American National Identity Essays

American National Identity Essays-9
Jefferson's interest in taxonomy was supported in Pennsylvania by the Philosophical Society of Benjamin Franklin, a group of scientists that included anthropologist Charles Wilson Peale, botanist Benjamin Rush, and chemist/physicist Joseph Priestley.

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Robert Fulton's steamboat, first launched in 1807, and the development of Eastern railways represented the first intrusions of what Leo Marx would call "the machine in the garden." With these early stirrings of the industrial age to come, Americans began to examine their relationship to the land around them.

The birth of the Hudson River school of American painting, signalled by George Innes's The Lackawanna Valley, married wilderness with civilization in harmonious depictions of pastoral rural towns gleaming with the prosperity brought to them by the broad-based economy of both agriculture and technology.

Rather than presenting nature as an obstacle to the establishment of a civilization, American authors and painters alike upheld nature as the source of the animating spirit behind the American character.

Although America did not have the ruins of a classical civilization or an intellectual heritage comparable to Europe's, it did have a wilderness more primeval than anywhere in Europe, or at least it did for a while.

Early New England literature, art, and folklore presents the wilderness as the place where reason succumbs to passion and the devil can seduce and corrupt even the holiest in the community.

In other early colonies, particularly Pennsylvania and Virginia, the wilderness represented the Garden--a place to be tamed and cleared for the establishment of a human community.

In an essay entitled "The Cultural Significance of the American Wilderness," Roderick Nash notes that early settlers in the New World were not Americans at all, but transplanted Europeans who regarded the land as a spiritual and physical void which had to conquered and civilized in the name of Christianity and progress.

Because it was an unknown entity with bizarre animals, unusual topography, and strange indigenous inhabitants, the wilderness represented a place where community and consensus would be put in peril by the total absence of European law, religion, and civilization.

Would the wilderness disappear completely for the sake of civilization, or would the two exist in perpetual tension with one another?

During the Lewis and Clark expedition in the Jeffersonian era, the primary goal of wilderness investigation was to take inventory of the garden and complete a taxonomy of the American continent.


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