8. A Heads-Up for Europeans
Happy America! whose extent of territory westward is sufficient to accommodate with land, thousands and millions of the virtuous peasants who now groan beneath tyranny and oppression in three quarters of the globe. Who would remain in Europe, a dependent on the will of an imperious landlord, when a few years' industry can make an independent American freeholder?
David Ramsay, Oration on the Advantages of American Independence, 1778
Who would remain in Europe? asked Patriot David Ramsay in a wartime oration, when in America the poor and oppressed could tap vast opportunities for land and prosperity. Who should remain in Europe was an issue taken up by Benjamin Franklin while a diplomat in Paris, pummelled with inquiries from elite Europeans about the opportunities America offered them. Very little, he answered in a 1782 essay, if you expect the kind of easy living and preferential treatment guaranteed to men of your class in Europe. Keep the "imperious landlords" on your side of the Atlantic and send us your "hearty young Laboring Men" who will enhance the nation's resources and not exploit them to amass huge estates. Eight years later another Philadelphia Patriot, Benjamin Rush, offered an update to Franklin's piece, and here we read excerpts from both works. While Franklin and Rush provided basically the same "information," what clearly distinguishes their messages? How had the nation changed between 1782 and 1790?
Benjamin Franklin, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, 1782, selections. Franklin spent almost one third of his life in Europe serving as a diplomat for the American colonies (seventeen years in England) and for the United States (nine years in France). While there, he often published essays to explain America and its people to Europeans—primarily to rid them of misconceptions and to refute unjustified criticism. In this essay, Franklin addressed three misconceptions about life in the new nation held by elite Europeans. America was not a playground for European aristocracy, Franklin let them know; it was no land of ease for entitled "gentlemen" who regarded labor as beneath them. It was a land of opportunity for "sober, industrious, and frugal" men to work hard and build stable lives for their families, thereby fortifying the new nation. In America, he wrote, "people do not inquire . . . What is he? But What does he do?" Note how Franklin's need-to-have list exhibits the daunting spectre of settling the western lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, soon to be officially ceded to the United States. (3 pp.)
Benjamin Rush, Information to Europeans Who Are Disposed to Migrate to the United States of America, 1790, selections. Widely influential in medicine, education, prison reform, and other areas of postwar innovation, Dr. Benjamin Rush published an update to Franklin's Information in 1790 that clearly reflected the nation's return of confidence after the anxious 1780s. Written after the installation of the first government under the new Constitution, the essay projects an ebullient vision of where-we're-going and, in its closing words, erupts with optimistic buoyancy (and relief). Thus Rush's essay offers a fitting conclusion to this Theme, and an apt transition to the final Theme in this primary source collection: CONSTITUTION. (5 pp.)
- What "mistaken Ideas & Expectations" about America did Franklin and Rush intend to correct? Why?
- What distinguished their messages, written eight years apart, although they provided basically the same "information" to Europeans?
- How had the nation changed in the years between 1782 and 1790?
- Why did Rush describe the 1780s as the "years of anarchy" and as "the swelling of the sea which succeeds a storm"?
- What explains Rush's optimistic buoyancy? What explains the undercurrent tone of "Whew! We made it"?
- Note the use of superlatives and hyperbole in Rush's essay, e.g., "it is inconceivable how many," "this is so invariably true," "its influence . . . is universal," and "an ocean of additional happiness." How do they influence his message to his readers, European and American?
- How do Franklin's and Rush's appraisals of European class-based norms and codified "manners" compare with the critiques of Noah Webster, Mercy Otis Warren, Royall Tyler, and other commentators in this Theme?
- What key difference between Americans and Europeans did Franklin highlight with his statement: "People do not inquire . . . What is he? But What does he do?"
- How did the rejection of European identity influence the shaping of American identity?
- How was Europe becoming the "other"?
- How did Rush explain the evolving "American character" to his European readers?
- How did his view of the "American man" compare with those of Crèvecoeur and Tyler (section 6)?
- How prescient was Rush in his two concluding predictions?
- Continue 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 stressed as the most urgent?
- Continue the list of metaphors for the new nation that appear in this Theme's texts (they include Rush's "hotbed of industry and genius"). What do the metaphors suggest about Americans' hopes and fears after the war?
- 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"?
Franklin, Information, 1782
Rush, Information, 1790
– Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, oil on canvas, 1778 (detail). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931, 32.100.132. Reproduced by permission.
– Portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, 1783 and 1786, Winterthur Museum, Delaware, #159.160. Reproduced by permission.
– Map: The United States of America with the British Possessions of Canada, Nova Scotia, & of Newfoundland . . . according to the preliminary articles of peace signed at Versailles the 20th of Jany. 1783, London, printed for Sayer & Bennett (firm), 1783 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division, Call. No. G3700 1783 .R6 Vault.
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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