Author: Mark Noonan (Page 3 of 5)

Week 7: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism

Watch: My Video Lecture: HERE

Watch: Emerson’s House in Concord, MA

Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

“Nature” (1836)

 “Self-Reliance”  (1841)

  “American Scholar” (1837)

Post Assignment (Due: Wed. Oct. 18): Choose one section (or quote) from one of the above essays. Discuss why you chose the section and what Emerson means by it. Connect the quote/section to an example from your own experience and/or how it might apply to your life, or perhaps even change your outlook in life.

Week 6: The Declaration of Independence (1776) and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1789)

Post Due: Tues., Oct. 10.

Thank for your insightful responses to the biographies of two great “Renaissance Men,” Benjamin Franklin and Venture Smith. As several of you pointed out, both were successful Americans and became successful through hard work. Franklin took full advantage of his access to books and taught himself how to read and write in a masterly way. Venture never learned to read.  His autobiography was copied down by someone who was interested in his story, who wrote his story for him. 

This week we turn to America’s remarkable break from British rule with the Revolutionary War (1776-1783). In some ways, it’s similar to the current fight for political independence that Ukraine is waging against an all-powerful Russian army under President Putin, who refuses to allow this claim to freedom. 

The Revolutionary War officially starts in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson (and edited by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin).  The Declaration claims that “All men are created equal,” but, ironically, Jefferson was himself a slave-holder (and had several children with his enslaved mistress Sally Hemings). 

In the original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson blames the King of England for the slave trade, but this section (see section below) was cut out. In the end, neither the Declaration of Independence nor The Constitution (1789) (which established the three branches of government and included a Bill of Rights – the first 10 Amendments) abolished slavery in America.

Section Against Slavery – Cut from the Declaration of Independence

King George III has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people [Africans] who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold […]

For this week, I ask you to (1) read the Declaration of Independence, focusing on its key message:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent & inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

(2) Read Phyllis Wheatley’s “Biography” and her most famous poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”  She is America’s first published poet, who wrote her poems while enslaved.

(3) Read this brief letter that Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, wrote to her husband “to remember the ladies” when he was working with Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence.

(4) Watch my Video lecture on colonial New York Print Culture and Venture Smith. I produced this talk for an academic conference held in New York in 2020.

For next week’s post (due Tues., Oct. 10), I ask you to reflect on our founding documents (Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and the back stories of Abigail Adams, Phyllis Wheatley, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Venture Smith. In your post, discuss what you think works best (or is not working well at all) in America in regards to the workings of government or how it serves its citizens. Feel free to focus on women’s rights; human rights, election issues; the functioning of the Executive, Judiciary or Legislative Branches; the positive (or negative) legacies of the Declaration and/or Constitution; or perhaps connections to the Ukrainian fight for freedom.

To clarify the assignment a bit more. I’m asking that you reflect on the contradictions of our country as written in the documents you have been reading. A comment perhaps on how women did not get full rights in the Declaration and how they still lack full equality today (provide an example or two). You could also discuss a particular text as it relates to the Declaration or the US Constitution. You might want to focus, for example, on the notorious 3/5 clause in the Constitution (pertaining to slavery) . For those who have followed the craziness of the Republicans pushing out House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, you could speak to the dysfunction of our various gov’t branches (or the possibility of having a President who is a convicted criminal and perhaps even runs the country from jail). Is this what the framers of the Constitution intended?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Weeks 4-5: Two Men of the American Renaissance — Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Venture Smith (1729-1805)


For the upcoming week, we move away from the religious founders and adventurers that first settled on Native American lands to consider the parallel lives of the famed “Founding Father” Benjamin Franklin and the equally impressive (though almost completely unknown) Venture Smith, an enslaved African who freed himself and his family to achieve his own version of  “the American dream” by owning a large stretch of land along the Connecticut River.

View: Franklin Documentary  

As this video aims to show, Franklin was a product of the Enlightenment, a period that encouraged intellectual freedom, religious tolerance, and rational thought (versus unthinking dogmatism). Enlightenment thinkers trusted in science and progressive ideals to help humans reach their fullest potential.

Read: the following chapters from Franklin’s Autobiography (written in 1790).  

Chapter II: Beginning Life as a Printer

Chapter III: Arrival in Philadelphia

Chapter IX: Plan for Arriving at Moral Perfection

Chapter XVIII: Scientific Experiments

Read: Venture Smith, A Narrative of a Native of Africa (1798)

A modern rendition of Venture Smith

Post:  By Monday, September 25, discuss one section from either the Smith or Franklin reading that you found particularly interesting.  Alternately, consider how their lives were similar and/or different. Be sure to read what your fellow students post before you. Don’t repeat his or her points but consider extending on them.

Extra Credit:

Read and comment on Franklin’s Petition to Congress in 1790, requesting an end to Slavery: Petition

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