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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Spirit of Nationalism – Activities

Overview Questions

  • To whom was the ethos of individualism available? How did this exclusivity change over time?
  • What literary strategies did American writers develop to distinguish themselves from British writers? How successful were they?
  • What virtues and values emerged as foundational to the American character? How did they change over time?
  • Why did fictional genres such as the novel and drama seem morally questionable to so many Americans? How did early national novels and plays attempt to make themselves seem wholesome and productive of national virtues?
  • How does “auto-American-biography” enable writers to construct themselves as ideal American citizens?
  • What different spiritual beliefs influenced eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American writing? How did Americans’ spiritual beliefs change over time?
  • What is Transcendentalism? Who took part in the Transcendentalist movement and how did they influence later generations of writers and thinkers?
  • What relationship to nature did the Transcendentalists promote? How did they see the landscape as a resource for spiritual transformation?
  • Why and how did natural history come to be linked to national identity?
  • How did the aesthetic of the “sublime” shape American representations of and relations to nature?
  • What is neoclassicism? How did this aesthetic movement influence American art and literature?
  • What is Romantic Individualism?
  • What did early national writers and artists mean when they conceived of America as a “new Rome”?
  • What is the “self-made man”? Were opportunities for self-making open to all Americans equally? How did the limits of self-making change over time?
  • Why did Americans represent their nation through the allegorical figure of “Columbia”? What values and beliefs informed portraits of Columbia?

Every Man for Himself: American Individualism

[7259] Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Benjamin Franklin Reading Draft of Declaration of Independence, John Adams Seated, and Thomas Jefferson Standing and Holding Feather Pen and Paper, around Table (1921), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-96219].

Although the term “individualism” was not in general use until the 1820s, the foundational principles behind the concept were established by the mid-eighteenth century. Enlightenment philosophers like Newton and Locke 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. This 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. Enlightenment philosophy encouraged thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson to turn to Deism, a religion that privileges reason over faith and rejects traditional religious tenets in favor of a general belief in a benevolent creator. By privileging human understanding and the capacity of the individual, these new ideas reordered the way people thought about government, society, and rights.

The Declaration of Independence is emblematic of the eighteenth-century regard for the interests of the individual. Taking as unquestionably “self evident” the idea that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Declaration makes the rights and potential of the individual the cornerstone of American values. The fact that these lines from the Declaration are among the most quoted in all of American letters testifies to the power and resonance of this commitment to individual freedom in American culture. The Second Continental Congress affirmed the Declaration’s privileging of the individual by making the signing of the document an important occasion. That is, by using the representatives’ signatures as the means of validating this public document, they attested to the importance of individual identity and individual consent to government. John Hancock’s famously large signature is thus a graphic emblem of the revolutionaries’ commitment to individualism. Of course, the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal” conspicuously left out women and did not even seem to include “all men”: when America achieved independence, many individuals found that their right to liberty was not considered self-evident. For African American slaves, Native Americans, and many others, the new nation’s commitment to individual rights was mere rhetoric rather than reality.

But even though slavery and systemic inequality were an inescapable reality for many Americans, the nation nevertheless embraced the myth of the “self-made man” as representative of its national character. According to this myth, America’s protection of individual freedom enabled anyone, no matter how humble his beginnings, to triumph through hard work and talent. One of the earliest and most influential expressions of this version of the “American dream” is Benjamin Franklin’s narrative of his own rise from modest beginnings to a position of influence and wealth. So exemplary is Franklin’s story that his Autobiography is often considered, in literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch’s term, an “auto-American-biography.” In other words, Franklin self-consciously uses the autobiographical form to foreground his narrative self-construction as an ideal American citizen. He repeatedly plays on the potential for self-making that print and authorship offer the individual, likening his own life to a book that can be edited, amended, and corrected for “errata.” As he puts it in the opening lines of the Autobiography, “I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantage authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first.” Franklin’s conception of self thus hinges on the idea that the individual is the author of his own life, with full power to construct it as he wills. Franklin’s presentation of himself as the ideal American individual was widely accepted. While he lived in France, he was celebrated as the embodiment of the virtue, naturalism, and simplicity that supposedly characterized the New World–an image he carefully maintained by shunning French fashion to dress plainly and wearing a primitive fur hat around Paris. So effective was Franklin’s physical self-presentation that he became a kind of cult figure in France. Paintings, prints, busts, medallions, clocks, vases, plates, handkerchiefs, and even snuffboxes were manufactured emblazoned with Franklin’s portrait. His American individualism had become a popular commodity.

By the nineteenth century, many Americans were more radical in their commitment to individualism. A growing concern over the people left out of the American dream fueled reform movements designed to extend individual rights to the historically disenfranchised and oppressed. Calls for the abolition of slavery, Native American rights, women’s rights, prison reform, and help for the impoverished challenged American society to make good on its proclamation that all people are created equal. The industrialism that was transforming the American workplace became increasingly troubling to reformers, who felt that factories were stifling individual creativity and self-expression. As social critic Albert Brisbane put it in 1840, “Monotony, uniformity, intellectual inaction, and torpor reign . . . society is spiritually a desert.” Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed, warning that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members … the virtue in most request is conformity.”

