5/16/2012

What is an American

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What is an American? There is no simple answer to this question, it is forever evolving. The idea of an “American” is much like a tree. Deep within root there lie the foundations or ideas that will with time form into the entire tree. From these roots or ideas a concrete trunk forms slowly, a solid poise that is the shared belief system. The trunk creates a support and balance that is necessary for the tree as it further develops. Deep inside there are rings, one inside the other that represents each of these shared beliefs. They are deep inside the trunk of the tree. From the trunk or from these beliefs new ideas begin to branch out until there are hundreds of budding limbs. To put this complex idea simply, it is a metamorphic concept that is continually branching out from the roots of its set beliefs. In my opinion John Winthrop best represents the complex rings that formed the trunk of early colonial thinking, while Thomas Paine became one of the first American writers who began to slowly branch out. John Winthrop’s works were among the first to reflect early Americans shared belief systems, including evidence of the doctrines of mission. Years later, Thomas Paine’s work still detained traces of these shared beliefs, however with the years they had evolved into new a form .


John Winthrop’s works which come from “A Modell of Christian Charity” strongly reflects the system of shared beliefs that existed during this time. The Puritan people strongly believed in the idea of predestination. They believed God had already chosen who would be saved; these people were known as the “elect.” To the Puritans no earthly deed would grant you salvation; only if you were among the elect would you be saved. This notion consequently led to a constant self-questioning by the Puritans. They were always looking for signs of whether or not they were one of the elect. They became obsessive with this whole notion known as the “Covenant of Grace”. Winthrop’s piece, which served as a sermon in it’s time, affirms this common belief and attempts to map out the ideas existing in this covenant by using a rhetorical method. For example, in his opening, he states “God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed of the Condicion of mankinde, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion.” (Winthrop 6) With this statement he affirms the idea that God has pre-chosen who will be saved. He also begins to touch on the idea of separate economic classes, and how they exist for the benefit of those who God has predestined to be saved. He further goes on to explain “The Reason Hereof” as to why this separation exists. The puritans commonly believed that some people were predestined to be poor as others were to be rich. This was all for a purpose, and having this separation of classes was good for the entire community. Winthrop supports this belief as he states “To hold conformity with the rest of his workers, being delighted to shewe forthe the glory of his widsome in the variety and differances of the Creatures and the glory of his power, in ordering all these differences for the preservacion and good of the whole” (6). They further believed that the “good” of this separation of classes was that those who were saved, or the rich, would be able to perform good deeds for the benefit of their salvation.


While Winthrop’s sermon strongly reflects the common belief in the “Covenant of Grace” among the Puritan people, it provides just as strong a reflection for the “Doctrine of Mission”. This mission was one of the most prominent beliefs that existed during this era. They believed that Israelites messed up by killing Christ. In the shadow of this mistake, the Puritans wanted to create a New Jerusalem; they wanted to be the “city upon the hill.” In other words, they believed that Christ would come again, but only if they were successful in creating this so called city on the hill, and this was only possible by following the covenant of Grace. Winthrop’s sermon serves as a sort of outline on how to successfully achieve this mission. His sermon reads, “for wee must Consider that wee shall be as the Citty upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to with drewe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story…” In other words, Winthrop is echoing the strong belief that they must become the greatest city in the world, that all eyes will be on them, and Christ will come again, but only when they have fulfilled the covenant of grace, which he outlines diligently in this piece. Because his piece so strongly echoes the doctrines of both missions and grace, two very predominant belief systems in their time, Winthrop is a sturdy reflection of the shared beliefs systems that began to shape America.


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Over more than a hundred years later, a man named Thomas Paine published a piece called “Common Sense.” In this piece Paine makes a bold argument for American independence from Great Britian. He begins to reshape this idea of the “City on the hill” by arguing that America can achieve greater success by forming a republican government, far different from Great Britain’s monarchy. It is here that we begin to see a shift in how the city upon the hill should be achieved. The puritans believed that through God and his covenant of Grace America would become the greatest and most powerful city. Here you see this idea begin to branch out, and many writers to come will follow this trend and argue for this city on the hill by economic means. However, the doctrine of mission is still evident. At one point in this piece Paine states, “’Tis repugnant to reason, to the universal order of thins, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent can long remain subject to any external power. The sanguine in Britain doth not think so. The utmost stretch of human wisdom cannot, at this time, compass a plan, short of separation, which can promise the continent even a year’s security” (Paine 88). In other words he is saying, it makes no sense that America is being controlled by an outside source, and that if they do not separate, they will lose any chance of becoming powerful. He states that they must separate immediately so that they will be guaranteed some sense of “security”, security that is for becoming a superpower. He also goes onto state some ideas of what America should be. “A government of our own is our natural right; and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power.” (88) This quote shows the beginning of the reshaping of the shared beliefs system, and how they shifted to a more economic interest in terms of someday achieving that total power. Paine’s article is said to have been one of the most influential components to the American Revolution. Americans read his works and began to understand that a separation from Great Britian was crucial if they wanted to achieve a greater power all their own. This way of thinking spread quickly in American, and eventually led to the war, and later to the separation. Some of his ideas were then further shaped, as America did in fact establish a government of their own.


John Winthrop and Thomas Paine both demonstrate evidence of shared belief systems that have in essence been preserved throughout the years. Though new attitudes ways of thinking, and values alter these shared beliefs they stem from the same root. The roots of an American date back to ideas and dreams that some of the first settlers brought with them to the “new world.” These ideas later developed into a solid belief system that created the foundation for all future beliefs. John Winthrop and his piece from “A Modell of Christian Charity” strongly mirror the common belief systems shared during the early colonial period. While Thomas Paine’s ideas began to stem out from these very same concepts, they took on a new form. Though his ideas are a reconstruction, still evident is this idea of America one day becoming the city on the hill. Today we are branching out even more, but still at the root and deep within the rings of our constant evolving tree lay this whole notion that we must be the world superpower. And for this I quote President Bush following the September 11th attacks, whose speeches echo the likes of John Winthrop, further evidence that our shared beliefs have survived generations… “Our nation -- this generation -- will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”








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