American Revolution and Early Republic, 1775-1820

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Course Level:
Course Length:
15 weeks
3 credits

Introduction and Course Description:

Signing of Declaration of Independence
Signing of Declaration of Independence

How do we make sense of Thomas Jefferson as an American revolutionary? As a young man in 1776, he had stirred the world with the radical words "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." In 1803, as the United States's third president, he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in order to extend the "empire of liberty" - his phrase for the U.S. - to the west. Yet throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of African-American slaves. Genuinely committed to the principles of equality and freedom, he sincerely hoped that one day slavery might come to an end. In Jefferson's mind, however, order, stability, and balance within the Republic were even more important. Indeed, he feared that, without these traits, the United States would soon collapse and re-colonization by one of Europe's great powers would be the result. Thus, to preserve order, stability, and balance, Jefferson argued that emancipation had to be gradual and then followed by black colonization -- that is, the removal of the freed blacks from the United States, to the Caribbean or Africa. Otherwise, he worried, bloody race wars would soon erupt. To accomplish his goals and accommodate his fears, Jefferson eventually wrote a plan that would have freed no slave then living. Rather it would have liberated slave children born after a certain date and only after they reached the age of 21. And if public debate over African-American freedom became too heated, the plan would be deferred.

To preserve his version of a balanced and orderly Republic, Jefferson also worried about the post-Revolutionary influx of European immigrants. Too many foreigners, Jefferson wrote, unschooled in "temperate liberty," might make America a "heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass" which would undermine this great experiment in republican democracy. Thus, at different levels, Jefferson was committed to freedom and slavery, to equality and exclusion, to genuine reform and procrastination and inertness.

Jefferson is one of the people we will meet in "The American Revolution and Early Republic." Other figures include George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and a host of others whose names are now less familiar to you. For instance, we will meet Martha Ballard who for years struggled to keep her family going in Augusta, Maine (then part of Massachusetts), while at the same time cope with the many changes then occurring in the Early Republic. Also, we will look at how people in the 19th century looked back and remembered their own and their fathers' revolutionary struggle against what was then the most powerful empire in the world.

This varied cast of characters in one form or another all debated the central questions we will explore in this course: why did Americans rebel against the British empire? What did victory in the American Revolution really mean? Did Americans simply want "home rule" or did they want to fundamentally alter their society? How and why did Americans continuously define and redefine the meaning(s) freedom and equality? Despite Jefferson's desire for order and stability, Americans argued bitterly throughout these decades about what it meant to be an American citizen and over what kind of country they wished to establish.

At the same time that Americans were debating these great issues, they were experiencing sweeping social and economic changes. In 1775, most Americans were huddled east of the Appalachian mountain range. They lived in isolated farming villages and knew their governments (if at all) only through an irregular and unpredictable mail delivery. Yet 45 years later, the United States was an expansionist empire whose territory literally stretched two-thirds across the continent with a people eager for more land. Industrial factories and commercial plantations, moreover, were producing increasing amounts of wealth which raised most all Americans' standard of living. Yet, by 1820, the nation was starting to fracture from within as people bitterly argued about the morality of slavery, the powers of the federal government, and the justness of America's geographic expansion. Thus, as people looked back from 1820, they concluded that the American Revolution had produced a mixed and uncertain legacy. Indeed, many citizens worried how and if the nation could survive into the future.

Course Objectives:

This course will deepen your awareness of the issues and events surrounding the American Revolution and the nation's first decades. It will also hopefully make you want to learn more about this topic in general. In specific terms, at the end of this course, you will:

1. understand the major historical figures, key events, and significant social and economic transformations that have shaped American history from 1775-1820
2. be able to place important historical figures and occurrences in time. This does not mean that you will simply memorize dates and events. Instead you will be able to place events in chronological order and within a larger and more meaningful context.
3. develop your critical reading and writing abilities as well as increase your oral communication skills. (After you graduate from college, you will find that these are truly marketable skills. To be frank, your future employers will not really care that you can recite the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, but they will expect you to be able to express your ideas clearly in writing and to contribute effectively in conversations.)