Emerson’s remedy for this stifling conformity was a radical call for self-reliance. His essay on this subject, “Self-Reliance,” is a manifesto of what has come to be called Romantic Individualism. More radical and more mystical than Enlightenment ideas about individualism, Romantic Individualism asserts that every individual is endowed with not only reason but also an intuition that allows him 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 unique perception of truth. Emerson’s intoxicating ideas about the power of the individual captivated many of his contemporaries, giving rise to the Transcendentalist movement (the group believed that only by transcending the limits of rationalism and received tradition could the individual fully realize his or her potential). Writers and thinkers like Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau heeded Emerson’s call and built on his ideas. Fuller pushed Romantic Individualism in the direction of women’s rights, while Thoreau (Unit 12) embarked on a personal project to practice self-reliance by living alone in the woods at Walden Pond, free from the suffocating influences of modern commercial and industrial life.


  1. Comprehension: According to the Declaration of Independence, what human rights are self-evident? What beliefs underlie Jefferson’s use of the term “self evident”?
  2. Comprehension: How was Emerson’s philosophy of individualism different from Enlightenment ideas about individualism?
  3. Comprehension: What is Transcendentalism?
  4. Context: How do texts by Phillis Wheatley and William Apess respond to and challenge traditional ideas of individualism? Are the same modes of autobiographical self-making that Franklin exploited available to them? Why or why not?
  5. Context: Emerson claimed that, in stifling individualism, “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” What, for Emerson, does “manhood” have to do with individuality and nonconformity? How might you read Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” essay as a response to this comment?
  6. Context: Although Jefferson was clearly indebted to John Locke for much of the philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence, he did not borrow the Lockean ideal of “life, liberty, and property” but instead substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” What do you think Jefferson meant by “the pursuit of happiness”? Why did he use this phrase?
  7. Exploration: What rights are or should be guaranteed to an individual in American society? Is the government ever justified in curtailing those rights? Why or why not?
  8. Exploration: Can you think of examples in contemporary American culture that testify to the persistence of the myth of the self-made man (or woman)? How do news programs, novels, television shows, and movies perpetuate the contemporary ideal of the self-made individual? What do current figures of the self-made American have in common with Franklin? In what ways are they different?
  9. Exploration: Compare the Declaration of Independence with the Plymouth colonists’ Mayflower Compact and Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” How does the Declaration’s vision of the role of the individual within American society compare to these Puritan documents’ assumptions about the place of the individual in America?

[1026] A. W. Elson and Company, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1901),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-9034].
Emerson encouraged Americans to look inward, trust their intuition, and develop their own principles. His spiritual philosophy of the correspondence between nature, the individual soul, and God was influential both in his own time and to subsequent generations.

[1433] Washington’s Personal Copy of the Declaration of Independence (1776),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Washington Papers.
The Declaration’s republican Enlightenment ideals have shaped American identity. Its claim that human equality is a self-evident truth has inspired struggles to make that equality a reality, by slaves, women, and immigrants.

[1495] John Neagle, Pat Lyon at the Iron Forge (1826),
courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Reproduced with permission. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Pat Lyon at the Forge, 1826-27; John Neagle, American (1796-1865). Oil on canvas; 93 3/4 x 68 in. (238.1 x 172.7 cm). Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund, 1975.806. After being wrongfully accused of bank robbery and held in the Walnut Street Jail (which can be seen through the window in this painting), blacksmith Pat Lyon successfully sued the government for redress in one of the first landmark civil liberties cases.

[2221] Garrick Palmer, Early Ahab (1974),
courtesy of the Folio Society.
The story of the monomaniacal, fiercely self-reliant Ahab is in many ways representative of what Melville saw as some of the problems with Emersonian-type individualism.

[7065] Augustine de St. Aubin, Benjamin Franklin, Ne a Boston, Dans la Nouvelle Angleterre le 17. Janvier 1706 (n.d.),
courtesy of Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, Annenberg Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
This engraving is based on a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, printer, author, and inventor, who was a seminal political figure throughout the Revolutionary era.

[7259] Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Benjamin Franklin Reading Draft of Declaration of Independence, John Adams Seated, and Thomas Jefferson Standing and Holding Feather Pen and Paper, around Table (1921),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-96219].
This print gives a mythic depiction of Franklin reading the Declaration of Independence along with Thomas Jefferson, the document’s primary author, and John Adams, a political leader from Massachusetts. Franklin’s opinions carried great weight in the political discussions of the day.

A New Rome: Neoclassicism in the New Nation

[1639] Charles St. Memin, George Washington (1800), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4619].

In Act III of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, the model American character, Colonel Manly, delivers an impassioned soliloquy: “When the Grecian states knew no other tools than the axe and the saw, the Grecians were a great, a free, and a happy people…. They exhibited to the world a noble spectacle–a number of independent states united by a similarity of language, sentiment, manners, common interest, and common consent.” Manly’s speech may sound strange to modern readers since his disquisition on ancient Greece seems to have little to do with the play’s setting in eighteenth-century New York. Indeed, even the first reviewer of Tyler’s play complained that the soliloquy seemed out of place: “A man can never be supposed in conversation with himself, to point out examples of imitation to his countrymen.” Yet Tyler’s seemingly unmotivated inclusion of comments on ancient Greece in his play was perfectly in keeping with the fascination with classical antiquity that characterized the early national period. 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. Ancient Romans founded the first republic–a representational government in which power is held by the people and representatives are charged with the common welfare of all the people in the country–and Americans were anxious to emulate this model. Their growing interest in the art and culture of the ancient world was part of an aesthetic movement known as neoclassicism. The American neoclassical ideal did not entail a lavish imitation of ancient forms but rather demanded a modern interpretation and revitalization of old forms.

