American Civic Virtue

Eve Kornfeld, Creating an American Culture 1775-1800, A Brief History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001.

One of the concerns expressed by the founders of the United States lay in how we might progress as a nation to create a singular national culture. The population, contemporaries argued, was too heterogeneous, the republic too large geographically, and the citizens not selfless enough. To be truly successful at creating a nation, the United States needed those with civic virtue to step to the fore and lead the foundling country.

Civic virtue and questions about national identify are intertwined for Eve Kornfeld. With this offering from the Bedford Series, Pr. Kornfeld seeks to push the study of the quest for cultural unity into a more central discussion. After all, American intellectuals recognized that a lack of unity had nearly destroyed the American experiment before it began, so why should modern Americans not consider some of these same questions.

Here in Louisville at the AP US History exam reading we have our own moments of cultural unity and sometimes, as in the days of the early republic, civic virtue plays a role. We all have a responsibility to one another in order to keep the exams flowing through the pipeline. We must, at times, sacrifice our own interests for the common good of ensuring that each exam gets a fair read and that each folder can speed along to its next destination. For the most part, over seven days or so, we get this value together in our mini republic of 1200 or so. Technically, I suppose it is more of an oligarchy, but whatever.

American republicanism, it is important to understand, played up the civic nature of man. The nation, again, barely holding together during and immediately after the revolution, needed people who would do as we do at the reading – be politically engaged, look to others’ needs, look to the needs of the nation, etc. And yet civic virtue whether in a small group such as ours or a larger nation is fragile. In the late 18th century, it was “endangered not only by natural human laziness and selfishness but also by the tendency of governments to try to corrupt their citizens with wealth and privileges” (7).

American intellectuals recognized that the republic required these civic minded virtuous folk, people who would look to the common interest and were invested in America as a nation and an idea. Therefore, why not create a strong national culture? “Americans, ” stated Noah Webster, “unshackle your minds and act like independent beings. You have been children long enough” (8, 3).

Kornfeld’s book is divided into two large parts. In the first, she introduces us to the themes readers explore in the text – inventing American language, education American citizens are but two examples. In the second, Kornfeld repeats the themes, but now includes more complete versions of key primary documents. For example, Kornfeld offers us a taste of Noah Webster’s thoughts on spelling and creating American English, and then follows this up with the linger primary document. The same is repeated with Benjamin Rush’s thoughts on educating Americans, David Ramsay and Mercy Otis Warren on the history of the revolution, portraits by Charles Willson Peale, and more.

While it is clear that the story of a strong American culture doesn’t end in 1800, Kornfeld closes the conversation that year as Washington has passed away, initial efforts to create a national university have folded, and the yellow fever epidemic afflicting Philadelphia left American intellectuals “scarred and weary” (77). The heterogeneous America was only to become increasingly splintered. (Check out this modern linguistic example to which Noah Webster would have a comment or two). The conversation about national unity and identity, a fascinating one, has never ended. In many ways, this chat with ourselves could be coded as part of our civic duty. While we have not created a national language, have become more multicultural to the point of embracing diversity over homogeneity to a degree, and we certainly disagree about how to discuss everything from the founders to the history of the nation, we do mostly recognize that without virtue and without some level of selflessness, the nation cannot continue to “grow up.”

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