AFTER THE REVOLUTION:
Anxiety and Identity in the Creation of the United States
Facilitator: Randy Bass
The period after the American Revolution was marked by a search for identity and stability in the United States. In the ten to fifteen years following the end of the war, Congress and lawmakers struggled to define the United States through its governance structures. Behind every gesture toward stability and identity were anxieties about losing what had been gained, or worse, slipping into chaos, anarchy, or despotism. The years after the Revolution brought to the fore many of the issues that were left unresolved in the War itself, and in fact made evident the differences among interests that were in many ways suppressed when united in the common cause of independence. The purpose of this activity is to engage with some of the documentary record of these critical years to discover the close relationship between the creation of a sense of identity for the new nation and the anxieties of failure that were an integral part of that identity formation.
We will work with several American Memory collections from the post-Revolutionary Era to explore some of the issues at stake in the early years of national formation. Moving from close textual reading to concept mapping back to textual research with the collections, we will explore some of the ways that rhetoric -- in both personal and legislative writing -- can function at more than one level.
At the end of this activity participants will be able to:
Working with Touchstone Passages: clarifying language and concepts (30 min)
Group search activity and concept mapping (60 minutes)
Group discussion / debriefing (30 minutes)
Maclay's Journal: Monday, January 31st, 1789 (excerpt)
When or how will all these mad measures lead us? We have it ever in our ears that the present General Government (with respect to the persons who compose it) contains the collected wisdom and learning of the United States. It must be admitted that they have generally been selected on account of their reputation for knowledge, either legal, political, mercantile, historical, etc. Newspapers are printed in every corner. In every corner ambitious men abound, for ignorance or want of qualifications is no bar to this view. Thus, then, the Tylers and Jackstraws may come in play, and talents, experience, and learning be considered as disqualifications for office; and thus the Government be bandied about from one set of projectors to another, til some one man more artful than the rest, to perpetuate their power, slip the noose of despotism about our necks. 'Tis easy to say this never can happen among a virtuous people; ay, but we are not more virtuous than the nations that have gone before us.
Source: A Century of Law-Making: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1873
Letter from George Washington to Charles M. Thruston: August 10, 1794 (Excerpt, regarding the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania) Philadelphia, August 10, 1794.
Dear Sir: Your favor of the 21st. of June came duly to hand. For the communications contained in it, I thank you....
...[As in Kentucky,] similar attempts to discontent the public mind have been practiced with too much success in some of the Western Counties in this State .... Actual rebellion against the Laws of the United States exist at this moment notwithstanding every lenient measure which could comport with the duties of the public Officers have been exercised to reconcile them to the collection of the taxes upon spirituous liquors and Stills. What may be the consequences of such violent and outrageous proceedings is painful in a high degree even in contemplation. But if the Laws are to be so trampled upon, with impunity, and a minority (a small one too) is to dictate to the majority there is an end put, at one stroke, to republican government; and nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected thereafter; for Some other man, or society may dislike another Law and oppose it with equal propriety until all Laws are prostrate, and every one (the strongest I presume) will carve for himself. Yet, there will be found persons I have no doubt, who, although they may not be hardy enough to justify such open opposition to the Laws, will, nevertheless, be opposed to coercion even if the proclamation and the other temperate measures which are in train by the Executive to avert the dire necessity of a resort to arms, should fail. How far such people may extend their influence, and what may be the consequences thereof is not easy to decide; but this we know, that it is not difficult by concealment of some facts, and the exaggeration of others, (where there is an influence) to bias a well-meaning mind, at least for a time, truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light.
I have a great regard for Genl. Morgan, and respect his military talents, and am persuaded if a fit occasion should occur no one would exert them with more zeal in the service of his country than he would. It is my ardent wish, however, that this Country should remain in Peace as long as the Interest, honour and dignity of it will permit, and its laws, enacted by the Representatives Of the People freely chosen, shall obtain. With much esteem &c.
Source: George Washington Papers, Series 2: Letterbooks