Neoclassicism may have found its most congenial home in the political climate of the new United States, but it did not originate there. The neoclassical aesthetic arose in Europe around the middle of the eighteenth century, an irony that many Americans, who wished to believe they were rejecting European examples, chose to ignore. In any case, classical models caught on quickly in the early republic. By the end of the eighteenth century, American newspapers and almanacs regularly quoted lines from Horace and Virgil. Correspondents to these periodicals often signed their pieces with Roman pseudonyms. (The authors of the Federalist Papers–Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison–famously adopted the pen name “Publius” in honor of one of the founders and consuls of republican Rome.) George Washington was so fascinated by the self-sacrificing Roman patriot Cato that he had a play about him staged at Valley Forge to entertain and educate the American troops. After the Revolution, American army officers formed an honorary society named after the Roman hero Cincinnati. Even the names of some of the branches of government–“Senate” and “Congress,” for example–hearkened back to the ancient Roman republic.

Neoclassical ideals also permeated American art and architecture. Artists eagerly adopted Roman models, creating statues of political and military leaders like George Washington wearing togas and crowned with laurel wreaths. Influenced by archaeological discoveries in Greece, Rome, and Egypt, furniture makers like Charles Honore Lannuier and Duncan Phyfe created pieces that incorporated classical motifs and design. But it was in architecture that the American neoclassical aesthetic achieved its best expression, a fact that was largely the result of Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to infusing American buildings with classical principles of order and reason. Jefferson’s passion for architecture was reinforced by his experiences in Paris, where he lived as the American minister to France from 1785 until 1789. Impressed both by the beautiful new houses built in Paris in the late eighteenth century and by ancient structures such as the Maison Carée (a Roman temple in Nimes), Jefferson was anxious to reproduce and translate the French neoclassical aesthetic into American buildings.

When the Virginia legislature called upon him to find a designer for the Virginia State House, Jefferson decided to design the building himself. He created a neoclassical temple based on the model of the Maison Carée, thus symbolically infusing the site of the Virginia state government with ancient republican values of harmony and simplicity. Jefferson also modeled his own gracefully proportioned home, Monticello, on classical principles. A record of Jefferson’s varied architectural ideas, Monticello was designed and redesigned many times in accord with its owner’s ever-changing interests. In its final form, the house was built to resemble a single-story dwelling, even though it has two floors, and was divided into public and private areas arranged around a central parlor. Situated on an immense hill, Monticello commands an expansive view of the surrounding landscape, its central dome acting as a sort of symbolic eye asserting control and mastery over the countryside beneath it. Although Monticello is justly celebrated as an expression of Jefferson’s aesthetic values, his true masterpiece is the design for the University of Virginia. Conceived of as an “academical village,” the central campus of the university is composed of five neoclassical pavilions which housed five different branches of learning, along with a central domed “temple of learning” (based on the Pantheon in Rome) which housed the main library. Jefferson intended teachers and students to live together in this complex, working and residing in an integrated expression of the educational mission of the university. Jefferson also had an important hand in the design of Washington, D.C., the new federal city created as the site of the national government. Because the city was built from scratch on a rural landscape, Jefferson and the other planners were able to plan it as a carefully designed exercise in neoclassical order and harmony. Although bureaucratic disorganization, a lack of funding, and land use problems prevented the project from ever living up to its designers’ visions, Washington, D.C., was conceived of as a grand neoclassical city made up of orderly avenues and imposing government buildings. The White House and the Capitol Building were the first to be designed and constructed, though each took longer to complete than expected and neither is a true example of neoclassicism. Noted neoclassical architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, however, used his influence to add an American neoclassical touch to the Capitol once he was appointed Surveyor of Public Buildings in 1803. When he designed columns for the Senate wing and Senate rotunda, Latrobe Americanized the classical forms by substituting cornstalks and tobacco leaves for the traditional Corinthian acanthus decorations on the capitals of the columns. Latrobe’s celebrated “corncob and tobacco capitals” exemplify the ideals behind American neoclassicism: they borrow from classical sources with originality and freedom, combining the stateliness of a traditional form with a tribute to American agriculture and natural productions. Although Latrobe certainly did not intend it, the agricultural decorations on the Senate building also serve to remind viewers that, just as Greece was a city-state whose economy was indebted to the institution of slavery, so was America’s economy built on the slave labor that produced tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar crops.


