Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The First essay of History 392W

I received an A on the first paper of History 392W. I am overjoyed by this grade. Not only this paper is weigh twenty percent of the final grade, but this course is a high level writing intensive course; in other word, it is not an easy A course. Regardless what the final grade I will receive, I am proud by this paper now.

Developing a Sense of American Identity After Independence

Americans paid much effort to win the Revolutionary War, and the establishment of a national government after the war was not without trouble. However, an even more difficult and complicated issue was how Americans gradually attached themselves to the new nation and how patriotic sentiment increased among American citizens. Among many obstacles and difficulties, were many people’s passion for Britain and the ideological and economic diversity between the northern and southern colonies. These two major problems prevented Americans from forging a common ground.
Despite this fact, the sense of Americanism was slowly developing by mixed factors and forces. The pamphlet, Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, straightforwardly pointed out the advantage and necessity of independence. The Declaration of Independence, a fundamental document of the U.S., guarantees basic human rights to American citizens, which is extremely important for the growth of American legislation, the political system and culture. Moreover, the transformation of the historical figure of Washington into a demi-god image, and the mature ceremonials of the Fourth of July can be considered two outstanding forces that contributed to the formation of Americans’ patriotism.
Although America gained official independence and established a new government after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), not all the people living in this country were happy to call themselves Americans. Given the fact that almost all Americans were immigrants from Europe, many of them were tightly tied to Europe, particularly with Britain, by either lineage or commercial reasons. For these people, they regarded Britain as a nurturing mother who assisted and protected American colonies since the very beginning. They felt that they were closer to Europe than the land of America and were willing to remain loyal to the British king. Moreover, many people possessed the belief that being dependent on Britain was helpful to maintain their established economic position. They were reluctantly to be hostile to Britain.
Not only individuals, but colonies had the sentiment that they were not a whole. Colonies emphasized sovereignty. They joined into the Union for obtaining larger benefits. If their interests were threatened, they believed that they had the rights to withdraw. Since the economic situation and historical background among American colonies were various, colonies had developed very different characteristics from each other. For example, in early British colonies, Chesapeake was characterized by indentured labor; they were mostly single young men with few families or communities. In contrast, in New England, the main economic feature was based on subsistence agriculture and free individual farmers. There were self-governed communities, in which those immigrants’ traditions, cultures and religions were preserved. Sometimes, prominent conflicts existed among American colonies. For instance, during the War of Independence, some southern colonies hesitated about the war for the reason that war could be a major obstruction to their oversea trade; however, northern colonies insisted on the war, because they could only gain sufficient political rights by the means of war. There was a long way to go for colonies gaining a sense of a whole nation.
Despite the mixed feelings of either decisiveness, reluctance, or fear in respect to independence among individuals and colonies, an independent nation was legally established after the military victory. Furthermore, the consciousness of a new nation and the patriotic sentiment were growing slowly. Along many other causes, the pamphlet, Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, was certainly one of the most influential forces that contributed to Americans’ sense of independence.
In Common Sense, Paine argued for the necessity for America to gain independence from Britain. He pointed out that monarchy of Britain was directly against the concept that “all men [were]…originally equals” (Paine 413); in a monarchy, kings were distinct from the people as “new species” (Paine 409). In contrast, “in America the law is king” (Paine 434). Independence meant that America was made and ruled by their own laws. Also, Paine argued for the commercial advantages if America got independence from Britain. Britain was deeply involved in European wars, and it was a drawback for Americans keeping relations with it. If America was independent, it could maintain neutrality and free trade with all European countries. Then, America would have a larger international market, better economy and gain greater profits (Paine 423). Since Paine’s arguments were logical, forceful and persuasive, not only many Americans who were hesitating during the war would convert by them, but later generations have been influenced profoundly as well.
The small pamphlet, Common Sense, clearly and loudly instructed common Americans about the belief of independence for the first time. During the widespread popularity of the pamphlet, people read it, circulated it, discussed it, and were deeply impressed by it. Slowly, independence evolved into one of the most important principles of American tradition. While individuals shared the idea of independence, they were sharing the same history, future and belief of the country. This particular identity of Americans developed not only from the physical existence of the nation, but from people’s psychological understanding as well.
While Common Sense made a great influence on a popular level, The Declaration of Independence forged a common ground to all Americans from a theoretical and governmental perspective. The Declaration announced the essential reasons that British rule must be overthrown; consequently, it affirmed the legitimacy of the new government. It also provided a theoretical base to establish a new nation by asserting that the “truth is self-evident” that “all men are created equal”; all men possess the “rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (The Declaration of Independence A-3). In other words, it is not a certain group of people, but all the people and the colonies that hold certain equal rights. It made a clear break between the new American government and the British monarchy. The Declaration of Independence created the fundamental belief of America.
