Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson will continue to be remembered in history for his lasting impact on the foundation of American government. Jefferson’s ability for reasoning and enlightened thinking were qualities that drove him to write the Declaration of Independence and become the third president of the United States. Although Jefferson is often viewed as an early champion for American equality and freedom, Jefferson was also a known slave owner. Jefferson did not extend his vision of a liberated America to those of African descent, dirtying his legacy as a promoter of liberty.

Jefferson’s views on African Americans and slavery appeared in the fourteenth chapter of Jefferson’s only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. In this chapter, Jefferson writes about the inferiority of blacks to whites. Here he claims that African Americans are inferior in both beauty and reasoning intelligence. Jefferson uses the pseudoscience of Eugenics to make false claims about the African American race. He uses his book to promote his views of African Americans as a simple, sub-human race with animalistic tendencies. Jefferson employed an ethnological approach to writing about African Americans to damage their humanity among his white readers.

Although Jefferson viewed blacks as inferior, he did recognize the dangers of slavery. Calling it unsustainable, Jefferson understood that the institution of slavery was dangerous for both black and white Americans. However, Jefferson refused to speak in favor of abolition. Fearing the extermination of whites through cross-race breeding, Jefferson looked at slavery as a form of racial preservation. This view seemed hypocritical considering his actions, as Jefferson is believed to have produced many children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. Jefferson’s view of slavery is a reactionary one. While recognizing that slavery was becoming less acceptable and was damaging to both races, Jefferson still chose to benefit from and defend slavery as an institution that protected the status quo.

Slavery and race were not the only topics written about in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson focused his book on establishing Virginia as the model American state. He cited Virginia’s economy, laws, landscape and education as the basis for the state’s success. Jefferson also uses his book to write about the need for both the separation of church and state and checks and balances. These points were much less controversial then his views on race, leading most responses to his work to be focused on his defense of slavery.



Works Cited

Jefferson, Thomas. “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query VI.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 449-50. Print.

Fanny Fern

Portrait of Sara Payson Parton, known as Fanny Fern, 1866
Figure 1: “Sara Payson Parton, known as Fanny Fern, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing left”, 1866,

Sarah Willis Parton, more commonly known as Fanny Fern, was a famous and well-paid writer in the 19th century. Fern’s work gained attention because of the topics she addressed, and the manner in which she addressed them. She wrote to inform her audience of the reform that was needed in a multitude of areas in the 19th century. Fern focused on gender inequality, suffrage, divorce law, prison reform, and the poor. These themes are found throughout “Hungry Husbands,” “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books,” and two chapters from Fern’s most famous piece, Ruth Hall. Although each piece differs in its own way, the voice she uses in all of her writing presents her ideas to her audience in a way that no one had seen before then. Continue reading Fanny Fern

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Black and white image of Ralph Waldo Emerson
American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, circa 1857.

During the nineteenth century, America continued to establish its own identity separate from Europe. Various reforms took place, including prison improvement, abolitionism, women’s rights, and the Second Great Awakening.

America worked to better itself as a nation and overcome any of its shortcomings. As Americans determined the national rhetoric for the budding country, the notion of individualism characterized the climate of change. Individualism, which falls directly under the umbrella of transcendentalism, stressed that we are each responsible for bettering ourselves and our community. Many leaders of this movement emphasized reliance on ourselves and the environment to answer our questions, instead of God, scripture, or previous philosophers. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings pushed for these ideals, asserting his belief that humans contain an innate sense of right and wrong independent from religious views. Ultimately, Emerson’s writings became a key player in helping America create its own distinct literary movement during the nineteenth century.

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was born into the lower economic status, but because of his natural intelligence, his family chose him to attend Harvard University. This is where he met the famous transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.  It was in 1836 when the two transcendentalists met. Emerson would later become Thoreau’s good friend and mentor. Thoreau, looking up to Emerson, would be inspired by his transcendentalist ideals and would start his own works inspired by Emerson’s original thoughts.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, wrote one of the most famous antislavery novels in American history.

Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Unknown, Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe

Antislavery sentiments spread in the later 18th century and continued to grow into the early 1800’s. Wealthy merchants in the North began drifting away from slavery, and by the 19th century most northern states had abolished slavery or were gradually ending it. The South, however, continued to use slaves on their plantations considering their economy needed slaves to do the labor. The abolitionist movement in the North continued to grow, as a number of reformers criticized the institution of slavery and called for its end. Continue reading Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Jacobs

Portrait of Harriet Jacobs
Keith White, Harriet Jacobs, February 1, 2012,

During the period of Early African-American Literature, the purpose behind authors’ works of literature was to expose the brutality of slavery, to demonstrate how slavery was bad for the dominant culture, to foster a positive race, and to exhibit what blacks did and how they could contribute to the American culture. Harriet Jacobs successfully accomplished these goals in her work Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this work of literature, Jacobs recognizes her own relative privilege.  In her work she shows ways she exhibits agency in how she tries to make the situation better. Continue reading Harriet Jacobs

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe


Edgar Poe was born in Boston in 1809 to two young actors. Soon after his birth, both parents died suddenly, and he and his two siblings were left alone. After been passed around in numerous foster homes, a man named Jonathan Allan and his wife took Edgar in after his separation from his other siblings to different foster homes. Although they didn’t legally adopt him, they did change Edgar’s name to what we know today: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe and his newfound family moved to London, England where he went to many prestigious schools and was first introduced to his love for literature. As the years passed, Poe struggled with losing financial support from his family, being expelled from school, and developing alcohol and gambling addictions. Despite all of that and teetering on the lines of depression, Poe was still able to publish some of his literary works under a pseudonym. At first, he published critic reviews and small stories in periodicals, but eventually branched out into one of the most popular genres of literature: Dark Romanticism.

Poe incorporated the Romantic characteristic of nature by portraying it as something terrifying, mysterious, or dark and used metaphors to highlight a crumbling aristocracy—all by using gothic/horror elements as descriptors or to set the tone. Since Dark Romanticism is less optimistic than Romanticism and shows that individuals are prone to self-destruction and madness, Poe fit into this subgenre perfectly. By drawing from his tragic past and his own self-destructive nature, he formed a cynical outlook on life and chose to portray that in his works. He emphasized on the duality of human nature, and how that as humans we want to be good, but oftentimes give in to our darker impulses. Many of Poe’s gothic elements in his work came from his time spent in London in his early years, when he was fascinated with the gothic architecture as well as English gothic literature. By using Dark Romantic elements, Poe was able to draw the attention of readers through their curiosity and tap into their human nature of wanting to take a few steps on the dark side.

One of Poe’s stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the perfect example of Poe’s use of gothic elements to describe nature: “I looked up upon the scene before me—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sledges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees… the bitter lapse into common life—the hideous dropping of the veil” (654). Poe’s use of gothic imagery gave the story an ominous tone, and his descriptors of nature in the beginning set the stage for the horrific tale that followed. His use of the literal crumbling house as a metaphor for the crumbling aristocracy allowed Poe to create a sense of urgency that people could start to follow and break out of the societal standards before giving into their own madness.

Another of Poe’s popular tales is “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this story, the narrator/main character takes a common act of revenge to the point of madness and eventually to murder. Poe used the Dark Romantic characteristic of individuals prone to sin and madness in Montresor to draw emphasis to that “hidden dark side” he believed was in every human being: “It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation” (715). Instead of incorporating the transcendentalist ideals of Romanticism, Poe chose to write stories like this that instead focused on the dark side of human nature and the importance of embracing that, rather than trying to find oneself in the beauty of nature or other elements.


