Anthropology in the New Republic, 1776–1879
The anthropological tradition that developed in the United States in the wake of the Revolutionary War was shaped by three overriding concerns: creating a national identity, episodic westward expansion and settlement in the Indian territories, and consolidating a slave-based economy in the southern states. Since the American writers who produced this tradition were themselves products of a milieu shaped by colonial expansion and the rise of industrial capitalism, they were already quite familiar with the arguments of the European advocates and critics of those circumstances.
The Americans read the same books, were familiar with the same bodies of social thought, and participated in the same debates as their contemporaries in Europe. This meant that they variously drew inspiration from the Bible as a source of historical information, from writers who proclaimed the immaturity or degeneration of the New World and its inhabitants, and from Enlightenment writers who argued that human society had progressed through a succession of different modes of subsistence culminating in the commercialism of an emerging capitalist civilization. It also meant that the Americans held a range of opinions about the nature, diversity, and history of humanity. Like many of their contemporaries, they tended to see peoples or nations distinguished from one another by differences of language, custom, and physical condition.
In the wake of the Revolution, it was imperative for the Americans to assert not only their national identity but also their capacity to develop a civil and political society that was morally superior to those of the European countries. At the same time, they had to refute the arguments of eighteenth-century writers - such as the influential French naturalist, Georges Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon (1707–88) - who asserted the inferiority of the New World, its inhabitants and their societies. Buffon and his followers raised a political question of vital importance. Would the American experiment fail because of the obstructions imposed by nature? It was essential for the American envoys - such as Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), James Madison (1751–1836) or Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) - to refute Buffon and his followers