Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Four: Nationalism and Awakenings in the Age of Enlightenment

An Age of Reason

Over time, the religious influences and power of the New England Puritans began to wane, as more and more immigrants arrived in America and as wealth increased and living conditions improved in the colonies. Also arriving from Europe, through books, essays, and articles, were the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, which offered a stark contrast to previous modes of thinking and living.

Some key elements proposed by the enlightened philosophers and writers of this "age of reason" included the following:

Though clear articulations of "individualism" will not appear until the later Romantic period, formations of an emphasis on the importance of community and social obligations to others will eventually beg the question of how the individual stands in relation to the greater whole of society. The emergence of some of this framework will inevitably lead to an American glorification of the individual and a sense of self-reliance outside the bounds of powerful institutions.

As the American Passages essay, "Every Man for Himself: American Individualism" states,

Although the term "individualism" was not in general use until the 1820s, the foundational principles behind the concept were established by the mid-eighteenth century. Enlightenment philosophers like Newton and Locke argued that the universe is arranged in an orderly system, and that by the application of reason and intellect, human beings are capable of apprehending that system. This philosophy represented a radical shift from earlier notions that the world is ordered by a stern, inscrutable God whose plans are beyond human understanding and whose will can only be known through religious revelation. Enlightenment philosophy encouraged thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson to turn to Deism, a religion that privileges reason over faith and rejects traditional religious tenets in favor of a general belief in a benevolent creator. By privileging human understanding and the capacity of the individual, these new ideas reordered the way people thought about government, society, and rights.

The literature of this period will greatly be influenced by the revolutionary politics of the times. As Kathryn VanSpanckeren states, The 18th-century American Enlightenment was a movement marked by an emphasis on rationality rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious dogma, and representative government in place of monarchy. Enlightenment thinkers and writers were devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty, and equality as the natural rights of man.

The practice of these concepts of representative government, justice, liberty, and equality will become apparent in both the political upheavals of the era and those individuals greatly involved in the American Revolution, such as Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Paine, and others. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps more than the others, is thought of as the best representative of the Age of Enlightenment in America. His rise from common roots, his common sense and pragmatic philosophies, and his roles as journalist, essayist, printer, scientist, inventor, statesman and politician all help to create the mythos surrounding a new emerging type of American "Yankee."

Still, the student of this segment of American literature must almost turn into a historian or a political scientist, for the writings of this period are often composed of the stuff of history and politics. Henry Beers takes note of some of the best of this writing, especially by Thomas Jefferson.

Among the political literature which is of perennial interest to the American people are such State documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the messages, inaugural addresses, and other writings of our early presidents. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, and the father of the Democratic party, was the author of the Declaration of Independence, whose opening sentences have become commonplaces in the memory of all readers. One sentence in particular has been as a shibboleth, or war-cry, or declaration of faith among Democrats of all shades of opinion: "We hold these truths to be self-evident—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Not so familiar to modern readers is the following, which an English historian of our literature calls "the most eloquent clause of that great document," and "the most interesting suppressed passage in American literature." Jefferson was a Southerner, but even at that early day the South had grown sensitive on the subject of slavery, and Jefferson's arraignment of King George for promoting the "peculiar institution" was left out from the final draft of the Declaration in deference to Southern members.

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty, in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative by suppressing every legislative attempt to restrain this execrable commerce. And, that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms against us and purchase that liberty of which he deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he obtruded them, and thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people by crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

The Great Awakening

As with all major shifts in societies, these changes did not happen overnight nor without resistance. In reaction to the loss of Puritan fervor and the rise of Enlightenment philosophies, a large number of Puritan ministers attempted to grab back the devotion and dedication of days gone by. This period of a "Great Awakening" was occurring in New England at the same time as the arrival of Enlightenment ideals from abroad. The historical and literary representative of the Great Awakening that we speak of most today is Jonathan Edwards.

