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The United States of America is a young country that has been easily influenced from different works of literature, causing it to start many movements/events. Pamphlets, sets of essays, short stories, and books have all been written for American audiences to inform and spark changes, creating the American history known today. With a country only officially starting 242 years ago, a lot of these changes may have seemed radical at the time, but certain literature helped America move forward socially and politically.
These pieces of work are: “Common Sense,” by Thomas Paine, The Federalist, by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, and Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. Through specific points in history, it is clear the effect these pieces of literature had on America as a whole.
In May of 1775, Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington, along with every American colonist didn’t wanted to break free from the mother country, Great Britain, and gain independence. Washington even said that he ‘abhorred the idea of independence’ (Gibson). January 10, 1776 was the day Thomas Paine published his pamphlet called “Common Sense.” This changed the minds of a major group of colonists. Until that point, the people in america under British rule had hoped to eventually gain the same rights people living in Great Britain had. Paine is the reason America woke up and realized it was fighting for its independence.
Paine wanted his readers to act right away, but what made his pamphlet so effective and why did everyone listen? A Philadelphia minister said Common Sense, ‘struck a string which required but a touch to make it vibrate. The country was ripe for independence, and only needed somebody to tell the people so, with decision, boldness, and plausibility’ (Gibson). Because Paine came from a lower class status, it made his audience (the same lower class status) want to listen because they could relate more. America got what it needed at the right time from the right kind of person, and Common Sense is single-handedly what started The American Revolution.
Once America became the United States of America and won the Revolutionary War, the way the government would run became leaders’ and politicians’ number one question they needed to answer. Three renowned political leaders, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison explained the Constitution, which is the main structure of the U.S. government still to this day, in a set of essays known as The Federalist. Because the U.S. is a democracy, this left everyone in the country with their own opinion on how they think the government should be run. The two main parties at this time were the federalists and anti-federalists. The federalists wanted a strong central government, to get rid of the Articles of Confederation (the previous constitution ratified in 1781,) and get rid of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments still used today). The anti-federalists wanted to fix the Articles of Confederation, have strong state governments, and keep the Bill of Rights (Mansfield). These papers were intended as arguments against anti-federalists in 1787-1788.
Federalists believed in a heterogeneous government which makes it harder to get a majority together. Because of the difficulty, it is less likely for the government to act on impulse. They also recognized the need for separation of powers between the national and state government, enabling the government to be able to check itself. The three branches of government: executive, judicial, and legislative are all run today based off of the federalist thoughts from the eighteenth century (Mansfield). Every day the Constitution is interpreted differently than the day before, which is both positive and negative in many ways. Because of The Federalist and the actual federalists’ way of thinking at the start of the country being born, America is a forever forming country and in multiple aspects, it has an unpredictable government.
The beginning of the nineteenth century in America was largely overwhelmed with politics because it was a brand new country. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published by Washington Irving in 1820 shifted the focus to social status and set a new standard for masculinity for its time period. Ichabod Crane, the main character, is thought to represent the mindset of commerce. Because he is duped easily, he also represents the thousands of American men who were deceived by America’s economy. Ichabod represents investors in 1819, and he realizes the Headless Horseman is Brom Bones, a local prankster, while the investors realize they put their money into something unpredictable and unsustainable (Anthony). The value was only there so long as someone believed it was. Although Ichabod was humiliated multiple times, he needed those moments to build his masculinity and shape it, just as men in America at that time were shaping a new form of masculinity. The result of this book ended in these men that were deceived being more contingent upon a commodified reputation.
Years after “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was published, Harriet Beecher Stowe shifted the thoughts of every American citizen whether each one knew it or not. She published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851. She is credited with starting the Abolitionist Movement, and when Abraham Lincoln met her during his presidency, he is said to have greeted her by saying, ‘so this is the little lady who started this great war’ (Stowe’s). In her writing, she said that slavery denied simple humanity of the slave itself. After the publication, the expected reactions happened: abolitionists welcomed and embraced the novel, while Southerners criticized and denounced the novel.
Stowe’s intention behind writing this novel about anti-slavery was to help everyone else in America to understand that slaves are more than just workers and how some people thought, animals. This was the first time in America that any average citizen, living in the north or south, could relate to a slave on a human level because the book revolves around the life of one man, Uncle Tom (Stowe’s). Not completely but in some way, Stowe’s writing about slavery started the abolitionist movement which would continue on for at least another twenty years. She inspired her readers to fight back against slavery no matter their race, gender, or location on the U.S. map.
Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, it stated ‘that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free” (The). Slavery was no longer the main concern in America in the late nineteenth century, but now making a decent living was a huge priority in people’s lives, especially working-class people. In the 1880s, Jacob Riis, a photojournalist, captured the wretched living conditions of the New York City slums. He published How the Other Half Lives in 1890 to expose American citizens to the horrors of what it was like to live in an industrial city at that time (Riis). The photos published in this book as well, left Americans ashamed of how unkept and disgusting their city was becoming. Riis thought that poverty came from morals or lack thereof by the city (Riis). Whether his audience agreed or disagreed with his beliefs, Riis definitely striked an uprising for healthier living environments. These living conditions brought out the worst in people just so they could simply survive. After this publication, it was very obvious a change needed to be made for living conditions in New York City.