  1. Comprehension: Why did so many Americans celebrate classical Greek and Roman traditions and aesthetics? What characteristics of ancient Greece and Rome made them appealing models to the young nation?
  2. Comprehension: What is neoclassicism?
  3. Comprehension: Examine the photographs and design plans for Monticello and the University of Virginia featured in the archive. What do Jefferson’s architectural projects have in common? What ideals inform the design of the campus? What kind of educational environment was Jefferson trying to construct at the university? How might the ideals that structure the buildings he designed be reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which is, in a sense, an “architectural plan” for the government of the new nation?
  4. Context: Phillis Wheatley’s poetry is often categorized as “neoclassical.” What literary characteristics might make her work analogous to the neoclassical artifacts featured in the archive?
  5. Context: The early American republic, like Greek democracy, was based on “equality,” but for both communities equality could mean either (a) isotes: “proportionate equality or harmony,” or (b) isonomia: “equal participation, the order of equality.” For those who believed in isotes, one’s rights and privileges were proportional to one’s merits, rather than distributed in common shares to all members of society. Which of the writers in this unit believe in which kind of equality? What reasoning is behind their beliefs, and how do you know? Which of these values are reflected in neoclassical buildings such as Monticello and the University of Virginia? To what extent is our contemporary society based on either isotes or isonomia?
  6. Context: Examine the original plans for Washington, D.C., featured in the archive. How does the design of the city uphold neoclassical ideals? Now examine the photographs and maps of present-day Washington, D.C. To what extent does the contemporary city live up to the plans of its designers? How does it diverge from them?
  7. Exploration: Think about the designs and constructions for some contemporary American public buildings and/or monuments that you have seen (the Vietnam memorial, urban museums and skyscrapers, or government buildings, for example). What values do these examples of twentieth- and twenty-first-century public architecture reflect? How do these structures compare to eighteenth-century neoclassical structures?
  8. Exploration: While the Puritans believed that they were constructing a “new Israel” or a “new Jerusalem” in America, many Revolutionary-era leaders believed they were constructing a “new Rome.” How do these models differ from each other? What values are inherent in structuring a society as a rebuilding of Jerusalem? Of Rome? Can you think of any other historical periods or cities that have served as models for the American nation?

[1186] Christopher Pearse Cranch, U.S. Capitol (c. 1841),
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.
Washington, DC, was conceived of as a grand neoclassical city composed of orderly avenues and imposing government buildings. The White House and the Capitol were the first to be designed and constructed, though each took longer to complete than expected and neither is a true example of neoclassicism.

[1331] Thomas Jefferson, Monticello Floor Plan (n.d.),
courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
A record of Jefferson’s varied architectural ideas, Monticello was designed and redesigned many times in accord with its owner’s changing interests. In its final form, the house resembled a single-story dwelling, even though it has two floors, and was divided into public and private areas arranged around a central parlor.

[1639] Charles St. Memin, George Washington (1800),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4619].
Painting of Washington crowned by a laurel wreath, modeled after portraits of such classical Roman leaders as Julius Caesar.

[3700] John Plumbe, Capitol’s East End before Extension (1846),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3595].
Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building, showing classical columns and frieze.

[6821- not found] Robert King, A Map of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia (1818),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The city that L’Enfant had originally conceived of as “Washingtonople” had undergone many changes by the year that this map was drawn, including repairs made necessary by the War of 1812.

[7378] John Collier, Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville, VA (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USW36-756].
Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian, was a lifelong passion for Jefferson. The house is an excellent example of Roman neoclassicism, with its columned porticoes and classical central dome.

[7772] John Trumbull, General George Washington Resigning His Commission (c. 1823),
courtesy of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Architect of the Capitol.
On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief, and thereby established civilian, rather than military, leadership of the government.

[7781] Anonymous, University of Virginia (n.d.),
courtesy of the National Park Service.
Although Monticello is justly celebrated as an expression of Jefferson’s aesthetic values, his true masterpiece is the University of Virginia.

[9025] E. Sachse & Company, View of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville & Monticello, Taken from Lewis Mountain (1856),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [G3884.C4:2U5A35 1856.E2 Vault].
This panoramic view of the University of Virginia and its surroundings emphasizes Jefferson’s classically influenced architectural style.

[9033] Peter Charles L’Enfant, Plan of the City Intended for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States (1791),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [G3850 1791.L4 1887].
L’Enfant claimed that his plan for the capital city was “whol[l]y new”; it incorporated radiating avenues to connect significant focal points with open spaces and a grid of streets to be oriented north, south, east, and west.

Mammoth Nation: Natural History and National Ideals

[7343] Thomas Ashe, Skeleton of the Young Mammoth in the Museum at Philadelphia (1806), courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

When Benjamin Franklin was abroad in England as a young man, he discovered that Europeans were fascinated by some of the natural “curiosities” he had brought over from the New World. Indeed, his “asbestos purse”–a clump of fibrous material that was impervious to fire–so interested a wealthy nobleman that it procured Franklin an invitation to the aristocrat’s home and a substantial monetary reward. Similarly, Farmer James, the character who narrates Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, is asked to give an account of American natural and agricultural history as well as American social customs in his correspondence with Mr. F. B., a European nobleman. It seemed that the national flora and fauna could afford a kind of cultural prestige, proving to Europeans, as well as to Americans themselves, the importance and worth of the very land upon which the new nation was situated. Eventually, many Americans came to tie their national pride to the landscape and wilderness, believing that a correlation existed between the strength and vigor of American nature and the strength and vigor of American society.