Parrington discusses these contrasting philosophies in introducing Edwards.

As the [18th] century advanced, the growing dissatisfaction with Calvinism received fresh impetus from the new social philosophy of France. The teaching of Rousseau that in a state of nature men were good, that they are still sound at heart, and that the evils of civilization have resulted from a perversion of the social contract, would appeal to men whose experience was daily teaching them the falseness of the traditional dogmas; and the ideal of equality would come home with special meaning to men bred up in villages and on the frontier. Such doctrines were fundamentally hostile to the spirit of Calvinism: not only did Rousseau set the doctrine of human perfectibility over against the dogma of total depravity, but he quickened the passion of revolt against every form of arbitrary authority, theological as well as political and social. Although the provincial colonial might not come in immediate contact with such speculative philosophy, in the long run he could not escape being influenced by it, and that influence would count against a decadent theology that held men's minds in its tenacious rigor mortis.

The crux of the question, it came finally to be seen by the apologists of the old order, lay in the fundamental problem of determinism. Was the will of man effectively free, or was it held in strict subjection to the stable will of God? According as the decision went touching this question, would stand or fall the entire metaphysical structure of Calvinism. To this problem, therefore, the best minds among the ministers directed their thought; and the historical position of Jonathan Edwards, greatest of the defenders of Calvinism, is revealed in its true perspective when his labors are studied in the light of this vital question. Never had the traditional theology been so sorely in need of a champion as at the beginning of the second quarter of the eighteenth century; and such a champion God raised up, many devout Calvinists believed, in the person of Jonathan Edwards. Armed at all points - a theologian equipped with the keenest dialectics, a metaphysician endowed with a brilliantly speculative mind, a psychologist competent to deal with the subtlest phenomena of the sick soul; here was a man who might be counted on to justify the ancient dogmas to the troubled churches of New England.

The offspring of four generations of religious enthusiasts, by every right of heredity and training the child of Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards was the last and greatest of the royal line of Puritan mystics. As a young man he felt himself to be living in the very presence of God; he was conscious of the divine life flowing through and around him, making him one with the Godhood; and he was filled with yearning for personal union with the divine love in Christ. His intellectual and spiritual life was molded by a God - consciousness as passionate as that of Spinoza; and it is this fact of a lifelong devotion to the God-idea that furnishes the clue to an understanding of his later development. Not content that God had marked him for His own, he must build a philosophical universe about the Godhood, justifying his mysticism by a metaphysical idealism. He must examine critically the foundations of his creed and establish his theology upon philosophy. No obscurity must remain un-probed, no link in the chain of reasoning escape challenge: he must base the five points of Calvinism upon a metaphysics that should relate them to a universal system of thought, giving them a cosmic as well as a Biblical sanction. It was a great ambition, likely to prove too difficult even for the remarkable powers of Edwards; and if in pursuit of new arguments for old doctrines, he found himself enclosed in a mesh of subtleties, if his theology and metaphysics were never quite reconciled, blame must be laid upon the difficulty of the undertaking rather than on the incapacity of the thinker.

See the rest of Parrington's chapter on this topic at:

Robert Spiller summarizes Edwards' life concisely.

After taking up his life work, first with his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in Northampton, and then as minister in his own right, he became oppressed by the worldliness of his parishioners, and undertook to arouse them to a realization of their sins. The "Great Awakening" which resulted was a part of an evangelical movement then sweeping through Western Europe, England, and America. The agony of spirit that is prompted by the fear of Hell becomes converted in this experience into a complete passivity and peace when the absolute authority of God is fully realized. It was the mission of Edwards to distinguish between the genuine achievement of union with God and the spurious mysticism which to him was a mere form of trance in which the Devil had open access to the unsuspecting soul. His sermons, in their kind, particularly that of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" have probably never been equaled for passionate strength and for beauty of form.

