The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800

The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800

The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800

The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800

Synopsis

Jack Greene explores the changing definitions of America from the time of Europe's first contact with the New World through the establishment of the American republic. Challenging historians who have argued that colonial American societies differed little from those of early modern Europe, he shows that virtually all contemporary observers emphasized the distinctiveness of the new worlds being created in America. Rarely considering the high costs paid by Amerindians and Africans in the construction of those worlds, they cited the British North American colonies as evidence that America was for free people a place of exceptional opportunities for individual betterment and was therefore fundamentally different from the Old World. Greene suggests that this concept of American societies as exceptional was a central component in their emerging identity. The success of the American Revolution helped subordinate Americans' long-standing sense of cultural inferiority to a more positive sense of collective self that sharpened and intensified the concept of American exceptionalism.

Excerpt

This small volume represents a modest expansion of the Anson G. Phelps Lectures given at New York University in the fall of 1990. It uses literary evidence to explicate the changing content of the intellectual constructs produced to identify the new entity America between Columbus’s first encounter with the New World in 1492 and 1800. According special attention to the ideas of distinctiveness that powerfully informed the identification of America throughout the early modern era, it is also a study of the origins of the concept of American exceptionalism.

I wish to thank New York University, the Department of History, the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Law and Chancellor L. Jay Oliva, Dean C. Duncan Rice, Professors Warren Dean and William Nelson, and, most of all, Professor Patricia U. Bonomi for the invitation to give the Phelps Lectures and for their splendid hospitality while Ï was doing so. I am also grateful to those who attended the lectures for their questions and comments. Richard and Claudia Bushman, Thelma Foote, Ned Landsman, J. R. Pole, Alden Vaughan, and many others raised questions that helped me to refine my argument. Thad W. Tate and an anonymous referee read the first draft of the manuscript for the University of North Carolina Press, and their suggestions contributed to major improvements. So also did the counsel of Amy Turner Bushneil, to whom the volume is dedicated. Both the University of California, Irvine, and The Johns Hopkins University provided time and resources for the reading on which the volume is based. Jacqueline Megan Greene prepared the index. Carla Gerona and Karin Wulf helped read proofs. J. R. Pole and Amy Turner Bushnell offered many valuable suggestions about the illustration captions.

Baltimore, Maryland September 7, 1992 Jack P. Greene . . .

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