There are similarities between these two most influential writings, Common Sense and The Declaration of Independence. Paine argues in Common Sense that requiring equality and independence can be easily understood by common sense because they are not something beyond human nature, but are innate rights that people have. Likewise, “self-evident”, a key term in the Declaration, means these human rights are a natural phenomenon that is neither man-made nor need to be proved by man. More importantly, in comparison with Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence is an extremely important government document. Some people might ignore Common Sense, if they stubbornly disagreed with it. However, nobody could deny the impact of the Declaration. Before the Declaration, many people wavered between the concepts of dependence or independence, equality or hierarchy. Afterwards, a theoretical standard was formally set. These concepts of independence and equality became inseparable from the idea of America. Indeed, The Declaration of Independence contributes to the development of American identity.
America is made up of many beliefs that include not only independence and equality, but patriotism and unionism as well. After the War, Americans had a complicated feeling toward independence; someone showed an indifferent attitude because of their ignorance, or someone felt resentment due to their loyalty to Britain. In contrast, citizens with innate patriotism were rare. As Travers comments in Celebrating the Fourth, “such citizens did not occur naturally; they had to be educated, even indoctrinated, to their positions of civic responsibility (Travers 55). Understandably, Independence Day took the main role to educate people on patriotism. Every holiday has its history and significant implications. During Independence Day, people would particularly evoke the history, conflicts, and accomplishments of the nation. This is a mental process that people’s beliefs could be altered subconsciously. Thereafter, the existence of the holiday itself is a permanent reminder. During that particular day, people, regardless of being active participants or merely spectators, are all impacted by an unusual atmosphere. Independence Day is a way to increase the similarities among Americans. It intensifies people’s patriotic sentiment and the belief of the union.
In addition, the annual ceremonies of Independence Day are a cohesive force to bring people together. All the performances and rituals in the day combine together to become a strong and influential force to shape Americans’ collective memories and patriotic sentiment. For example, the morning bells of the Fourth of July ring all around the land and only within America. When people hear them and realize the fact, they are reminded of their patriotism. In fact, there are many elements in Independence Day ceremonies that take the function of education on the concepts of patriotism and belief in the union. “The final celebrations completed the last step of ‘aggregation,’ confirming the parades, speeches, and dinners that made the participants ‘whole’ --- that is, united” (Travers 54).
National heroes are always an important force in forging a common identity in a nation. In America, too, the transformation of the historical Washington into a god-like national hero supplies a unique symbol of patriotism for Americans to share. First of all, Washington was a military leader who made an extraordinary contribution in the War of Independence. A military hero always represents a powerful symbol, both physical and spiritual. The image of Washington particularly satisfied people’s desire for a powerful figure who could not only lead them to establish a new country, but also to protect them from future difficulties. When such an image of Washington was created, it belonged to all Americans, and became a collective memory for them.
Moreover, many external elements contributed to the development of the image of Washington. Among numerous writings about Washington, Mason L. Weems’ Life of Washington, made the legend of Washington reach its climax. The image of Washington in Weems’ book was vivid and inspiring. Weems depicted Washington as a perfect image with full virtues, including “[Washington]’s zeal for unblemished character, his love of truth, and detestation of whatever was false and base” (Weems 19). Although the truth of the material of Weems’ book was questioned, its contribution to the legend of Washington was doubtless. People continuously read it. The influence of the book was significant. As Daniel J. Boorstin comments in Search for Symbols, what “Weems said was what many people wanted to believe” (Boorstin 345). In America, people wanted Washington to be the savior to hold them together and to provide them with an identity. The image of Washington indeed became a factor to forge a common ground to Americans.
While America was already physically established, the American identity, on a theoretical level, was far from being on a parallel scale. People’s beliefs and emotions toward the new nation were extremely complicated and diverse. Nevertheless, a common ground for all Americans, including national identity, patriotic sentiment, and the confidence of independence, had been formed slowly by mixed factors. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Declaration of Independence, principally affirmed the concepts of independence and equality; Independence Day and the heroic image of Washington both served as national symbols to assist people to perceive a collective memory, so they could develop their American identity. Furthermore, on the one hand, the common ground was basically established by those historical factors; on another hand, it was neither fully accomplished, nor unchanged. It is continuously modified by new factors and in turn shapes contemporary generation. From this point of view, the history and the present merged into one.


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