Letters of the American Revolution
“If we win our independence? / Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? / Or will the blood we shed begin an endless / Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?” asks Alexander Hamilton in a widely acclaimed Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. These lyrics, musing on the American Revolution’s uncertain political outcomes, suggest that thestruggle for independence in 1776 could not be settled on the battlefield alone. This class focuses on a versatile form of writing through which another front of the revolution was waged: letters, which functioned both as private missives addressed to individuals and a flexible literary genre. How do letter-writers represent their hopes, qualms, and perspectives on the unfolding revolution to different addressees? Taking this question as a starting point, we will read letters penned by Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as selections from Abigail Adams’s 39-year correspondence with her husband, John Adams. Philadelphia’s libraries and special collections are also full of revolutionary-era letters, which offer us a rare opportunity to explore other perspectives on the war of independence.
We will move on from historical letters to examine the function of epistles in fiction and memoir that debate the legacy of America’s founding, including The Coquette (1797)by Hannah Webster Foster, Letters from an American Farmer (1782) by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, and the recent Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Together, these texts allow us to explore how letters participate in American literary and political experimentation across time. Assignments for this course involve a series of short exercises on research methods for literary analysis, which will culminate in an independent research project of 12-15 pages. Students may pursue a variety of projects that elaborate on epistolary exchanges not covered in class. Projects might also, for example, take inspiration from popular cultural productions such as 1776 (1972) and Hamilton (2015) to examine how epistolary correspondence complicate or demystify these popular portrayals of the American Revolution.