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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersLiving the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Topic: Predicaments of Early Republican LifeTopic: ReligionTopic: PoliticsTopic: ExpansionTopic: Equality
Topic: Equality
Overview of Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Resource Menu: Equality
Text 1. Founding Fathers on Equality
Text 2. Founding Fathers on Slavery
Text 3. African Americans on Slavery
Text 4. Woman's Role
Text 5. Women on Equality
Text 6. Summing Up


   Resource Menu

Metropolitan Museum of Art  
Nightlife in Philadelphia, 1811-ca. 1813
Krimmel, Nightlife in Philadelphia,
1811-ca. 1813

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What notions of equality were held by early republican leaders? free black men? white women?
  •  How did their notions of equality and rights correspond?
  •  How did each group mold its public voice? How did each use its power?
  •  To what extent did America succeed in "living the revolution" by 1820?

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
1.  The Founding Fathers on Equality
- George Washington, to/from the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790
- James Wilson, Of Man, as a Member of Society, from Lectures on Law, 1791
- Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 28 Oct. 1813, excerpt
- James Madison, Note to His Speech on the Right of Suffrage, 1821

When we hear the word equality, we think of race, religion, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, and other categories that annually reach the docket of the Supreme Court. But we must re-set our thinking and ask what equality meant to early republican citizens. How did they interpret "all men are created equal?" What categories did they emphasize? Natural rights, virtue, inherent talent, property, opportunity—these categories you'll find in the four short pieces presented here.

The first is a letter from the first Jewish synagogue in America to President Washington, rejoicing in a nation which gives "to bigotry no sanction" (a phrase that Washington repeats in his reply). Next is a piece from jurist James Wilson, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, who argues that while men may vary in their virtue and talents they share a fundamental "equality in rights" (sounds obvious to us, but not so in 1791). Then to Jefferson, who lauds the American "natural aristocracy" based on virtue and talent, in contrast to the artificial aristocracies of Europe based on birth and wealth. Finally, James Madison in 1821 revisits the issue of property ownership as a requirement for voting, concluding that "it seems indispensable that the Mass of Citizens should not be without a voice" in electing a legislative branch. Also, revisit Noah Webster's 1802 Fourth of July oration (from the Predicaments sections) for his comments on equality, of which "much is said," he writes, "and little understood." 12 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
2.  The Founding Fathers on Slavery
- Benjamin Franklin, An Address to the Public, 1789
- George Washington, Last Will & Testament, 1799, Item Two
- John Adams to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley, 24 Jan. 1801, excerpt
- Thomas Jefferson to Henri Grégoire, 25 Feb. 1809

The great paradox of the Revolution is slavery, and the men we call the Founding Fathers knew it. They talked and wrote about it, justified its survival under the Constitution, and northerners among them urged its eradication, someday. Some also took action. Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negros Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Washington provided in his will for the emancipation of his slaves after the death of his wife. John Adams never owned slaves, as a matter of principle, yet in his letter to two Quaker abolitionists he expresses the widespread fear that emancipation—and agitation for it—would lead to violence. And again to Jefferson, who writes in 1809 that he has come to believe that black Africans "are on a par with ourselves" and that this awareness among citizens will hasten "the day of their relief." Someday. How one judges these men is problematic; they have been lauded and condemned for their words here. 6 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
3.  African Americans on Slavery
- Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, letters of August 1791
- Memorial of [Free-Men of Colour] to the South Carolina Senate, 1791

Two texts from 1791, both from free black men to white slaveholders. Enslaved Africans had no voice, of course, but "free men of color" who lived in the North and the South had the platform (and courage) to engage their white countrymen in discourse. Not "confront"—an activist word of our times. But to engage. Yet their polite and logical statements are no less than profound calls to conscience.

