism Aesthetic movement characterized by interest in the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the United States, in search of foundational models to replace its former reliance on Great Britain, turned to examples from the ancient world, particularly the Roman republic, and, to a lesser extent, ancient Greece. Americans associated classical Greece and Rome with the virtuous, anti-aristocratic political and cultural ideals they hoped would prevail in the United States. The American neoclassical ideal did not entail a lavish imitation of ancient forms but rather demanded modern interpretations and revitalization of old forms.

republic A government in which power is held by the people, government is representational, and representatives are charged with the common welfare of all the people in the country. Because the first republic was in ancient Rome, many eighteenth-century Americans were anxious to imitate Roman history and culture.

Romantic Individualism The belief that individuals are endowed with not only reason but also an intuition that allows them to receive and interpret spiritual truths. Individuals thus have a responsibility to throw off the shackles of traditions and inherited conventions in order to live creatively according to their own unique perception of truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is often considered to be a manifesto of Romantic Individualism.

seduction novel A popular genre usually focusing on a pathetic, naive female character who is seduced away from her protective family, made pregnant, and left to die by an unfaithful lover. Some literary critics have argued that the cultural obsession with tales of female seduction in late-eighteenth-century America reflects the nation’s anxiety about its own claims to virtue in its recent revolution against the “patriarchal authority” of England. Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple is an example of a seduction novel.

sublime An aesthetic ideal formulated by British philosopher Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. Burke was interested in categorizing aesthetic responses and distinguished the “sublime” from the “beautiful.” While the beautiful is calm and harmonious, the sublime is majestic, wild, even savage. While viewers are soothed by the beautiful, they are overwhelmed, awe-struck, and sometimes terrified by the sublime. Often associated with huge, overpowering natural phenomena like mountains, waterfalls, or thunderstorms, the “delightful terror” inspired by sublime visions was supposed both to remind viewers of their own insignificance in the face of nature and divinity and to inspire them with a sense of transcendence.

Transcendentalism A nineteenth-century group of American writers and thinkers who believed that only by transcending the limits of rationalism and received tradition could the individual fully realize his or her potential. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau are among the most influential Transcendentalists.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Brawne, Michael. The University of Virginia: The Lawn. London: Phaidon Press, 1994.

Colacurcio, Michael J. Doctrine and Difference: Essays in the Literature of New England. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.

Looby, Christopher. Voicing America: Language, Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Mulford, Carla. Teaching the Literatures of Early America. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999.

—-, ed., with Angela Vietto and Amy E. Winans. American Women Prose Writers to 1820. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.

Nelson, Dana. The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature, 1638-1867. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Rowe, John Carlos. At Emerson’s Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Zafar, Rafia. We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Further Resources
America Rock [videorecording]. Produced by Scholastic Rock, Inc. Burbank: ABC Video; distributed by Buena Vista Home Video, 1995.

Forbes, Jack D. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993.

Franklin & His Friends: Portraying the Man of Science in Eighteenth-Century America [online exhibit, 1999]. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 750 Ninth Street, NW, Suite 8300, Washington, DC, 20560-0973. Phone: (202) 275-1738;

George and Martha Washington: Portraits from the Presidential Years [online exhibit, 1999]. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 750 Ninth Street, NW, Suite 8300, Washington, DC, 20560-0973. Phone: (202) 275-1738;

Higham, John. “Indian Princess and Roman Goddess: The First Female Symbols of America.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 100 (1990): 45-79.

Jefferson’s Blood [videorecording]. Produced and directed by Thomas Lennon; written by Shelby Steele and Thomas Lennon. Alexandria: PBS Video, 2000.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.

Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

On Time. An Exhibition at the National Museum of American History [virtual exhibit, 1999]. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, National Mall, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.

Rigal, Laura. The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Scott, Pamela. Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation [exhibition catalog, Library of Congress exhibit]. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

The Seneca Falls Convention [online exhibit]. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 750 Ninth Street, NW, Suite 8300, Washington, DC, 20560-0973. Phone: (202) 275-1738;

Shields, John. The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2001.

Tool Chests: Symbol and Servant [virtual and actual exhibit, 1991]. Peter Liebold and Davus Shayt, curators. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, National Mall, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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