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3. Progress & Identity




Americans had achieved independence from British control, but how were they to achieve independence from British identity? The first took an eight-year war, and the second was going to take longer, it seemed, but creating a new nation required re-defining who we are. Revolutionary leaders urged Americans to energize their patriotic spirit after 1783 and foster an American national character, sloughing off British attitudes and "manners" as though growing a new skin. "Unshackle your minds and act like independent beings," insisted Noah Webster, one of the far-reaching innovators of the new nation who envisioned progress and identity, American style.

    Founding documents of societies to promote progress and national identity PDF file
  • Founding documents of societies to promote progress and national identity, 1780-1791, selections. Indicative of Americans' commitment to nationhood in the 1780s was their creation of numerous societies to promote learning, agriculture, and manufactures; to address social ills and injustices; and to protect the newly formed state and national governments from discord and dissolution. In the societies' charters and constitutions, the founders pledged coordinated effort (and money) for the good of the new nation and the creation of uniquely "American" innovations that would mark the new nation as a global contender. As described by historian Edmund S. Morgan, "the Americans were already embarked on their tireless, and to many Europeans tiresome, campaign to improve themselves and the world."1 How do the documents reflect the American ideals of liberty, virtue, progress, self-sufficiency, and youthful vigor? In what ways do they reveal Americans' anxiety about sustaining their new nation? (7 pp.)

  • Noah Webster, essays on fostering American identity PDF file
  • Noah Webster, essays on fostering American identity, 1783 & 1787, selections. Widely recognized for his American Dictionary and The American Speller—icons of 18th-century American instruction—Noah Webster may appear to modern viewers as little more than a driven school-master and language enthusiast. But Webster was a fiery-penned Patriot who wrote and lectured widely in the 1780s, urging Americans to create their own identity, character, and "manners," and to revise British English into their own American language. "You have an empire to raise and support by your exertions," he insisted, "and a national character to establish and extend by your wisdom and virtues." Webster's passion for his cause is evident in the selections presented here from three works. What arguments did he emphasize to convince Americans to shed British identity and adopt their own? Why would it jeopardize America's future to neglect this metamorphosis? (7 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. From these readings, how did Americans define progress and identity for their newly independent nation. (Remember that they used different terms for the concepts than we use today.)
  2. How do the societies' founding documents reflect the American ideals of liberty, virtue, self-sufficiency, and youthful vigor? How do they reflect Americans' anxiety about sustaining their new nation?
  3. What goals did the societies' founders want to promote through their organizations, and what perils to did they want to hinder? Create a list using quotations from the founding documents, e.g.:
  4. What specific projects did the societies implement to achieve their goals? Rate their effectiveness, in your judgment.
  5. To what extent did the founders copy similar British societies?
  6. To what extent did the societies contribute to nation-building and the creation of a national identity, even if their immediate goals were local and nonpolitical?
  7. Conduct research to learn the societies' histories, especially those that exist today. How have the societies evolved to meet modern goals? (See Supplemental Sites: note that some societies were incorporated into other organizations that exist today.)
  8. Why did Noah Webster chastise Americans for considering the revolution "completed when it was but just begun"?
  9. What did he insist Americans must do to complete the revolution and build a "national character"?
  10. How did he try to convince Americans to shed British identity and adopt their own? Why would it jeopardize America's future to neglect this metamorphosis?
  11. Analyze his specific recommendations for education, language, and "manners." Which became standard by the mid nineteenth century?
  12. Of the writers in this theme, Noah Webster and Mercy Otis Warren (section #2) most adamantly expressed their fear that Americans might fail in nation-building. Create a series of brief letters between Webster (a Federalist) and Warren (an anti-Federalist) from 1783 through the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Emphasize their different analyses of the dangers to American progress and stability. How much does each trust Americans?
  13. Another promoter of creating an American educational system was Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. Compare his recommendations for curriculum, textbooks, "female education," and higher education with those of Noah Webster. (See Supplemental Sites.)
  14. 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?
  15. Continue the list of metaphors for the new nation that appear in this Theme's texts (they include Webster's "pillars" without a "superstructure"). What do the metaphors suggest about Americans' hopes and fears in the 1780s?
  16. Choose three to four speakers in this Theme and construct a dialogue among them on the strengths and weaknesses of the young nation in the 1780s. Midway in the dialogue, transport the speakers to the current day and create their responses, including questions to you about modern America.

Framing Questions

  • 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"?


Societies' founding documents, selections
Noah Webster, essay selections
 7 pp.
 7 pp.
14 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Noah Webster, brief biography (Noah Webster House)

Noah Webster, works online Benjamin Rush, essays on American education Societies' websites "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

1Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (University of Chicago Press, 3d. ed., 1992), p. 121.

– Noah Webster, oil portrait by James Sharples or possibly Ellen W. Sharples, pastel on paper, n.d. (1751–1849). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, 24.109.99. Reproduced by permission.
– John Adams, oil portrait by John Trumbull, 1793. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.75.52. Reproduced by permission.
– James Madison, miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1783. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, #LC-USZ62-5310.
– Benjamin Waterhouse, oil portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1775. Metropolitan Museum of Art; Bequest of Louisa Lee Waterhouse (Mrs. Benjamin Waterhouse) of Cambridge, Massachusetts, RLC.PA.114. Reproduced by permission.

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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