An accomplished "free man of color" from Maryland, Benjamin Banneker writes a plea to Jefferson that he promote the just treatment of enslaved persons and join the voices for emancipation. Jefferson replies, in effect, "someday." Farther south, in Charleston, a group of free black men petition the legislature to repeal provisions of a colonial law that restricted their rights as citizens—rights guaranteed in the recently ratified Bill of Rights. Their petition was rejected. Worthwhile texts to use in the history classroom as early abolitionist documents, and in the English classroom as examples of logical persuasion for hostile audiences. 6 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
4.  Woman's Role in the Republic
- Abigail Adams, Letters to/from John Adams and John Quincy Adams, 1776, 1780, 1783, excerpts
- Dr. Samuel Jennings, The Married Lady's Companion, 1808, excerpt

Let us not forget the ladies. During the post-Revolutionary period women remained subordinate to men, but after the turn of the century their subordination became constructed in a new way. Broadly speaking, the "Republican motherhood" of the immediate postwar period shaded into the "true womanhood" of the early nineteenth century. The roles are not sharply distinguished. Both, for example, attended to the domestic sphere and to matters moral and religious. The difference between them lay in the way they engaged the world beyond the home. Republican mothers would not be ignored. Inspired by the Revolution, they claimed a role in the civic ethos of the new nation. True women, on the other hand, were more passive. Inspired by evangelicalism, they focused on home and family. The selections provided here illustrate the contrast.

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams, is a model republican mother. Intelligent and well read, she employs the rhetoric of the Revolution to address issues of power between men and women. Even when she writes of virtue and religion, she does so with an eye toward their relationship to power and the uses to which it is put in the public sphere. The Married Lady's Companion was written by a well-meaning physician primarily to instruct poor women on pregnancy, birth, midwifery, and raising children (especially daughters). He devotes one chapter to "The Proper Conduct of the Wife towards Her Husband." In its own way it urges women to pay attention to power, but here it is emotional power, deployed in the private sphere to move a husband to accede to his wife's wishes or to avoid a wife's ruin. "When you become his wife," Jennings intones, "he became your head." Accessible and provocative texts for students. Useful to compare with the women's roles in Tyler's play The Contrast. (See the Predicaments section). 10 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
5.  Women on Equality
- "Let Democrats . . . ," poem, Newark Centinel of Freedom, 1797
- A Lady, The Female Advocate, 1801, excerpts
- Abigail Adams to Judge F.A. Vanderkemp, the "black swan" letter, 3 Feb. 1814

Some women did not heed Jennings's advice to welcome a "cheerful and happy submission." Here are three of them—an anonymous political poet, an anonymous "Lady," and the never anonymous Abigail Adams. With less subordinate prose than required of their fellows in "inferiority," the free men of color, they state their right to political choice, social equality, and personal respect. And to rigorous education, the core of their demands (not pleas).

In New Jersey in 1797, women could vote in state elections, and the poem "Let Democrats" was addressed to opponents of this right. The Female Advocate is one of the more strident appeals written by women at this time (and more accessible to us than Judith Sargent Murray's 1790 essay "On the Equality of the Sexes," listed in the supplemental sites). Finally, a supreme achievement in veiled cynicism, is Abigail Adams's "polite" letter to Judge Vanderkemp, who in our times would be labelled a male chauvinist. Highly useful in the classroom. 8 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
6.  Summing Up
- Frances ("Fanny") Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America, 1821, excerpts

We offer this text to frame your final discussion on the last day of the seminar— to revisit the themes of the week and to put your deliberations in perspective. It comes from a young Scottish woman who visited America in 1818-1820. Na´ve and blissful in her journeys, she portrays a nation almost without fault. So much so that James Fennimore Cooper panned her essays as "nauseous flattery." But Cooper was a notorious curmudgeon and, while his judgment is true at times, a fair analysis of Wright's piece acknowledges her insight and even foresight (in her later and less na´ve years she became an American activist for abolition and women's suffrage). From politics to race and religion, from economics to expansion, Fanny Wright's perspective deserves your consideration, and evaluation. Finally, it's a fun read and would entice students to revisit their view of America in 1820. 7 pages.

Toolbox: Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Predicaments | Religion | Politics | Expansion | Equality

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