1. Victory & Union
Consider the elation and anxiety of a young person entering adulthood and, finally, achieving the long-envied status of an independent being. Elation for throwing off parental rules, archaic codes of behavior, and imposed ambitions. Anxiety at the prospect of creating one's own rules, codes, and ambitions. Do I have to? Are my success and happiness really dependent on them? Yes.
So how do I create them? You figure it out.
How were the thirteen contentious "united states"—thrust into adulthood by their rejection of the "mother country"—to figure it out? They had won the war and signed the peace treaty, significant achievements, for sure, but with their army disbanded, their Commander in Chief returned to private life, and their Congress tied in knots, Americans stood on the verge of . . . what? A golden age of democracy and progress? A harrowing descent into anarchy and tyranny? They had only a short time to nurture their fledgling nation into a stable autonomous adult, one that heralded a new age of democracy and Enlightenment ideals. Talk about self-imposed ambitions. In this Theme, INDEPENDENCE, we will study this predicament through the words of Americans committed to realizing the ideals of the Revolution, and of Europeans fascinated by the unique experiment across the ocean. In Theme V: CONSTITUTION, we will follow the creation of a new republican government for the nation, a process that aggravated postwar factions before it solidified the union.
Here, we'll begin with the farewell statements of two giants of the Revolution, Thomas Paine and George Washington, delivered as they left the public sphere in 1783. Both insisted that the "UNION OF THE STATES" was the bottom-line necessity for realizing the "Glorious Cause" that had led them to war.
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, #13, 1783. Eight years to the day after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and eight days after Congress officially declared the end of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine published the last of his Crisis essays. "The times that tried men's souls are over," he began; "let us look back on the scenes we have passed and learn from experience what is yet to be done." Paine's list of "what is yet to be done" did not address the immediate challenges of postwar life but elucidated what Americans had to do to grasp the reins of nationhood. Hold still for a moment, he advised, and look beyond your immediate worries. Contemplate the promise of this new nation, the happiness it offers, and the gravity of its obligation to the world. Paine's fear that the opportunity would be lost is palpable; it is a fear you see throughout the writings in this Theme. What did Paine insist must be done, right now, to realize America's potential in independence? (4 pp.)
Gen. George Washington, Farewell Letter to the States, 1783, excerpts. As his final statement as Commander in Chief, Washington addressed a letter to the states' governors congratulating Americans on their victory and, more urgently, warning them to guard their hard-won independence from the dangers of faction, vengefulness, and petty self-interests. He elucidated four factors "essential to the well being" of the new nation and condemned anyone who hindered their realization to "the severest punishment which can be inflicted by his injured Country." Strong words. Washington shared Paine's fear that the Revolution could be lost after it was won. How did he use his national stature, combined with his matured humility, to structure his message and give it impact? Reading the address aloud will help clarify Washington's meaning amidst his eighteenth-century prose. (4 pp.)
Newsboys' new year's greetings after independence, five poems, 1784-1790. For over two centuries until the early 1900s, newspaper delivery boys offered new year's greetings to their customers in the form of broadsides (one-page printed flyers). In exchange for the poetic greetings, the "newsboys" expected tips from grateful customers. The verses were written anonymously by local writers including Philip Freneau, the "Poet of the Revolution." These five poems trace the new nation's view of its tentative progress after independence—from the "dismal prospects" of 1783 to the "clouded prospects" of 1786 to the "happy, happy days" foreseen in 1790. How do they restate the triumph and fear voiced by Paine and Washington? (5 pp.)
- In the readings throughout this Theme, what is defined as the greatest achievement of victory? the greatest challenge to independence?
- What most differentiated Americans' wartime and postwar attitudes about independence and nationhood?
- What characteristics most differentiated the thirteen colonies from the newly independent states?
- Follow the tone and implications of the self-congratulatory commentary in these readings. What balanced the victors' elation, pride, and relief?
- Examine the emphasis on virtue, morals, honor, and national character that underscores many readings in this Theme. Why were they considered crucial to the health of the new nation?
- How did happiness factor in the postwar health of the nation? Did happiness conflict with virtue?
- Complete this chart for an overview of the "advantages and disadvantages" of the Revolution as seen by the American and European commentators in this Theme, and to compile their recommendations for the new nation's survival and triumph. What patterns do you find? What issues were presented with the greatest urgency?
- Create a list of metaphors for the new nation in this Theme's texts. What do the metaphors suggest about Americans' hopes and fears in the 1780s? They include:
|– "rising of a fair morning" ||Paine|
|– "pillars . . . of our Independency" ||Washington|
|– "th' electric spark of FREEDOM" ||a "newsboy"|
- What obligations to the world had Americans assumed through their victory? What did Washington mean that Americans were now "Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre"?
- What congratulations did Paine and Washington offer in their farewell comments? What warnings?
- What did Washington mean that "the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse?" How did Paine express the same predicament?
- Why did Paine and Washington insist on the "UNION OF THE STATES" as the critical factor in sustaining the new nation? What did each propose for creating and sustaining this union?
- What did they identify as the most dangerous obstacle to union among the states? How worried are they?
- How did Paine's essay convey his perspective as a British emigrant and veteran of the Continental Army?
- How did Washington's letter convey his perspective as the retiring Commander in Chief? How did it presage his later contributions to the new nation?
- What do the newsboys' new year's poems reveal of the nation's elation and anxiety after 1783?
- Why is it that "Peace comes hard"? What are the "quarrels" that "may injure morals"?
- How does the personal, humorous, and often sardonic tone in the greetings influence the message they share with Paine's and Washington's addresses?
- How did Americans envision independence and nationhood in the first years after the Revolutionary War?
- How did they begin to construct a national identity separate from their colonial identity as British subjects?
- In what ways was the new nation like "a child just learning to walk"? What postwar challenges most reflected this "state of infancy"?
Paine, The American Crisis #13
Washington, Farewell Letter to the States
Newsboys' new year's greetings
Thomas Paine, The Crisis series
, 1776-1783 (Independence Hall Assn.)
Rediscovering George Washington
George Washington Resigning His Commission
, oil painting by John Trumbull, 1824, in rotunda of U.S. Capitol (Architect of the U.S. Capitol)
, digital collection of 900 newsboys' new year's greetings, ca. 1790-ca. 1880 (Brown University Library)
"'We Won't Leave Until We Get Some': Reading the Newsboy's New Year's Address
," essay by Leon Jackson, University of South Carolina, Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life
, 8:2 (January 2008)
The Great Seal of the United States of America
Symbols for the New Nation
(Library of Congress)
"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?
," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)
Teaching the Revolution
, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)
General Online Resources
– Thomas Paine, lithograph by John Bufford, 1850? (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID EM2937.
– Gen. George Washington, engraving by John Sartain, n.d., ca. 1840s (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 421228.
– "Verses for the Year 1790," news carrier's greeting from The New-York Weekly Museum, broadside, January 1790 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the American Antiquarian Society.
Banner image: Final design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782, by Secretary of State Charles Thomson (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
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