Founders and Enlightenment

John Dickinson

Gordon Wood titles the introductory chapter of his book Revolutionary Characters (2006) as, “The Founders and the Enlightenment,” because he believes that the Age of Enlightenment helps define the worldview of the American republic’s “founding” generation.  Wood begins his analysis, however, by sketching out a brief history of how these founders have been portrayed in revisionist scholarship over the years.  Wood’s point in this survey of the “de-bunking” literature is to emphasize how in his opinion the Founders have been too far removed from the Enlightenment context which helped shape them.   This chapter is most useful for students in helping to define those period terms which Wood believes are essential for understanding the Founders and their worldview:

  • Civilization
  • Gentleman
  • Disinterestedness
  • Character

Wood’s explanations for these terms are sophisticated but clear.  However, throughout the book, he also makes numerous references to events in the colonial crisis that might confuse some students.  Reviewing the following entries in the Digital History textbook should help:

Ultimately, Wood’s book will use a series of biographical essays about eight Founders to illuminate the essential qualities of their generation, but one Founder whom he mentions in the Introduction but then largely omits from the story is none other than our own John Dickinson.  We will talk about Dickinson as a representative figure in class on Tuesday by paying special attention to an excerpt from his well-known “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” (1767-68).

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Abortion in Puritan New England

In “Taking the Trade,” Cornelia Hughes Dayton narrates a chilling tale of two young eighteenth-century Puritans and their Connecticut families as they plunge deeper and deeper into a moral catastrophe.  The story challenges almost all of the assumptions students have about Puritan culture, but Dayton deftly uses the case involving Pomfret residents Sarah Grosvenor and Amasa Sessions to illustrate a culture in transition.  In this case, student should think about how individual actions by ordinary figures can reflect wider changes in social norms or cultural values.  Those who need additional background on Puritan culture, should seek out a succinct outline provided online by Donna Campbell, a professor of American Literature at Washington State University.  To view some key resources and even some of the actual documents in the Grosvenor-Sessions legal proceedings, see these links below from a now-defunct website created by Woody Holton, Cornelia Dayton, and Jessica Linker:

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Nathaniel Bacon and Chesapeake Culture

Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

A fascinating article by T.H. Breen about gambling in colonial Chesapeake offers students in History 117 an opportunity to consider how social activities might reflect political agendas.   Breen’s careful analysis of the habits and customs that lay behind the massive betting on horse racing  in the colonial Chesapeake region help explain how seemingly casual sporting encounters  illustrated forms of political control.  Students should try to figure out what they think about this type of interpretation involving what anthropologists sometimes call “deep play,” and they should be able to explain what kinds of questions such an approach might raise.  To help understand the article in all its complexity, here are some helpful background or context links:


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Taking on Thanksgiving

pilgrims-and-indians-and-turkeyThanksgiving myths?  Say it ain’t so!  Yet for Thursday’s class session, students in History 117 are reading a short, insightful article from John Humins who explains the complicated political and diplomatic intrigue behind the scenes of the first Thanksgiving in 1621.  When Pilgrim separatists arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they thought they were settling in Northern Virginia.  In some ways, they found a similar dynamic with Wampanoag Indians as John Smith and the Jamestown settlers had discovered several years earlier with the Powhatan Indians.  In other words, as foreigners they were originally sized up as pawns in the political and imperial battles of the indigenous populations.  Humins focuses his attention on the tensions between two Indians:  Squanto and Massassoit.  Students should be able to describe each figure and explain the reasons why tensions developed in their relationship. They should also be able to discuss the behavior and motivation of Pilgrim figures such as William Bradford, and Miles Standish  (both featured in the Humins article).For those who need more of a primer on the general background, they should consult the following sections from the online US History textbook by Digital History:

Founding New England

Pilgrims Arrive


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Exploring America’s Founding Myths

Courtesy of Disney

To begin the semester, students in History 117 will be reconsidering some founding American myths.  Historian Michael Puglisi offers what he terms an “ethnohistorical” summary of the famous John Smith-Pocahontas rescue / love affair at Jamestown in a provocative article that appeared in the  journal History Teacher in 1991.  It turns out that there might be more to the story than the Disney movie suggested.  Puglisi sees the 1607 encounter as a complicated struggle between two imperial forces –both the English settlers AND the Powhatan Indians.  He carefully explains the political background and strategic interests of Wahunsonnacock (or Chief Powhatan as the traditional literature has named him), demonstrating how he attempted to use the English. Puglisi provides less detail about Captain John Smith, but his brief description of the misunderstandings at stake in the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas deserves deeper consideration from students.  How should historians characterize the motivations and legacies of figures such as Smith or other members of the Virginia Company, such as John Rolfe, the man who introduced tobacco to the colony and actually did become Pocahontas’s husband?  What can anyone conclude about Pocahontas and other Powhatan Indians who cannot speak for themselves in the documentary evidence?  Images are certainly a powerful answer, and there is a fascinating online exhibition of Pocahontas’s evolving and elusive image available from PBS NOVA that will surprise students and challenge their deepest held assumptions about America’s colonial founding.

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