Going along with slightly the same idea as Jacob Riis, in 1906, Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” which was intended to exploit the working and living conditions of people in Chicago. Both of these sparked from The Gilded Age which was a time in America after Reconstruction and before The Progressive Era. The Gilded Age was a time of development for mainly the north, and it meant that there were multiple social issues hidden by a thin layer of gold that was accumulated only by a few with unethical business practices (Henderson). Although Sinclair hoped to expose the terrible working and living conditions in Chicago, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt noticed something else. In 1904, Sinclair saw “the jungle” that was the Chicago working environment, and when Roosevelt saw this exploitation, he immediately sent investigators to Chicago’s packinghouses. Sinclair said that while he ‘aimed at the public’s heart’ and wanted them to see the terrible, unhealthy working conditions, but ‘by accident I hit it in the stomach’ (Arnesen).
Because of this one, small publication, Theodore Roosevelt made history by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. This was the first time the U.S. government intervened with the public’s health, and in the first few years after these acts were published, they failed at completing their intended purpose. However, with these two acts, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would be founded. . The FDA is still around today and although some may argue it’s inadequate, it still helps ensure the safety of the food America intakes, as well as the nutrition labels on everything consumed in America. If it weren’t for Upton Sinclair’s accidental discovery, there wouldn’t have been this specific cascade of events leading the the government caring about and regulating the health of its citizens.
Moving away from the political aspect of how literature affected America, there are still books that had a major effect on social issues in America in the 1960s. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that started discussions about the use of chemicals and their effects on nature. This was the first time a large portion of Americans were enlightened on the harmful uses of chemicals to the environment and themselves. Her book led to the banning of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a deadly insecticide, and the formation of the U.S. Environmental protection Agency. Carson knew what she was talking about, being a graduate from John Hopkins University with a master’s degree in marine zoology (Watson). Although it’s still an argument about whether pesticides and insecticides should be banned and if climate change is real, biographer Linda Lear said it best, ‘She changed the way we look at nature. We now know we are a part of nature, and we can’t damage it without it coming back to bite us’ (Watson).
Rachel Carson started an environmental movement that is still very much taking place today. Since her book came out, the burning of fossil fuels because of humans has caused an excessive amount of carbon dioxide as well as other greenhouse gases. These gases have warmed the earth by trapping heat and caused a great amount of global climate change (Climate). Because of these drastic, negative effects on the earth’s health, large organizations have attempted to alleviate the harm being done. The World Health Organization (WHO) started new work plans in 2015 like partnerships, awareness raising, science and evidence, and support for implementation of the public health response to climate change (Climate). Those are all ways just one organization is trying to educate people and help save the Earth. It is clear that Carson’s Silent Spring brought attention to an extremely pressing issue that will always be relevant to anything living on this Earth.
Another relevant issue that has been around since humans have existed but has only come to light in the 1960s is gender equality. Betty Friedan is credited with starting the feminist movement because of the publishing of her first big book, The Feminine Mystique. According to the New York Times, the book offered an ‘impassioned yet clear-eyed analysis of the issues that affected women’s lives’ (Seligman). This helped start a new era for women; there are now women in politics, medicine, the military, and the clergy. This book answered the question for women who were housewives and would lay in bed beside their husband at night and ask, “is this all?” Friedan encouraged women to get an education and break the barriers set by society.
Today’s society still sets barriers all the time for women, but because of the feminists from Friedan’s time, women know they can stand up for themselves in situations unfair simply because of their gender. Feminism has been in different forms throughout history, whether it was women fighting for the right to vote and having the nineteenth amendment passed in 1919, or the somewhat failed attempt at the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972. It did not get the required three-fourths of the states to vote for the amendment, meaning that besides voting, sexual equality is not protected under the U.S. Constitution. However, because women are not going to stop until it’s a federal law, the most recently proposed form of the ERA reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex” (Equal). It’s only a matter of time before the federal government officially protects gender equality.
History is something that is unable to be changed, and for that people are able to study the ways different ideas, events, and people shaped America. Literature is something that’s left to interpretation, but the effects it had on the country are factual. Because of Thomas Paine, the United States of America was able to become united and fight for independence. Because of John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, America is still able to be a democracy that’s forever changing. Washington Irving gave masculinity a different form, and Harriet Beecher Stowe helped start the Abolitionist Movement. Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair brought light to the hardships city workers faced as well as the unsanition of where they were working. Thankfully, Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan started two of the biggest movements still around today. These ten writers played major roles in the direction this country has and is continuing to head in.
Although history is the study of the past and some people don’t understand why it’s relevant, it is very much still shaping America’s future. Everything is a cause and effect, especially when it comes to history. Learning from past failures and appreciating the successes is something history allows Americans to do. Literature in the forms of pamphlets, essays, short stories, and books that was intended for American audiences for the sole purpose of country-wide change, definitely did its job. U.S. citizens were inspired from the authors of these literatures and did what America allows them to do best: use their freedom of speech to fight for their beliefs. The brilliant words from these respected people are the reason America is the country it is today.
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