Course Readings:

The following books are all available at the Campus Bookstore:

  • Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Writings, edited by Thomas Slaughter
  • Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
  • Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale
  • Alfred Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party

Optional Book (strongly recommended): Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual, 4th edition (The History Department requires that all bibliographies and source citations in research papers be in the Chicago form. Hacker's volume is excellent in discussing this form of source citation and documentation. You may also access her website:

There will also be a number of documents and articles that you will access online and which you will need to read. The dates upon which reading assignments are to be completed are listed below under specific dates in the "Schedule of Topics." Note that there will be in-class writing exercises and class discussions on the readings.

You should also own a standard dictionary of the English language (preferably a hardbound edition). If you don't, go out and buy one. You are expected to know the meaning(s) of every word in the assigned reading and to correctly spell the words that you write.

Course Assignments:

  • Eight in-class writing exercises at scheduled times (60 points total, 15% of final grade). You will answer 2-3 questions provided in advance on the required reading in the course.

  • Attendance and participation in class discussions (40 points, 10% of final grade). During the semester we will have eight class discussion days during which we will examine and question the context, themes and importance of topics dealt with in the required readings. An extra word or two about the importance of class discussions to your learning: Although many people feel intimated by class discussions, learning to participate in such conversations involves social and intellectual skills that are an essential part of your liberal arts education. These include: listening to others and learning to absorb and synthesize their remarks; learning to respond constructively and analytically to others' ideas; learning to develop and articulate positions of one's own; being able to respond to criticism; and learning to modify or discard an argument in favor of another, more satisfactory one. You should come to class eager to exchange ideas about the topics under study, ready to speculate and to question and also to ask for explanations when you feel confused. In short, if you put the effort in, you can gain a considerable amount from these meetings.

  • Midterm Examination (80 points, 20% of final grade). This examination will cover the first half of the course and consist of a combination of a) short-answer identification in which you will identify and note the significance of various persons, places or events noted in the readings and lectures; and b) essay questions in which you will analytically discuss a specific topic(s) dealt with in the course.

  • Research Paper (100 points or 25% of your final grade). You will write a research paper that will be approximately 8-10 pps. in length (typed, double-spaced). You may select any topic of the American Revolution and Early Republic that is of interest to you. Your research should be based upon at least some primary (i.e., original) documents. All topics must be approved by me. Toward this end, you will submit a one-to-two paragraph summary of your topic, along with a list of at least four sources from which you will begin your research (no encyclopedia or Internet sources at this stage).

  • Final Examination (120 points, 30% of final grade). This examination will cover the latter half of the course and will be structured like the Midterm Exam.

Timeline of Events:

Please see the comprehensive timeline of 18th century events created by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History and located at the following web address:

This timeline will help you get a better handle on the chronology of the Revolutionary Era.

Boston Massacre
Boston Massacre

Schedule of Topics:

Because of the complexity and quantity of material we are covering, this schedule is tentative.


Death of General Wolfe at Quebec, September 1759
Death of General Wolfe at Quebec, September 1759

  • Week 1, Class 1: :: What do we mean by the American "Revolution"?

  • Week 1, Class 2: The British World of the Mid-Eighteenth Century

  • Week 1, Class 3: Great Britain in 1763 - A Triumphant and Changing Empire

  • Week 2, Class 1: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Chapters 9, 17-19
2. George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior
3. T.H. Breen, "'Baubles of Britain': The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century," Past and Present, No. 119 (May 1988), 73-104 (available via JSTOR)
  • Week 2, Class 2: The Start of the Imperial Crisis - 1763-1767

  • Week 2, Class 3: From Resistance to Revolution - 1767-1774


George Washington in the American Revolution
George Washington in the American Revolution

  • Week 3, Class 1: The War for Independence (I): From Lexington and Concord to Philadelphia - April 1775-July 1776

  • Week 3, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775
A. Gen. Thomas Gage, Report on the Battles of Lexington and Concord in an Excerpt of a Letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, April 22, 1775
B. Massachusetts Provincial Congress on Lexington and Concord…
2. Thomas Paine, Common Sense, Introduction and Part 1 I(The Pamphlet)
3. Thomas Jefferson; "Declaration of Independence"
4. Alan Kors, "Why the 'Pursuit of Happiness'" (To be handed out in class)
  • Week 3, Class 3: Research Paper Day - We will discuss submission of "Research Topic Proposals" and guidelines for writing an effective research paper

  • Week 4, Class 1: The War for Independence(II): From Long Island to Yorktown - August 1776-October 1781

  • Week 4, Class 2: Film: Mary Silliman's War (1994)

