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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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Every Man for Himself: American Individualism

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Benjamin Franklin Reading Draft of Declaration of Independence

[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].
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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.

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