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Ideas and Concepts Embodied by Early American Literature: Freedom and Tyranny

Updated on September 18, 2012

Introduction: What Started The American Literary Tradition?

Literature encompasses and showcases many aspects of humanity, including philosophy, morality, and knowledge. This is especially true in early American literature. In the 1600s, even before ‘America’ existed as a country, threads of American thought began to emerge in literature. These threads became stronger through the 18th century and continued through the Transcendentalist and Romantic periods of the 19th century. Much of American thought can be summed up by one idea: individual freedom can be achieved through separation from tyranny. This concept did not emerge all at once, however. Instead, the foundation for this idea was laid by early writers in the 17th and 18th century, and later writers from the late 18th century and the 19th century continued to develop the idea. The idea was focused mainly on religion in the Colonial Era, since most literature was either liturgy or essays about religion, but the idea broadened to all aspects of individual freedom in the Age of Reason and the Romantic Era. Each writer developed and further explained how separation from tyranny results in freedom.

The Ideal of Freedom: Evident From The Very Beginning

The idea of earning freedom through separation from tyranny was proposed as early as 1607. In William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, he describes the persecution that Separatists faced in England. According to him, the persecution was so severe that “after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted and persecuted on every side…” To escape this persecution, Bradford states “they resolved to get over into Holland as they could, which was in the year 1607 and 1608.” After finding that Holland failed to meet their moral standards, the Separatists eventually came to America and settled Plymouth Plantation. Bradford’s records are a perfect example of the American ideal of separation from tyranny. He clearly states the tyranny that the Separatists were fighting, and proposes the solution of separation. While not everyone agrees, the general consensus about Bradford’s work is that it is “an American Classic.” In fact, Charles F. Richardson, a 19th century editor, proclaimed in 1888 that Bradford was “[a] forerunner of American literature.” Even if he didn’t develop or create the American idea, Bradford was one of the first to record it. Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, implemented the ideal of separation from tyranny when he came to America.

Following on Bradford’s heels was Roger Williams, who further discussed the idea of religious persecution. Williams develops the idea Bradford proposed to a further degree. In The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, Williams asks, “Do not all men hate the persecutor, and every conscience true or false complain of cruelty, tyranny?” On a crusade against religious persecution, Williams also believes that separation is the way to escape tyranny. He states in Bloody Tenet that “… this discourse against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience should pass current… yet liberavi animam meam.” Williams uses a Latin phrase which means “I have freed my soul.” His personal life builds on his writings by showing that he actually lived by his words. Williams founded Rhode Island, the first American colony to allow complete religious freedom, and thus put his ideas about separation from tyranny into practice. In fact, Norton’s biography of him states that “Williams and Providence Plantation were synonymous with the spirit of religious liberty” and that “it [freedom of conscience and religion] became so indelibly “American” an idea that provision was made for it in our 1791 Bill of Rights.” Williams takes the idea of separation from tyranny one step further.

While writers from the Colonial Era of the 1600s focused mostly on religious freedom, writers from the Age of Reason in the 1700s focused more on the idea of the natural right of liberty, and the proper manner in which governments ought to function. The first and most comprehensive discourse on the subject was Locke’s Two Treatises on Government. Locke begins by discussing where governments derive their power from. He states, “To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” Locke is basically stating that all men are born in a natural state of freedom. However, to keep society running smoothly, citizens must give up some of their rights to the government so the government can better protect the rights of all – an idea called social contract theory. Locke realizes that unfortunately, many governments will not stay within their natural bounds, and will try to take more rights from citizens. Thus, he states that in cases of tyrannical government, citizens have not only a right but a duty to rebel against or separate from that government – to protect and preserve the freedom of all. In the last section of Two Treatises, Locke explains why separation is sometimes necessary. “When by the miscarriages of those in authority, it [the power given by the society to the government] is forfeited… it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves; or erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good.” The Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy analyzes Locke’s view as such: “A legitimate civil government seeks to preserve the life, health, liberty and property of its subjects, insofar as this is compatible with the public good. Because it does this it deserves obedience. An illegitimate civil government seeks to systematically violate the natural rights of its subjects. It seeks to make them illegitimate slaves. Because an illegitimate civil government does this, it puts itself in a state of nature and a state of war with its subjects… In such circumstances, rebellion is legitimate… thus Locke justifies rebellion and regicide.” Locke’s work lays the foundation for future interpretations of democracy and government by justifying the idea of separation from tyranny as essential to preserving freedom. Locke takes the idea of separation from tyranny and expands it beyond religious persecution, to governmental tyranny of any kind.