  • Week 4, Class 3: The War for Independence (III): The Experiences of African Americans and Loyalists

  • Week 5, Class 1: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. Sylvia Frey, "Between Slavery and Freedom," Journal of Southern History (1983), 375-98 (available via JSTOR)
2. Phillis Wheatley, "Poem to General Washington" and Washington's Reply, 1776…


Signing of the US Constitution
Signing of the US Constitution

  • Week 5, Class 2: Innovation and Struggle: The Critical 1780s

  • Week 5, Class 3: The Constitution and Its Ratification - 1787-88(I)

  • Week 6, Class 1: The Constitution and Its Ratification - 1787-88 (II)

  • Week 6, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. James Madison, Federalist #10
2. Brutus #1, October 17, 1787
3. "Bill for Entertainment at the City Tavern, Philadelphia, September 1787"
4. Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1786


Philadelphia Wharf, 1790s
Philadelphia Wharf, 1790s
  • Week 6, Class 3: George Washington and Launching the New American Government

  • Week 7, Class 1: Midterm Examination (Part I)

  • Week 7, Class 2: Midterm Examination (Part II)

  • Week 7, Class 3: Trouble in the West - the Indian Wars of 1790-93

  • Week 8, Class 1: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers, Preface and Chapter 1
2. Judiciary Act of 1789
3. Gregory Evans Dowd, "A Spirit of Unity, 1783-1794," Chapter 5 of his A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, pp. 90-115 (To be handed out in class)
4. Treaty of Greenville, 1795
  • Week 8, Class 2: Alexander Hamilton and His Vision

  • Week 8, Class 3: Thomas Jefferson and His Vision

  • Week 9, Class 1: John Adams's Presidency (1797-1801)

  • Week 9, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers, Chapters 2-4
2. Alexander Hamilton, Report on Public Credit, 1790…
3. Sedition Act, 1798
4. Kentucky Resolution, 1799


Lewis and Clark Expedition
Lewis and Clark Expedition

  • Week 9, Class 3: The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

  • Week 10, Class 1: Westward Ho': The Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Expedition

  • Week 10, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. Thomas Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803
2. Establishing Discipline in the Corps of Discovery
a. Meriwether Lewis, Feb. 20, 1803…
b. Meriwether Lewis, Mar. 3, 1803…
3. William Clark, Trouble with the Teton Souix, Sept. 24, 1804…
4. Lewis, Contacting the Shoshoni, August 11, 1805 and August 13, 1805…
We will also preview some excerpts from the Ken Burn's documentary, "Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery"

  • Week 10, Class 3: The War of 1812: A Second War of Independence?


Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris)
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris)
  • Week 11, Class 1: The Household Economy of the Eighteenth Century

  • Week 11, Class 2: The Commercial Transformation of America

  • Week 11, Class 3: Woman in the Early Republic

  • Week 12, Class 1: 'Film: "A Midwife's Tale"

  • Week 12, Class 2: 'Film: "A Midwife's Tale"

  • Week 12, Class 3: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. Laurel T. Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale, selected chapters
2. Robert E. Cray, Jr., "Remembering the USS Chesapeake: The Politics of Maritime Death and Impressment," Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 25 (2005), 445-474 (from Project Muse)…
3. The British Burn Washington, 1814 (Internet article based on British accounts of the burning of Washington DC)
4. Treaty of Ghent, 1814
  • Week 13, Class 1: The Industrial Transformation of the North (1790-1820)

  • Week 13, Class 2: The Agricultural Transformation of the South (1790-1820)


Stump Speaking, or, the County Canvas
Stump Speaking, or, the County Canvas
  • Week 13, Class 3: The "Era of Good Feelings" - A One-Party Nation

  • Week 14, Class 1: The Crisis Over Missouri and the Future of the Revolutionary Republic

  • Week 14, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion
1. Alfred Young, The Shoe Maker and the Tea Party, selected chapters
2. "Eli Whitney's Letters to his Parents on the invention of the Cotton Gin, 1793-94," American Historical Review 3 (Oct 1897), pp 99-102…
3. "Samuel Slater" and "Francis Cabot Lowell" biographies from PBS "Who Made America?" website
4. Missouri Compromise Documents
a. Compromised passed by Congress, Mar 6, 1820…
b. Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes on Missouri, Apr. 22, 1820

  • Week 14, Class 3: Review for Final Examination

Final Examination, Date and Time to be Announced

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