Thomas Jefferson illustrates the symbolic connection between American nature and the American nation in his “Query VI: Productions Mineral, Vegetable, and Animal” from Notes on the State of Virginia. Here he discusses American “natural productions” in order to refute the claims of French naturalist and writer Georges de Buffon, who had argued in his Natural History of the Earth that American plants, animals, and even people were inferior to European natural specimens. According to Buffon, “nature is less active, less energetic on one side of the globe than she is on the other,” and American nature was weaker, smaller, less diverse, and more prone to degeneration than European nature. Outraged by this insult to America’s worth and potential, Jefferson set out to prove, through long lists of statistics and scientific observation, that American natural productions were not simply equal to their European equivalents but actually superior to them. Jefferson includes detailed tables of all of the useful minerals, plants, and trees that exist in America and the relative weights of various animals and birds found in Europe and America. Not content to apply his hypothesis “to brute animals only,” he goes on to dismiss Buffon’s claim that the “savages” of North America were feeble and mentally inferior by arguing for the vigor and creativity of Indians. Although Jefferson intended to defend Native Americans from Buffon’s slanders, his analysis participates in the Eurocentric assumption that Indians were “uncivilized.” By categorizing Native Americans as “natural productions” on par with the animals and plants that he exhaustively lists and describes, Jefferson treats them as a homogeneous group waiting to be classified by white scientists. Later in the essay, Jefferson also addresses Buffon’s claim that Europeans who relocate to America degenerate in their mental and artistic abilities, insisting that the American climate has “given hopeful proofs of genius.”

But Jefferson finds his most compelling evidence for the superiority of the American environment in the existence of the “mammoth” or “mastodon,” a giant quadruped six times the size of an elephant ,whose bones had been found in some fossil pits. Insisting that the mammoth was not extinct and still roamed in the western territories (when he sent the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific in 1804, Jefferson believed they would locate a live mammoth), Jefferson saw the existence of this enormous animal as proof of American superiority and uniqueness. Although the mastodon eventually proved to be an extinct, herbivorous creature, eighteenth-century Americans, in awe of the enormous teeth found on the fossilized mammoth jawbones, assumed that it had been a formidable carnivore. This investment in the fierceness and power of the mastodon testifies to the American desire to showcase an impressive, even frightening, natural specimen that would be superior in size and power to any creature found in Europe.

In 1801, Jefferson’s hopes for further evidence of the mastodon were fulfilled when a pit of fossilized mammoth bones was discovered on a farm in upstate New York. His friend, the painter, inventor, naturalist, museum curator, and businessman Charles Willson Peale, immediately set out to exhume the bones and assemble a complete mastodon skeleton. Peale hired more than twenty-five men to help him with the labor of digging out the bones, transported the skeleton to Philadelphia, enlisted sculptor William Rush to create wooden models of missing bones, and finally assembled a complete skeleton. Considered a “wonder” and a “curiosity,” the mastodon skeleton attracted a great deal of attention both in America and in Europe. Peale traveled with it, sold tickets to view it, and even auctioned off opportunities to eat dinner within the skeleton. He eventually brought it back to Philadelphia and made it the centerpiece of his museum of natural history there.

Peale’s museum, housed for a time in Independence Hall, was itself an expression of the conjunction of national ideals and natural history. Intended to be a “world in miniature,” Peale’s collection of preserved natural specimens was carefully arranged to instruct spectators in the harmonious structure of nature. The museum did its best to reflect the diversity of the natural world: it housed 1824 birds, 250 quadrupeds, and 650 fish, all preserved through Peale’s special taxidermy technique and all displayed against painted backdrops designed to evoke their natural environments. Tickets to the museum urged visitors to “explore the wondrous work!” presumably alluding both to the divine creation of the natural world represented in the museum and to Peale’s labor in collecting and organizing the objects on display. Significantly, the walls of the museum were surmounted by a large collection of portraits of American politicians and leaders. (Peale had originally hoped to display mummified corpses of important men as specimens of the “highest order of nature,” but when this proved impossible he settled for painted images.) The museum was meant to visually reinforce the idea that the world is organized by a “great chain of being,” a universal hierarchy in which all existence is arranged from the lowest rung (minerals and plants) to the highest and most perfect (humans, and, ultimately, God). The paintings of American leaders ringing the tops of the galleries’ walls visually asserted the dominance of human beings–and of the American political structure–over nature.


  1. Comprehension: What was the nature of Jefferson’s argument with Buffon?
  2. Comprehension: Why were Americans so interested in mammoth bones in the late eighteenth century?
  3. Context: How might eighteenth-century Americans’ fascination with the mammoth bones relate to ideas of the sublime? Can fossilized bones be considered sublime objects?
  4. Context: Read Jefferson’s discussion of Native Americans in Query VI (the complete text is featured in the archive). What qualities and characteristics does he attribute to Native Americans? How does William Apess’s account of Native American life complicate Jefferson’s analysis?
  5. Exploration: Dinosaurs and dinosaur bones continue to fascinate Americans. The assembled bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex nicknamed “Sue” caused a sensation in the late 1990s, and contemporary films such as Jurassic Park and Land Before Time celebrate the power and size of prehistoric creatures. Does contemporary American interest in dinosaurs have anything in common with the eighteenth-century interest in the mammoth bones? Why are we as a nation so fascinated by dinosaurs?
  6. Exploration: Compare Peale’s museum to a contemporary science or history museum you have visited. How do twenty-first-century museums differ in their organization and mission from Peale’s museum? What do they have in common?
  7. Exploration: What values and assumptions underwrite contemporary discussions of the American wilderness and its place in national society? You might consider debates over the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, and the use of national parks and forests.