Works Consulted

Baym, Nina, and Levine, Robert S., editors. The Norton Anthology of American                    Literature Volume B: 1820-1865. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Baym and Levine, pp. 654-666

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Baym and Levine, pp. 714-717

Fredrick Douglass

Portrait of Fredrick Douglass in old age
George Kendall Warren, Fredrick Douglass, 1879,

During his life from 1818 to 1895, Fredrick Douglass was an advocate for abolition. His freedom was purchased in 1846 for $711; however, he rose to prominence and was published while still in bondage. Douglass felt that blacks needed to represent themselves in American literature, rather than be represented by white writers. With a belief in the promises of America’s founding principles, Douglass writes in order to exact the change which will enable him and all others burdened by servitude to attain their American Dream. Continue reading Fredrick Douglass

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was an influential writer during the Romantic period. A few qualities of Romanticism are the glorification of nature, elevation of the common man, the supernatural, and Nationalism which Whitman really embraced in his writing. Even in his own life, he adopted the persona of the “common man.” Most portraits of Whitman are more casual than the typical portraits from this time period. For example, in the portrait he used for the cover of Leaves of Grass, Whitman is standing in a casual pose, his hat is on cocked, and he is staring straight at the camera. This image went against the traditional route and aligned Whitman with the working people (“Walt Whitman” 1310).

Walt Whitman by Samuel Hollyer July 1854
Samuel Hollyer, “Walt Whitman,” July 1854.

Whitman’s poetry is often described as lyric nationalism. Lyric is the private and individual voice defining opposition, and Nationalism is defining what it means to be an American. Walt Whitman is famous for combining the two genres. His poems have an observant and documentary element to them because he points out the subtleties of America. One reason he is considered a Nationalist poet is because he points out what makes America special or different.

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Benjamin Franklin and de Crevecouer

Etching of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

The era that de Crevecouer and Benjamin Franklin were writing Letters from an American Farmer and Poor Richard’s Almanac was during the time of Enlightenment. This is a period when discussions on religion were fading from everyday life to a focus on reason. This era was full of philosophical thought to have reasoning dictate why humans are superior to beasts, the ability to be moral without a religion requiring it. This period was also when Americans were trying to understand their culture in this new world, where they didn’t need to be a country that was representative of European countries, but could be their own new place. This necessity for a new American identity was caused by the American Revolution. This context illustrates the purpose behind Franklin and de Crevecouer’s writings, the necessity of forming a new identity as a country. 

Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac was written under the pseudonym Richard Saunders starting in 1733 (Franklin 456). The almanac is famous for its many axioms about wealth and life that are easy to remember and helped define the hard work ethic of many Americans at the time. Specifically, the prologue to Poor Richard Improved is entitled “The Way to Wealth,” a topic that is especially interesting to the new Americans who no longer have to share the majority of their output with a ruling aristocracy. With their new-found freedom, the Americans would especially appreciate the idea of frugality and hard work as a way to wealth, as that particular idea was not common in Europe where leisure was envied. 

De Crevecouer’s Letters from an American Farmer was written in London to explain the ideology of the new American. This appealed to the Europeans very muchthe idea that the colonists didn’t want to form new colonies but rather a new country. In his work, de Crevecouer created the term “Ubi panis ibi patria” as the motto for the emigrants of America. This term means “Where there is bread, there is one’s Fatherland” (de Crevecouer 607). It plays into the idea of the colonists being proud of hard work and how their own hard work is equally and equitably paid out to them without a master class taking an undeserved portion. 

Franklin and de Crevecouer both illustrate this notion of hard work being something to strive for, not something to be ashamed of. It becomes a sort of calling card of pride to the new Americans, as it allows everyone of different backgrounds to melt together. By being united by the love of hard work and frugality, their backgrounds are no longer relevant. They have the innovative spirit that is needed to create a new country, and American innovation cannot come without hard work. Franklin and de Crevecouer recognize this and are attempting to show the world why America is special to them, albeit in different ways. They have pride in the new America and want to show how Americans are reacting to the Enlightenment period through their relaxation of religious requirements and observation of a hard work ethic. 

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