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The Development of the American National Character
What is so unique about America? During the early years of this country's existence, America was still a colonial nation with an unclear identity as a collective entity. Was it a mass of individualistic states or was it a unique system of values and rights, as eventually embodied in the American Constitution as well. It began originally a conglomerate of individuals seeking religious freedom and criminals seeking to establish a new life. But the nation gradually began to evolve into a more clearly defined social network, with hierarchies of status.
Letters from an American Farmer" is a unique snapshot of the early nation because its author lived and toiled the land of America, yet was supplanted from another nation. According to the website devoted to the author, it is unclear if the man ever became naturalized. Regardless, his commentary is a valuable perspective on early American life. The farmer Crevecoeur noted, in letter three of his "Letters from an American Farmer, to his erstwhile correspondent, "I wish I could be acquainted with the feelings and thoughts which must agitate the heart and present themselves to the mind of an enlightened Englishman, when he first lands on this continent." Clearly, at this juncture America was viewed, even by a Frenchman, as a English nation albeit 'with a difference.' (Commentary and Text on "Letters from an American Farmer," Letter 3, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/CREV/letter03.html)
Yet Englishness was still seen as valuable, and integral to the American character. Crevecoeur notes that the proverbial Englishman "must greatly rejoice that he lived at a time to see this fair country discovered and settled; he must necessarily feel a share of national pride, when he views the chain of settlements which embellishes these extended shores. When he says to himself, this is the work of my countrymen, who, when convulsed by factions, afflicted by a variety of miseries and wants, restless and impatient, took refuge here. They brought along with them their national genius, to which they principally owe what liberty they enjoy, and what substance they possess. Here he sees the industry of his native country displayed in a new manner, and traces in their works the embrios of all the arts, sciences, and ingenuity which flourish in Europe." ("Letters from an American Farmer," Letter 3, (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/CREV/letter03.html).England is credited for the success of America, but clearly even this admirer of England admits that the inhabitants are once removed and different in character from the originators the American nation, because of the reasons they came.
However, unlike the heredity hierarchies of Europe, these social networks generated by these individuals "afflicted by miseries" by definition, because of the American character, were far more shallowly rooted in their emotional and practical ties to factors as hereditary wealth and inherited land and titled. Other factors of social significance came to the forefront in determining American identity and social status such as hard work, hard won money, and equally significantly, if not quite as positively, the visible status markers race and freedom.
Even the "farmer" noted the plurality of the American social fabric. He notes, "The next wish of this traveler will be to know whence came all these people? They are mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, those races now called Americans have arisen." This need to define the self, as opposed to having a preexisting notion of the self based on one's parentage also brought autobiography to the forefront of American literary constructions of identity. The indeterminate national character required all thinking individuals to ask, who and what I am, beyond who my parents are and what I do, as my parents have done and my social position in the class structure bids me do?
The most famous of these autobiographies, is of course Ben Franklin's. Ben Franklin is first and foremost thought of as a founding father of this nation. However, as his Autobiography illustrates, Franklin is more than a constructor of the new American nation. He too was profoundly influenced and affected by the nation's social indeterminacy. Franklin chose to build his character through wealth and enterprise. According to 'The Early American Literature' Website, Franklin wrote "The story of my life" as he called it, to his son, as a way of helping the young man navigate the treacherous territory of the new national structure.
Almost immediately, in Franklin's autobiography however, a level of personal confidence is revealed that would become part of the observed national character, at least in the eyes of later Europeans. "Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life." (Franklin, Chapter 1, The Autobiography, retrieved at (http://www.earlyamerica.com/lives/franklin/chapt1/index.html) Franklin, because fighting for wealth has brought him success and approbation, does not view grasping for it as unchristian. In fact, his idea is that it is positive and spiritually enriching as well as financially enriching, a factor that would become key and crucial to American self-definitions of identity from Fitzgerald to Updike to today.
Another interesting aspect of Franklin's work is that even when Franklin errs, he sees it as a positive, as a learning technique to the evolving self, rather than as a moral blight. He states, in Tom Sawyer (to make an anachronistic reference) "I was generally a leader among the boys, and sometimes led them into scrapes, of which I will mention one instance, as it shows an early projecting public spirit, tho' not then justly conducted." Public spirit and leadership is more important than adhering rigidly to social codes.
In Franklin's line of thought, in contrast to the "American Farmer's" letters, however, Europe is associated with dissipation and a lack of labor's rewards that drive men to drink, rather than providing a potentially positive framework for American identity. "My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o'clock, and another when he had done his day's work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he suppos'd, to drink strong beer, that he might be strong to labor." (Franklin, Chapter 6, The Autobiography, retrieved at (http://www.earlyamerica.com/lives/franklin/chapt1/index.html)
Because individuals do not receive enough status and monetary rewards for their labors, they must pickle themselves and numb their ambitions with drink, Franklin implies.
Although Franklin pays lip service to the significance of God and Providence in his success, ultimately he always credits his own ingenuity. This may be contrasted with the Native American convert Samson Occom's stress and thanks upon the grace and glory of God for leading him to what he considers the truth. Occom, however, is still notable, because he too uses his narrative of the self to articulate what he considers 'the truth,' rather than providing a Biblical analysis or exegesis to bring readers to his fold. Although he would not necessarily articulate it in such a fashion, Occom is a tribute to the complexity of American identity, a man ostracized as an Indian who adopted the religion of those who despised him.
Race, in the absence of class and heredity, was another marker of status, and usually not a positive one. This is particularly evident in the experience of Black Slaves. Interestingly enough, Obadiah Equiano was a kind of aristocrat in his original home nation. However, all this changed when he was captured and sold into slavery when he "saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo." (Narrative, (http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~dee/Equiano.html)
Freedom is not associated for Equiano with Christian betterment, however, unlike Occom. Though he credits God for his freedom, having become a Christian like Occom, America is not the nation of the free. Its only benefit is that his owners in America are less brutal than his oppressors in the West Indies. "While I was in Montserrat I knew a Negro man, named Emanuel Sankey, who endeavored to escape from his miserable bondage, by concealing himself on board of a London ship, but fate did not favor the poor oppressed man; for, being discovered when the vessel was under sail, he was delivered up again to his master." (Narrative, (http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~dee/Equiano.html) Yet even this favorable assessment of the Christian religion and American owners is chastened by…[continue]
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