[1051] George Catlin, Catlin and His Indian Guide Approaching Buffalo under White Wolf Skins (c.1846),
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, American Art Museum.
Prairie wolves often followed buffalo herds, preying on sick and weak animals. Native Americans donned wolf skins in order to approach within arrow range of a buffalo herd.

[7342] William Winterbotham, Bones of the Mammoth (1795),
courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Like many of his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson was excited by the bones of mammoths found in the New World. He believed that mammoths still roamed the lands to the west and hoped that Lewis and Clark would find them on their expedition.

[7343] Thomas Ashe, Skeleton of the Young Mammoth in the Museum at Philadelphia (1806),
courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Charles Peale’s Philadelphia museum embodied the Jeffersonian conviction in the interconnectedness of American ideals and American natural history.

[9029] T. W. Ingersoll, U.S. Smithsonian Institute–Interior View (1888),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-95631].
Photograph of a dinosaur skeleton and various stuffed animals in the Museum of Natural History.

[9030- not found] Thomas Jefferson, Query VI, from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785),
courtesy of XRoads Virginia.
This Query describes the animals and people native to North America and defends against the charge that North American natural resources were inferior to those of Europe.

[9031] Anonymous, Captain Lewis & Clark Holding a Council with the Indians (1810),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-17372].
This etching shows Lewis and Clark standing over a council of Native Americans; it originally appeared in an 1810 book entitled A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery.

[9042] Laura Arnold, “The Great Chain of Being” (2003),
courtesy of Laura Arnold.
From the beginning of the Middle Ages through the start of the nineteenth century, “educated” Europeans conceived of the universe in terms of a hierarchical Great Chain of Being, with God at its apex. The roots of this vertical hierarchy are still pervasive in Western theology and thought and stand in opposition to Native American and other belief systems that view the human and the spiritual as coexisting on a horizontal plane.

The Awful Truth: The Aesthetic of the Sublime

[5932] Thomas Doughty, In the Catskills (1835), courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.

In Jefferson’s famous description of the “Natural Bridge” rock formation in Notes on the State of Virginia, he declares that the bridge is a perfect example of a sublime view: “It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven, the rapture of the Spectator is really indescribable!” Despite his claim that the scene and the feelings it inspires are beyond description, Jefferson characteristically goes on to describe the Natural Bridge and his response to it in eloquent detail and in doing so provides a useful statement of the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the sublime in the process. While Jefferson clearly sees the scenery as thrillingly spectacular, he is also uncomfortably overwhelmed by it. He warns the reader that upon looking over the edge of the bridge “you involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, and creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height … gave me a violent headache.” Jefferson makes the effect of this “involuntary” and even “violent” physical response even more vivid for his reader by employing the second-person “you” and thus implicating the reader in these intense feelings. For Jefferson, the powerful effects the bridge has on its spectators are just as important to narrate as the conventional details of its size, measurements, and geological characteristics.

Jefferson’s analysis of the Natural Bridge’s sublimity is indebted to the aesthetic ideas formulated by Englishman Edmund Burke earlier 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. Thus Jefferson’s seemingly paradoxical response of falling to a crouch, developing a headache, and then claiming that the “sensation becomes delightful in the extreme” is in fact a standard response to the sublime.

The idea of the sublime exerted an enormous influence over American art in the early nineteenth century. Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt (featured in Unit 5) sought to capture the grandeur they found in the American wilderness as an expression of the greatness of the young nation. So ubiquitous was this aesthetic interest in the sublime that by mid-century, when Margaret Fuller visited Niagara Falls (a mecca for seekers of sublime views), she was disappointed to realize that her experience was inescapably mediated by other writers’ and artists’ descriptions of the scene’s sublimity. She was left to lament, “When I arrived in sight of [the falls] I merely felt, “ah, yes, here is the fall, just as I have seen it in pictures.’ … I expected to be overwhelmed, to retire trembling from this giddy eminence, and gaze with unlimited wonder and awe upon the immense mass rolling on and on, but, somehow or other, I thought only of comparing the effect on my mind with what I had read and heard. … Happy were the first discoverers of Niagara, those who could come unawares upon this view and upon that, whose feelings were entirely their own.” However overused the visual and linguistic vocabulary of the sublime had become by the mid-nineteenth century, it was nonetheless an important category through which Americans conceived of and organized their aesthetic experiences.

As European Americans moved west, they encountered more natural phenomena that fit within their view of the sublime. The Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and the geysers at Yellowstone, for example, were all described by early visitors in terms of their sublimity. Americans eventually came to ascribe sublime characteristics to humanmade objects as well: Whitman’s description of the power of steam locomotives and Edward Weston’s early-twentieth-century photographs of industrial architecture participate in the foundation of an aesthetic of the “technological sublime.”


  1. Comprehension: According to eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, what is the difference between the “beautiful” and the “sublime”? Give an example of each, either from literature or from your own experience.
  2. Context: In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, the idea of the sublime was usually applied only to natural objects (and sometimes to encounters with Native Americans, who were perceived as “primitive” and more in touch with the natural world than whites). But sometimes the vocabulary of the sublime was used to describe other experiences. Do you think some individuals might have discussed their conversion experiences during the Great Awakening in terms of the sublime? How might listening to Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” compare to the experience of looking off the Natural Bridge or viewing Thomas Cole’s painting The Falls of the Kaaterskill?
  3. Exploration: Does a sense of the sublime still infuse contemporary American culture? Can you think of a late-twentieth-century novel, film, or painting that seems to participate in the aesthetic of the sublime?

