American Experience

Assignment:
Write a response (2 pages) to the first sentence in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (the sentence that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”). How does the thought it expresses compare to De Crevecoeur’s thought?

TEXTS:
1. Baym, Nina (Gen. Ed). The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 9th Ed. New York: Norton & Company, 2017
2. Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins: 2003

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Topic: The Colonies
By the 1760s, as Howard Zinn points out in Chapter Four, “Tyranny Is Tyranny,” the thirteen original Colonies (Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusettes Bay Colony [which included present-day Maine], New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island/ Providence Plantations) had experienced eighteen homegrown revolts against them, as well as six rebellions by free and enslaved blacks. These revolts often joined poor whites, servants, and slaves against an economic and political elite. In this chapter, Zinn focuses his attention on the class issues that embroiled the Colonies in the years leading up to the Revolution. Remember, more than half of the folks who had emigrated from Europe to the Colonies were indentured servants working off the cost of their passage; they were hardly free. When they joined forces with free blacks or slaves for a larger slice of the pie, they became a real threat to the colonial aristocracy. In fact, one unintended consequence of anti-British agitation in the years before the Revolution was the focusing of poor and lower class wrath away from the Colonial elites. This is why, moreover, Zinn “sees racism not as ‘natural’ to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for [social] control.” Racism, then, is a manufactured point of view meant to divide poor whites and blacks and prevent their joining together against the wealthy.

Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography” presents us with the prototype of the American self-made man, and so is one of the founding documents of our national mythology. And, in fact, by age twenty-four, Franklin owns a successful print shop. He is an indefatigable writer, scientist, and inventor (bifocal lenses, the lightening rod, the Franklin stove, to name a few of his inventions). But what is most striking, to me at least, was the determination of his self-improvement. He set out to better his writing, for instance, by copying out in longhand essays from journals and then rewriting them as poems, and then rewriting them back again to prose. Such resolve, Franklin seems to suggest, is within anyone’s power; we just have to set our mind to it. This notion is basic to the American mythology of self-determination, of “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps.”

One thing that any student of American culture and history cannot fail to notice is the number of immigrants –willing and unwilling–who have contributed to the weaving of our national fabric. Thomas Paine, for one, emigrated from England to the Colonies in 1774, during the Revolution. His letter of recommendation was signed by Ben Franklin! He was one of many “revolutionary writers” arriving to take advantage of the revolutionary fever, not only in politics, but in print culture, too. This was the great age of newspapers and “moral” essays, thanks in large part to Franklin. At the time of the Revolution there were fifty newspapers and forty magazines covering the thirteen colonies: wide and divergent points of view, in other words. Paine’s “Common Sense” argues for America to sever ties with Great Britain based on four main points: 1) an island cannot rule a continent, 2) England’s enemies will become America’s enemies, 3) as Europe is the primary marketplace for American goods, America should not be partial only to a single nation, 4) Great Britain has taken American property, has burned American property, and has killed Americans.

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