Freedom for Some

As alluded to above, the story of liberty and awakenings in this country must also be measured against the reality that not all individuals were necessarily granted access to freedom or salvation. The sheer irony of the continued and expanding institution of slavery in America during and after the Revolutionary War strikes modern readers as practically incomprehensible. Some of the creative works of American slaves are represented in this unit through the poetry of Phillis Wheatley and the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, as a poignant reminder of the large gap that sometimes lingers between the theory and the practices of an age. It would take nearly another century and another major war before some of these "inconsistencies" began to be resolved.

Questions and Considerations

Questions of Fact (often the stuff that quizzes are made of)

For each assigned piece of writing, try to record any relevant information related to reporting the facts: who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Also, for each assigned piece of writing, consider these broader questions:


When did the author write and what are his or her key works?
What overall subject, concept or question is the work about?
Does the writing fall within a particular genre or subgenre and, if so, which elements of that genre are being utilized or ignored?

Considering the Craft of Writing

What is the time/place of the setting?
Who are the major characters? Is there a clear protagonist and antagonist?
Is there clear narrator? Is the narrator/speaker understood to be reliable?
Is the narrator/speaker an intentionally crafted persona.
How are plot expectations met, challenged, or exceeded?
Are there repeated images/concepts/symbols in the work?
If verse, how are the elements of poetry utilized and illustrated?

Reflection and Application

What is the theme, point, or moral of the writing?
How does the author wish readers to consider the subject?

Questions Related to The Enlightenment and the Rise of Nationalism

Compare and contrast the culture/ideology of the Puritan age in America to the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. In what ways do these clashing ideologies seem to merge in American culture?

Specifically, compare and contrast Judeo/Christian biblical commandments to Franklin's 13 Virtues, in content and approach.

Discuss Franklin's attitudes toward native Americans.

Did anything surprise you in the portions of Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence that were excised, especially the cut segments on slavery?

What did you discover about the American Tories, and the consequences on those colonist who were on the "losing" side of the War of Independence?

Why isn't Thomas Paine more celebrated today as a great American patriot? What controversy later in his life occurred after the Revolution?

Questions and Considerations Related to Slavery

What are we to make of Jefferson's writings and apparent philosophy about slavery and his real-life interactions with his own slaves? (you might want to Google the Jefferson-Hemings controversy)

In an age of "enlightenment," wrapping itself in the mantle of natural individual rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, who seems to be left out of this cultural shift?

Discuss the similarities and differences in "captivity narratives" and "slave narratives"

Google the phrase "middle passage" and report your search results in class.

Find more examples of these early motifs or characteristics of slave narratives in Equiano's work:

1.Separation of the family: obviously this occurs as Equiano and his sister are kidnapped.
2.Rise and crash of hopes: For example, when he and sister are reunited, they are again separated.
3.Animal imagery--"hunted deer," representing dehumanization of both slave and slave owner. 
4.Wish for death, "the last friend." - representing how death is better than slavery
5.Obsession with food (food = power): very concerned with food, such as obtaining food, refusing to eat, or even the fear of being eaten--an object of consumption.
6. Mention of religious hypocrisy: "O ye nominal Christians!"

Works Cited

Beers, Henry A. Initial Studies in American Literature. Chautauqua Press, 1891.

"Every Man for Himself: American Individualism" Spirit of Nationalism. American Passages. 2003.

Parrington, Vernon Louis. "The Anachronism of Jonathan Edwards." Main Currents in American Thought, Volume I. Harcourt Brace And Company, 1927.

Spiller, Robert. "Architects of Culture: Edwards, Franklin, Jefferson." The Cycle of American Literature. The Macmillan Company, 1955.

VanSpanckeren, Kathryn. "The American Enlightenment." Outline of American Literature. Revised Edition. Info USA, U.S. Department of State. 2006.

Other Resources

Brians, Paul. "The Enlightenment." Washington State University. A concise introduction to the rise of the the Age of Enlightenment.










Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University