[1181] Albert Bierstadt, Valley of the Yosemite (1864),
courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Reproduced with permission. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Valley of the Yosemite, 1864; Albert Bierstadt, American (born in Germany) (1830-1902). Oil on paperboard; 11 7/8 x 19 1/4 in. (30.2 x 48.9 cm). Gift of Marth C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865, 47.1236. The romantic grandeur and luminism of Albert Bierstadt’s western landscapes reflect Hudson River School influences. Realist writers like Bret Harte sought to imbue the same landscapes with the gritty realities of frontier life.

[3694] Thomas Cole, The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826),
courtesy of the Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation.
Cole was one of the first American landscape artists and a founder of the Hudson River School of painting. Romantic depictions of wilderness became popular as the United States continued its westward expansion.

[5932] Thomas Doughty, In the Catskills (1835),
courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.
Landscape painting of river and boulders framed by trees in the foreground. An artist of the Hudson River School, Doughty painted the same American landscapes that writers such as Washington Irving described.

[9026] George Barker, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Close-up View from Below (1886),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-97270].
Nineteenth-century photograph of the popular tourist attraction. Margaret Fuller and others commented on the sublimity of the Falls.

[9028] Thomas Moran, The Tower of Tower Falls, Yellowstone (1875),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3250].
It was in part by Moran’s paintings that Congress was inspired to create Yellowstone National Park. Before color photography, painting captured an important dimension of the western landscape.

Miss America: The Image of Columbia

[5565] Kimmel and Foster, The End of the Rebellion in the United States, 1865 (1866), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-12764].

In 1775, the African American poet Phillis Wheatley opened the poem she addressed to George Washington with the lines “Celestial choir! enthroned in realms of light, / Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.” She goes on to describe the goddess Columbia as “divinely fair,” with olive and laurel branches in her “golden hair.” With these lines, Wheatley became the first writer to personify the new nation as the goddess “Columbia”–a feminized reference to Columbus, who was widely recognized as the “father” of America. Wheatley’s use of the Columbia image is interesting both for its insistence on the goddess’s Caucasian looks and for the profound influence it had on American culture. By the end of the Revolution, the figure of Columbia was everywhere. Popular songs and poems celebrated her; towns and cities were named for her (most notably the new seat of the federal government, the District of Columbia); and King’s College in New York was renamed Columbia University. The adjective “Columbian” came to function as a kind of shorthand for patriotic allegiance to national ideals.

Although the image of Columbia was new when Wheatley developed it in 1775, iconographic representations of America as a woman had existed since the sixteenth century. The name “America,” after all, is a feminization of explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s Christian name. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drawings almost always represented the New World as a woman, and usually as a Native American. Pictured half-clothed in primitive garb, America in these representations is sometimes a savage cannibal woman and sometimes a regal Indian queen offering to share her natural bounty. British political cartoons produced during the Revolutionary War continued to portray America as a Native American woman, often picturing her as a rebellious Indian princess at war with her European mother, Britain.

As they fought to assert their independence, Americans apparently began to desire a new allegorical image to represent their nation. Scholar John Higham has suggested that Native American imagery may have become problematic because “white Americans were too close to real Indians in the eighteenth century to feel comfortable about identifying with any such personifications, no matter how idealized.” In any case, Wheatley’s Caucasian Roman goddess struck a chord. Her association with classical antiquity and the values of the Roman republic must have made her appealing to a nation that liked to conceive of itself as “a new Rome.” Columbia was usually represented dressed in a white, toga-like gown, wearing a helmet, and carrying a liberty cap on a pole. She was often accompanied by the flag, the eagle, and documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. She appeared in paintings, statuary, and even on most of the coins produced by the United States Mint through the nineteenth century. Fearful that profiles of presidents or leaders would smack of imperialism and aristocracy, the young nation instead featured Columbia’s profile on its money, accompanied by the word “Liberty.”

Ironically, this celebration of the female figure as emblematic of American virtue and national character did not result in political gains for actual American women. Afforded only a symbolic and decorative position, they could not vote and were not considered citizens. In fact, the veneration of the feminized figure of Columbia in some ways displaces and obscures the important contributions that real women made to American society. The creation of the image of Columbia was probably not what Abigail Adams had in mind when she enjoined her husband, future president John Adams, to “remember the ladies.”


  1. Comprehension: Examine the representations of America as female featured in the archive. How did the depiction of America change over time? How is the Columbia in the eighteenth-century print by Edward Savage different from the Columbia featured on the World War I recruitment poster?
  2. Context: How might the ideal of Columbia have influenced the depiction of female characters in eighteenth-century American texts? Consider Royall Tyler’s The Contrast or Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, for example.
  3. Exploration: The U.S. Mint recently released a dollar coin emblazoned with an image of Sacajawea, the Native American woman who assisted the Lewis and Clark party on their journey to the Pacific. Purchase one of these coins at your local bank. How is Sacajawea portrayed on the coin? How does the representation of her compare to earlier representations of America as an Indian woman? How does she compare to images of Columbia? Why do you think the Mint decided to feature Sacajawea on this new coin? Your reason need not be the same as the Mint’s “official” reason.

