The American Identity is a fluid concept that has changed over time as the country and its people have faced new conflicts, both cultural and social. American Identity is reflected in the works of art (be it literature, paintings, film, or any other medium) produced by Americans during a given time period; American Literature is thus an invaluable resource in understanding what constitutes American Identity during the time of the literature’s production. In some cases, American Literature serves not only to explicitly define American Identity but adds to and deepens the understanding of it; this is especially true of literature produced immediately before, during, and after the American Revolution as the new country, America, struggled to define itself beyond its colonial roots.
No document does a better job of illustrating American Identity during this pivotal time than The Declaration of Independence, penned in its original draft by Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence pays homage to the country’s original colonial roots by upholding and restating some of the values brought to the New World by European colonists. However, when compared to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, one of the first expressions of a new and separate American Identity for the inhabitants of the New World, it becomes clear that the American Identity expressed in The Declaration of Independence has changed in the time since it was originally expressed in A Model for Christian Charity.
A Model for Christian Charity is the name given to a sermon delivered by John Winthrop in 1630. Winthrop was a devout Puritan leader, and he gave the sermon aboard the ship Arabella as it carried him and his companions from England to the New World. Their destination was the Massachusetts Bay Colony; Winthrop would become a founding member and prominent leader of the settlement that would arise from their landing. Winthrop and his Puritan companions left England for the New World in order to avoid religious persecution brought on by the ascension of King Charles I to the throne. Winthrop and all of his companions were Puritan, and their religious beliefs heavily influenced the formation of the first American Identity.
In the sermon A Model for Christian Charity, Winthrop describes the customs and practices that will govern their new settlement in America and, in doing so, voices the first manifestation of an American Identity. Winthrop spends the majority of his sermon emphasizing how the Puritan faith in God will see them through the trials they will face when they begin their new settlement; he emphasizes the importance of charity and sharing the within the community, helping one another in any way possible, and the concept that if one member of the community has a problem, it will affect everyone else in the community. Winthrop assures his audience that if everyone does their part and serves the community and God, they will prosper in the New World. Thus, by Winthrop’s advice, the American Identity of this new group of colonists is rooted in Puritan ideals of charity and compassion.
Additionally, Winthrop makes the following statement in regard to how the rest of the world will view their new Puritan settlement in the New World: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, so cause him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world,” (Winthrop 86). This concept of the goings-on in America being viewed as “a city upon a hill” by the rest of the world is a fundamental part of the American Identity. Winthrop uses the expression in his incarnation of an American Identity to remind his followers that they must be a shining example of a pure, good, religious settlement that the rest of the world can look to as a model. Thus, the first American Identity established by Winthrop with A Model of Christian Charity is built upon the Christian ideals of the Puritans as well as the belief that the action taking place in America must stand as a shining example to the rest of the world. This first expression of American Identity stems from the Puritans’ feeling of casting off the old country of Britain in order to build a perfect, religious, “city upon a hill.”
Almost 150 years later, The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson in June of 1776. Jefferson was a member of the committee created by the Second Continental Congress to write a declaration of independence from Britain; though there were several prominent scholars and politicians on the committee, the actual writing of the document fell to Jefferson alone (Peterson 103). Jefferson delivered the first draft of The Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress on June 28th, 1776. This first draft was edited, with several of the more accusatory and derogatory statements against Britain being removed, and the final signed and published version of The Declaration of Independence was signed and ratified by all thirteen states of July 4th 1776.
The Declaration of Independence was written to do exactly what its title states: to declare the thirteen states’ independence from British rule. In this sense, it is the first official document that expresses an independent American Identity. The values and beliefs that constitute that identity can be found within the text of the document itself.
The opening passages of The Declaration of Independence provide a basic definition of what it meant to be an American at that time in history. Jefferson delivers a succinct and powerful summary of the cornerstone ideals of American Identity in paragraph two where he writes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness […]” (Jefferson 342). These statements were revolutionary for the time in which they were written. No other country in the world at that time granted its citizens so many rights; the American Identity is unique in that it assumes, from inception, that every man is guaranteed the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and more importantly, that no government can take these rights away.
These ideals are so ingrained into the American Identity that they are presented at the forefront of The Declaration of Independence. They are included as a direct result of the colonies’ mistreatment at the hands of the British empire; the British empire is thus crucial to the formation of the American Identity because the colonists, who formerly considered themselves to be British subjects, formed a unique identity of their own in part as a result of the oppression faced at the hands of the monarchy. The British Empire, headed by King George III, denied the colonists the rights to representation and fair treatment that they [the colonists] felt they were due. In response, the colonists began to think of themselves as Americans rather than as British subjects; this transition is made official by The Declaration of Independence. The colonists also pledge their loyalty to one another as Americans in the last lines of The Declaration of Independence, which reads as follows: “And for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” (Jefferson 346). Unity and loyalty to one another is thus cemented as another cornerstone of the American Identity.
The Declaration of Independence also makes repeated reference to a “Creator;” the term Creator in this document is synonymous with the God of Christian beliefs. Because the majority of all colonists in America at the time had Christian beliefs of one denomination or another, it comes as no surprise that the Christian God is referenced in the Declaration of Independence and is thus part of the American Identity expressed therein.
There are many shared ideals between the American Identity expressed in John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity and Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence, but there are also some differences as well. Both documents illustrate that the American Identity from 1630, when Winthrop gave his sermon, to 1776, when Jefferson wrote the declaration, contains some elements of a Christian faith. The American Identity expressed in 1630 is founded completely on Christian ideals and beliefs; the influence of this iteration of the American Identity can be seen in The Declaration of Independence through the references to God as the Creator. Furthermore, both pieces of literature emphasize the commitment and loyalty that binds Americans together. The American Identity thus maintains a loyalty to one’s fellow Americans as a constant.
The American Identity established by Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity contains much stronger themes of American exceptionalism than Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence does. American exceptionalism is the belief that America is inherently better than other nations for any number of reasons; this concept is expressed in Winthrop’s sermon when he likens his American colonial settlement to a “city upon a hill” that all the world can look to as an example. This concept is not nearly as prevalent in The Declaration of Independence; Jefferson worked to ensure that his rhetoric would not be too derogatory towards Britain in order to maintain trade relationships after the political turmoil concluded. Jefferson does not present America as a country all other should look to as an example, he merely states reasons why America no longer wishes to be governed by the British crown. The American Identity presented by Winthrop is more colored by the idea of American exceptionalism than the American Identity presented by Jefferson is.
Thomas Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence pays homage to the country’s original colonial roots by upholding and restating some of the values brought to the New World by European colonists when expressing its definition of the American Identity. When compared to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, one of the first expressions of a new and separate American Identity for the inhabitants of the New World, it becomes clear that the American Identity expressed in The Declaration of Independence in 1776 has changed in the time since it was originally expressed in A Model for Christian Charity in 1630.
Jefferson, Thomas. “The Autobiography: The Declaration of Independence.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, Shorter Eighth Edition, W.W Norton & Company, 2013, New York, NY
Morgan, Edmund S. “John Winthrop’s ‘Model of Christian Charity’ in a Wider Context.” Huntington Library Quarterly , vol. 50, no. 2, 1 Apr. 1997, pp. 145–151.
Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography. Easton Press, 2003.
Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Mariner Books, 2002.
Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, Shorter Eighth Edition, W.W Norton & Company, 2013,New York, NY.