The Founding of America: Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson borrowed heavily from Locke’s work in the Declaration of Independence. Hours could be spent examining all the similarities between our founding government and Locke’s works. Jefferson, however, was the first to officially express the idea of separation from tyranny as an ‘American’ idea. Judith Shklar examines this concept in The Renaissance American, quite simply stating, “It [the Declaration] was intended to be an expression of the American mind… In Jefferson’s view, the Declaration was not only his, but all of America’s collective self-understanding.” Jefferson basically took Locke’s ideas and made only minor changes. For example, while Locke’s ‘human rights’ were life, liberty, and property, Jefferson chose to use life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The second paragraph in Jefferson’s Declaration starts with the following claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Clearly, Jefferson is further developing the idea that separating from tyranny leads to freedom. While the Declaration was a Declaration to the world, it is just as much a rallying cry for Americans. In fact, Shklar went as far as to claim that “the call for “the inalienable rights” of men created equal, and for a government “deriving its just power from the consent of the governed,” was not meant for the statesmen of Europe. It was for Americans; it gave them a cause to fight for; and it was radical by any standards. For not all Americans thought of Great Britain as an “absolute tyranny.”” In the Declaration, Jefferson lists all the different ways in which Britain has been tyrannical and abused the colonies. Thus, he concludes the colonies have a right – and a duty to themselves – to separate. He believes that America can gain freedom through separation from tyranny.

Romanticism and the Transcendentalists: Societal Perceptions

As the 1700s turned into the 1800s, the Age of Reason was replaced with the Transcendentalists and Romantics. Emerson, a Transcendentalist, took the idea of gaining freedom through separation from tyranny and took it to a completely new level. In his work Self-Reliance, Emerson makes the claim that society’s requirement of reliance on others is a form of tyranny. He states, “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. Its progress is only apparent.” Emerson believes that Americans should rely on themselves, and not on the government, or on others. To quote him, “And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.” He finishes the essay by stating, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” Emerson is encouraging individualism and separation from the tyranny of outside influences. Timko makes the point that “While Emerson's transcendentalism should be considered a significant component of his message, it is more likely that he will always be recognized more for his contribution to American individualism, his call for American writers to free themselves from the yoke of the British.” Emerson expands the American idea beyond just tyranny from governments – he extends that tyranny to governments, society, other people, and even ourselves.

Thoreau, a contemporary and friend of Emerson’s, further developed the American ideal. As a political romanticist, he applied the idea of separating from tyranny to everyday life. Unlike Emerson, he doesn’t believe that complete self-reliance is necessary, but he believes that true tyranny is not being able to make your own decision. In Resistance to Civil Government,he explains his point of view. “If the injustice… is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” Thoreau believes that any use of governmental force can be classified as tyranny, if conducted in a wrongful manner. He provides an example of the Mexican-American war, and expounds upon why he thinks it is wrong for him to pay his taxes and comply with the machine, since he does not support the Mexican-American war. However, he pays his highway taxes, because he supports highways. He defines freedom as more of a mental concept than a physical concept, stating that men are not just flesh-and-bone. In his opinion, tyranny includes being forced to comply with an idea or reality that you do not accept. Thus, freedom can be gained by separating from that tyranny – whether by not paying taxes, or actually doing something against the tyranny. Thoreau was jailed, at one point, for not paying poll taxes – but he still felt he was free, because he knew he had not given up control of his mind, and thus he was free from ‘tyranny.

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Conclusion: A Rich Tradition and Legacy of Freedom From Tyranny

One question that literary schools of thought often debate is the following: Does literature reflect society? Or does society reflect literature? Both, to an extent, are probably true. Thus as we examine the development of the literature regarding the American ideal, we examine the development of society in relation to the American ideal. From the very first colonist to the first Americans by birth, authors in early American literature progressively developed the idea that freedom can be best achieved through separation from tyranny. What began as an escape from religious persecution quickly transformed into a culture of individualism – a culture where complete self-control of the mind was valued. Later American literature, with writers such as Ayn Rand and her book Atlas Shrugged, sees this trend continue. The one common thread that has tied ‘Americans’ together from the 1600s to the present is the idea that freedom can be achieved through separation from tyranny.

BONUS: Why The Declaration Says All "Men" Are Created Equal

This article is written by Skyler Greene, all rights reserved. It's hosted on HubPages, an online community where everyday experts like you and me can publish high-quality articles like this one and earn a share of the ad revenue they generate. Sign up for HubPages.

Comments: What Are Your Thoughts on Early American Literature?

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    • mwilliams66 profile image

      mwilliams66 5 years ago from Left Coast, USA

      A fascinating and comprehensive hub. Voted up and interesting