...because the day just seems to fly by when you're having fun.
by Brendan Cavanagh
Despite being an English major, I think I've only been assigned one or two papers all semester in my one actual English class (American Literature). Therefore, I spent the last four hours or so working on my final essay of the year, due tomorrow. We had to choose from one of four prompts, so I chose this one:
The image of post-revolutionary America as a diverse land of free, independent, individuals prospering through hard work and self-reliance is a break from the Calvinist ideals of community in New England. This “new pastoral” or “republicanism” seems to have more to do with secular, Enlightenment principles than with Christianity. In this essay, define the Enlightenment and explain how it influenced the concept of American identity. In what ways did the national identity develop from these modern and secular influences and what, if any, influence did the Calvinist principles of the Puritans have on this new, modern nation. Discuss at least three texts and use direct quotes to defend your argument.
Alright! Now you guys are going to get a dose of what a typical English paper was like for me this semester. And who knows, you might come out of this just a little bit more educated. Quoth Judge Reinhold in the above video: "Learn it. Know it. Live it."
The American Enlightenment: A Reexamination of Existing Social Structures
As individual American prosperity flourished in the late 18th century, American citizens began to relinquish themselves from a traditionally strict adherence to communal, religious values and heartily embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment movement taking place in European countries like France and England. Among the many components of such a vast intellectual revolution, three main tenets best describe the American attitude and approach to writing at the time: First, humans are rational creatures who can employ their inherent privilege of free thinking to logically explain the world and consequently experience unprecedented intellectual freedoms; Second, through the process of obtaining a valuable education, human rationality is ideally universal; And third, with the ability to rationally explain the universe, humans may understand the true form of all things. After adopting the aforementioned beliefs of the Enlightenment, three well-renowned Americans at the time, Judith Sargent Murray, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, reconsidered the negative ramifications a once-dominant Puritanism had on an increasingly progressive American society.
However universal the ability to reason freely, the necessary means to obtain an adequate education, and thus celebrate the intellectual fruits thereof, were not offered to everyone. Primarily affluent, land-owning white men had the capacity to attend reputable schools, while the destitute (of either sex), Native Americans, African-Americans and women were, for the most part, unable to do the same. In 1790, esteemed author and proto-feminist Judith Sargent Murray, who came from a liberally educated family, published a multi-faceted appeal in defense of the female mind. “Are we not deficient in reason?” she challenges her male readers, “We can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence” (727). In keeping with the Enlightenment ideal of reexamining the world around her, once interpreted solely from a clerical point of view, Murray confronts the repression women had long suffered at the mercy of a traditionally male-dominated, once-Puritanical society.
Simultaneously demonstrating an Enlightenment-era argument and exemplifying how women, too, are capable of rational thought, Murray employs a thoughtful reinterpretation of the well-known Genesis story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Murray argues that men erroneously assume that Eve willfully chose to sin at Satan’s provocation, when in fact, she was tempted by Satan in his once-shining beauty into acquiring a perfect knowledge of the world around her. Adam, in turn, sinned as well not because he, too, desired such knowledge, but because “he was influenced by no other than a bare pusillanimous attachment to a woman” (732)! Therefore, by utilizing a biblical story familiar to a formerly religious region, Murray not only effectively conveys her dissatisfaction with female subjugation, but also tests the long-held belief that women are inferior to men, which the Puritan faith only perpetuated.
Like Murray, American president Thomas Jefferson composed a rational essay to express his frustration with a current human rights issue in America. In true Enlightenment fashion, Jefferson employs logical reasoning to challenge the historical lack of religious freedom in America, which was founded on the pursuit of individual liberties. Published privately in 1784-1785 in response to a series of questions posed to him by the French Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” comment on a variety of subjects concerning Virginia, with Query XVII focusing on religion. In order to combat prior animosity between distinct religious denominations in colonial America, Virginia’s declaration of rights in May of 1776 “declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exercise of religion should be free” because, as Jefferson posits, “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error” (661-62). In a society that not long ago had been almost uniformly Puritanical, Jefferson’s idea of free enquiry was certainly polemical, as well as an illustrative example of the intellectual freedoms bestowed upon those who invested in the ideals of the Enlightenment.
Furthermore, Jefferson encourages free enquiry by overtly rejecting forceful uniformity of religious convictions, a system which had prevailed in certain regions from the time the first fledgling Puritan communities were established in the early 17th century until America’s declaration of independence from Great Britain. Since the beginnings of Christianity, myriad innocent people have been punished for their religious beliefs, “yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” But, Jefferson asks, “Is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature” (663). In his belief, not only does the Enlightenment illuminate the universal freedom to subscribe to any religious denomination, but also it guarantees an individual the liberty to be one of many, rather than one in many. In other words, Jefferson admonishes societies, like those formerly established by the Puritans, for emphasizing the importance of communal values rather than secular beliefs and convictions.
At about the same time Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” were published, fellow diplomat Benjamin Franklin was in the process of writing his detailed autobiography. In relating the events of his young adulthood in Philadelphia, Franklin implicitly describes his disgust with formal religious worship as a primitive act of embracing Enlightenment ideals in North America. Although he professes to hold particular religious principles, he expresses misgivings about his minister’s sermons, which follow a formulaic, almost superficial approach to being a good Christian, rather than simply informing his parish how to be upright people of morality. According to Franklin, the Presbyterian minister, as well as those of differing Christian denominations, spoke about religion “without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality [and] serv’d principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another.” While their biblical explanations of how to be good people may have had some validity, Franklin argues, “they were not the kind of good Things that I expected from that Text” (525). Rather than blindly follow every word his minister uttered about morality, Franklin chose to individually find a rational method of attaining morality.
In true Enlightenment fashion, Franklin embarked on the rational pursuit of moral perfection by designing a series of thirteen steps which, if meticulously followed, would logically allow him to “live without committing any Fault at anytime…[and] conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead [him] into” (526). Initially careful not to include any step that might be solely associated to one particular religious sect, Franklin finally settled on: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility. True to his resolution to remain resolute in his affairs, Franklin continued adherence to his precepts for the remainder of his life. Over time, he reluctantly discovered that some virtues, like Order and Humility, were more difficult to master than others and that naturally, humans are bound to err. Although his attempt to achieve moral perfection was not entirely effectual, Franklin demonstrated the highly rational and increasingly secular mindset adopted by many Americans during the era of Enlightenment.
By the end of the 18th century, strictly Puritan settlements stressing communal values and stringent adherence to the Christian faith had been all but overcome by generations upon generations of economically-motivated landowners, artisans and common citizens of various denominations and beliefs. With such secular motives in the people’s minds, a movement like the Enlightenment was guaranteed to enjoy widespread success in America. For those who were fortunate enough to obtain a modest education, like Murray, Jefferson and Franklin, reevaluating the evolving nation’s previously established social structures was imperative. Not to take advantage of the ability to rationally discern right from wrong is a mutilation of one’s intellectual privileges.
If you actually read this, for the love of God, give me a call or a shout out. I want to pat you on the back. Real gently.