The American identity began forming much earlier than the Revolutionary War as many believe. With the use of exploration, religion, and calls for freedom, each century contributed to it. As early as the writings of Christopher Columbus, one can determine what colonization meant to the inhabitants of the New World. As colonists fled to the New World, their literature reflected an importance of religion and dominated the colonies because the leaders held direct power over their parishioners. While they fled religious persecutions, they soon found themselves fearing new religious leaders who used their sermons to control them. Earlier colonial literature documented religious beliefs and sermons as practiced by the Puritans and Pilgrims. Colonial identity took shape depending on religious beliefs, but even then, the voices like Roger Williams, who spoke out about separation of church and state and freedom of religion began to plant the ideas for freedom in colonial communities everywhere. While his ideas were not so popular during the 1600s, his beliefs became a part of the liberties for all Americans in the 1700s. Baym wrote, “The eighteenth-century saw enormous changes-economic, social, philosophical, and scientific-that inevitably affected the influence and authority of clergymen” (p. 365). Toward the middle of the eighteenth-century, new political and philosophical voices began to emerge in literature creating the calls of a formation of a new nation independent from British rule. The radical ideas of authors from the 17th-century were now seen as political talking points of the 18th-century. By analyzing the literature from the Age of Enlightenment, authors used religion and social construction that influenced the rise of the Age of Reason.
Literature during the Age of Enlightenment mainly consisted of journals, written sermons, and narratives. Anne Bradstreet, the first published poet in the colonies, wrote about family and religion that defined how these roles contributed to the American family’s identity. In To My Dear and Loving Husband, Bradstreet wrote, “If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee” (n.d.). Her ability to authenticate the role of the women in colonial households showed they favored the roles of the wives and mothers. Her voice also authenticated colonial women as writers. Other writers like Knight, who documented her own journeys, helped to define women as writers. Another voice in the Age of Enlightenment was Jonathan Edwards for his Puritan poetry. In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards wrote, “As he that stands or walks on slippery ground, needs nothing but his own Weight to throw him down” (p. 4). It is the representation by ministers like Edwards of an angry and unforgiving God of evil sinners that brought about a new era in literature called The Age of Reason.
Literature during the Age of Reason were mainly speeches, pamphlets, and essays about patriotism and freedoms long denied under British rule. These writers defined the period of using reason, logic, and hard work contributed to the American identity. Author Ben Franklin wrote, “God helps them that help themselves” (1914). While it represented religion was still a part of American ideologies, it signaled the call that people had the greatest powers to bring about the change they wanted. Another author who promoted the causes of the American patriot was Thomas Paine in The American Crisis. Paine wrote, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country” (1776). The literature by these new voices of the eighteenth-century brought about what most consider the very core of the American identity as expressed by Thomas Jefferson. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” (1776). It was through calls for freedoms and equality not yet established by the American people that led other writers during this period to also express their desire calls for action in defining what it meant to be an American. In so doing, it created a new identity that has endured over time.
The Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason showed how religion and politics influenced colonials in establishing an identity unique to American ideologies. It also established freedoms in religion, governments, and citizen rights to maintain. Early American literature also documented how religion and political ideologies formed on beliefs of democracy and freedom. It is the democracies and freedoms, some might argue, that define what it means to be an American today. It is also within this literature that Modern societies will understand what colonists sacrificed to form and protect those freedoms in establishing the modern day freedoms Americans live by.
Baym, N. (Ed.). Norton anthology of American literature (7th ed.). New York: Norton. (2007).
Bradstreet, Anne. To My Dear and Loving Husband. Academy of American Poets. Web. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/my-dear-and-loving-husband. (n.d.). Web. July 10, 2016.
Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard’s Almanack. The U. S. C. Publishing Co.
Waterloo, Iowa. (1914). Web. July 10, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/poorrichardsalma00franrich/poorrichardsalma00franrich_djvu.txt
Edwards, Jonathan. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska. (1741). Web. July 10, 2016, http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas
Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence. Archives.gov. Web. July 10, 2016. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html
Paine, Thomas. The Crisis. Independence Hall Association. (1776). Web. July 10, 2016. http://www.ushistory.org/paine/crisis/c-01.htm
Taylor, Edward. Huswifery. Poetry Foundation. (2016). Web. July 10, 2016. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46133