[3215] John Gast, American Progress (1872),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-668].
Manifest Destiny is personified in the figure of America, who here leads a wave of civilization (settlers, railroads, and technol-ogy) across the continent. Symbols of the wilderness (Indians and animals) flee before her “progressive” influence.

[5565] Kimmel and Foster, The End of the Rebellion in the United States, 1865 (1866),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-12764].
The figure of Columbia, shown here in the turmoil of disunion surrounding the Civil War, was a prominent symbol of the classical republican virtues that framers of the new nation wished to emulate.

[6551] Kenyon Cox, Columbia & Cuba-Magazine Cover-Nude Study (1898),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-68463].
Cover of an 1898 magazine, exemplifying the openness toward the human body of the late-nineteenth-century realists. The names of the women, “Columbia” and “Cuba,” refer to an imagined relationship between the nations during the Spanish-American War.

[6552] Washington Peale, Three Days of May 1844, Columbia Mourns Her Citizens Slain (1844),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-46533].
This painting serves as a memorial to casualties of the “Bible Riots” that took place in May 1844 between Protestants and Irish Catholics in Kensington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. The figure of Columbia places a wreath on a broken column and holds an American flag.

[6555] Thomas Nast, A Belle Savage [Columbia Receiving Congratulations from All Parts of the World] (1876),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-105127].
This engraving dates from the nation’s first centennial and shows Columbia holding congratulatory papers from such foreign leaders as William Von Bismarck and Alexander II.

[6556] Vincent Aderente, Columbia Calls (1916),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-8315].
Propaganda poster calling for Americans to enlist to fight in World War I. The war encouraged disillusionment with, and distrust of, modernization and technology in both European and American writers.

[6908] Edward Savage, Liberty [in the form of the Goddess of Youth; Giving Support to the Bald Eagle] (1796),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15369].
This engraving shows Liberty, in the form of the goddess Hebe, making an offering to an eagle while she tramples on chains, a scepter, and other symbols of tyranny. At lower right is the city of Boston.

[9048] Deacon George Thomas, Figurehead of “America” (2002),
courtesy of Claire Dennerlein and Paul Manson.
Plaque on side of statue reads: “This figurehead is from the clipper ship “America’ built in 1874 at Quincy, Massachusetts, by Deacon George Thomas. In 1887 she was put on the Pacific coasting trade and was wrecked on San Juan Island in 1914.” Seattle businessman and former mayor Robert Moran erected the figurehead at his resort in 1916 to commemorate the dying era of great shipbuilding in America.

Creative Response

  1. Journal: Think of an object or view you have seen or a phenomenon you have experienced that could be considered “sublime.” Taking Margaret Fuller’s description of Niagara Falls and Thomas Jefferson’s account of the Natural Bridge as your model, write a description of your experience. How did the sight you viewed make you feel? What physical sensations did you experience? After you compose your account, think about the difficulties you encountered in translating your sublime experience into language. Does your written description effectively capture and explain your experience? If not, can you articulate what is missing from your account?
  2. Correspondence: Imagine that you have been asked to compose a series of Letters from an American Student. Write a letter to your foreign correspondent in which you address the question “What is an American?” Be sure to include specific examples of values and behaviors that you see as representative of an American and an explanation of who qualifies as an American.
  3. Artist’s Workshop: Design or draw a figure that can function as a personification of contemporary America. How does your figure compare to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century images of Columbia? What difficulties did you experience when trying to create a representative image?
  4. Multimedia: In his lecture “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “the world is nothing, the man is all.” Using Emerson’s celebration of individualism as your inspiration, create a multimedia presentation that visually explores the importance of the individual within American culture. Include captions that explain and interpret the images you choose as exemplary of American individualism.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. You are a member of Jonathan Edwards’s congregation at Northampton in 1750 when the church is debating about whether to dismiss Edwards from his position as pastor. Take a position on the debate and construct an argument to deliver to the congregation. What reasons will you give for your claim that Edwards should be removed or retained? What services has Edwards rendered to the church? What problems has he caused? What obligations and duties should pastors be responsible for performing? How has Edwards met or failed to meet his obligations? Would Edwards’s time be better spent teaching the nearby Indians? Why or why not?
  2. Both novels and plays were attacked in late-eighteenth-century America as frivolous, extravagant, and morally bankrupt. Cultural leaders like Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that novels were a “great obstacle to education” and insisted that Americans should spend their time in other pursuits. During the Revolutionary War, theater was seen as so dangerous that Congress declared it illegal. Imagine that you have been hired to produce a public relations campaign to promote either Susanna Rowson’s novel Charlotte Temple or Royall Tyler’s play The Contrast. How will you assure eighteenth-century Americans that the novel or play is worth their time and that it in fact produces good morals?
  3. Imagine that Phillis Wheatley has asked you to be her literary agent. Given the racial prejudice that Wheatley faced in her attempts to publish her work, design a plan for marketing her poetry to an American publisher. What qualities of her work will you emphasize? What ethical questions are raised in making your choices? Be sure to anticipate the objections that you might hear from a white eighteenth-century publisher.


Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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