New Research

Reading These United States: Federal Literacy in the Early Republic, 1776-1830

By Dr Keri Holt

In 1776, Benjamin Franklin designed an emblem to represent the newly declared union of independent states. Printed on the new Continental currency, this emblem depicts thirteen linked rings, each bearing the name of a state, with the resulting chain surrounding the words “We Are One.” Grammatically and visually, this statement is a paradox, asserting that something that is plural can, at the same time, also represent something singular.

As statements that are simultaneously true and contradictory, paradoxes are a useful rhetorical tool for representing complexities.  In the case of the United States, this model of a plural union made it possible to imagine a single nation comprised of many distinct and varied constituencies. Paradoxes, however, are also rhetorically unstable since they continually undermine the truths they affirm. While images such as Franklin’s chain were used to affirm the truth and the value of this paradoxical understanding of national unity in the early republic, residents of the early United States were caught up in efforts to stay one step ahead of its foundational contradictions, affirming the unity of its many parts as the very existence (and expansion) of those parts perpetually challenged the reality of its union.

The early United States was dominated by efforts to make this plural model of federal unity work. Other images such as candelabras, constellations, harps, and beehive were used to promote the idea that distinct and independent components can produce a cohesive and coherent whole, and these images were everywhere, printed on currency, maps, and broadsides, incorporated into state seals and insignias, embroidered on samplers and linens, and even designed onto dishes and serving ware.  Literature also helped residents imagine and embrace this idea of a union comprised of many differences, and Reading These United States looks specifically at the role that literary works played in fostering this federal nationalism, examining how popular genres of the early republic—almanacs, magazines, satiric poetry, and captivity narratives—promoted this idea of plural unity.

More than simply representing the United States as a union comprised of many differences, literary works promoted this plural nationalism by transforming the way that people interpreted the nation’s variety. In order for this paradoxical mode of unity to work, the residents of the United States needed to learn how to read differences differently, recognizing and interpreting the nation’s different interests, economies, lifestyles, and cultural values and experiences as a source of cohesion rather than division.  Almanacs and magazines, for instance, were formatted in ways that encouraged readers to assert and value their distinctive localities while also providing a means of situating those spaces in relation to a larger whole.  Satiric poetry led readers to engage with multiple voices and perspectives that were nevertheless directed toward a shared significance. Captivity narratives likewise disrupted singular perspectives, providing readers with experiences that led them to understand beliefs and perspectives that were far removed, yet nevertheless compatible and collaborative, with their own.

In fostering this cohesive plurality, however, these literary works also highlight the inherent contradictions at stake in this federal imagination. Although the United States was supposed to draw strength from its variety and the equal representation of its differences, not all differences were considered equal or acceptable, and Reading These United States also examines the limits of the nation’s federal imagination and literacy with respect to race, gender, and ethnicity. Drawing on the same genres and literary strategies that were used to promote the nation’s equitable pluralism, writers such as Benjamin Banneker, Judith Sargent Murray, David Walker, and Elias Boudinot likewise turned to almanacs, satiric poetry, and periodicals to affirm those federal principles, while simultaneously exposing and condemning the United States’ failure to live up to them and insisting on their right to be included as equal members of the plural union.

These efforts to grapple with the promises of plural nationalism alongside its contradictions and shortfalls resonate with recent events. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing protests regarding racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd illuminate the extent to which many residents of the United States remain underrepresented, devalued, and excluded within a nation that continues to assert and celebrate its commitment to equity and diversity. The differences that constitute the United States and call for representation within the federal union have definitely changed, encompassing not only region, race, class, and ethnicity, but also sexuality, disability, and gender identity. The terms of US pluralism continue to be a constant source of tension and conflict, as well as value and pride, and literature remains an important tool for representing this plurality and, more importantly, shaping the way we define and interpret the differences that comprise the nation, exemplified by the work of writers such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Tommy Orange, Jesmyn Ward, Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-nehisi Coates, and many, many others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has likewise exposed the promise and the pitfalls of imagining the United States as a union of different constituencies, posing major questions about the value of variety and difference when managing public health. On the one hand, many have argued that cities and states are best suited to set regulations and policies based on the immediate conditions and demographics of their own localities. Others, however, maintain that such diversity can be counterproductive and detrimental for a nation as a whole, arguing that more unified and uniform policies are best suited to protect public health, rather than diverse localized measures.

These questions over the consequences of representing the diverse people, experiences, and communities within the United States and the consequences of refusing, overriding, or failing to represent that diversity return us to the paradox of federalism. As one nation defined by the many—e pluribus unum—the United States will always struggle to define which aspect of that union takes priority, the one or the many. At times throughout US history, prioritizing variety and pluralism has had dire consequences, allowing states to protect the institution of slavery or pass racist and sexist legislation. Prioritizing variety and pluralism, however, have also inspired movements that have challenged and transformed such laws, dramatically redefining the terms of federal nationalism. At still other times, the different interests and communities of the nation have been best served when the United States tries to speak with one voice, prioritizing shared values over differences, exemplified by the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) or the Environmental Policy Act (1970). By providing readers with a history of this paradoxical model of national unity and, more importantly, the way that writers and readers have represented, navigated, and transformed its paradoxical logic, Reading These United States looks backward in order to look forward,  encouraging its own readers to find productive ways to imagine and negotiate plural unity today.

Keri Holt is an associate professor of English and American Studies at Utah State University where she teaches courses on early American literature and culture. She has published work in Studies in American Fiction, Early American Literature, and Western American Literature, and she is currently at work on a new project examining narratives of exploration in colonial New Mexico. Her most recent book, Reading These United States: Federal Literacy in the Early Republic, 1776–1830 was published in 2019 with UGA Press.