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Running Head: Contextualizing the Nation 1

Contextualizing the Nation

Taylor Smith

The Age of Jefferson


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Snowballs are being thrown, stones lobbed, and a squad of British soldiers is

attacking colonists in the streets of Boston, Massachusetts. Paul Reveres engraving of

the Boston Massacre is a familiar visual utilized in secondary classrooms as a lens into

the streets of the Revolution. Students often bring with them the preconceived notion that

American Revolutionaries were fed up with the taxes imposed by King George III;

believing that the Declaration of Independence was simply a break-up letter explaining

the wrongs of ones former true love. With this, while examining the changes in industry

and technology, the Kansas History, Government, and Social Studies standards require

that students construct understandings of the difficulties faced by leaders in constructing

an independent nation.

However, the national narrative presented through the presented ideas, places, and

events simplify the entangled roots of the nation-making process. Beside the

categorization of equality as a notable idea of the time, students are deprived of the

contextualization of the national narrative being formulated to bind the nation together

(Kansas State Department of Education, 2013). That being said, when students are

presented with a linear, yet simplified, narrative, they fail to fully grasp the context of

Thomas Jeffersons famous words: All men are created equal, and that they are entitled

to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (1776). Thus, Dr. Peter Onufs

discussion of Jeffersons view of enslaved individuals in the chapter To Declare Them a

Free and Independent People, Jeffersons Letter to Henry Lee, and the Notes of

Proceedings in the Continental Congress, provide opportunities for students to

contextualize, understand, and draw conclusions about the national identity of

revolutionaries, including their viewpoints on slavery.


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The decision to declare independence was not one that was free of refutation. We

first see the presented contradiction in Jeffersons Notes as he presents the reluctance of

independence from the Middle Colonies, as he claims that they were warming up to the

idea, but not yet bidding adieu. On the other hand, Jefferson presents the arguments

made that the Declaration was ultimately confirming what was already understoodthat

our relationship to Parliament was that of the federal nature, and dissolved by the present

hostilities. Therefore, the notes are indicative of the construction of the national-identity

with the stamp of the Declaration, serving the purpose of uniting the colonies for under

the same purpose (T. Jefferson, 1776).

Although written in 1825, Jeffersons letter to Henry Lee, is illustrative, yet

reflective, of the national narrative developed to bring the nation together for fighting a

successful war. However, what must be understood about this letter is that the

correspondence occurred when the nation was on the brink of President Andrew

Jacksons Indian removal policies, as well as an esteemed journey for expanding the

American empire of liberty. Jefferson, when discussing the debates of the Revolution,

claims that all American Whigs believed that the purpose of the Declaration was to

bring about the expression of the American mind more so than bringing to light new

ideas and arguments (1825). Thus, the tone and spirit of the time was validated by the

actions of the British Parliament, and the Kings inability to safeguard the colonies from

the usurpations. This understanding is imperative for students to grasp because it

highlights the notion that American revolutionaries were not necessarily interested in

ending their relationship with Britain, rather it proposes that the actions of Parliament
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necessitated the development of a separate national identity to begin the process of

pursuing the happiness of empire (T. Jefferson, 1825).

This understanding of the formulation of a national narrative, along with the

contextualization of Dr. Peter Onufs explanation of Jeffersons view of the captive nation

is essential for students to draw conclusions about complex irony of Jeffersons notion of

equality. As described so perfectly, Onuf brings forth an understanding of Jeffersons

viewpoints on slavery upon the backdrop of the Revolutionary War. This understanding

includes Jeffersons conception of the enslaved as a distinct nation that was at odds with

the whites of Virginia, making the ultimate natural state of war between the two nations

inextricable. Reason being, Jefferson feared that, due to the despotic state imposed upon

enslaved peoples, an insurrection led by the British could jeopardize the independence of

the American nation. Therefore, the independence of the slave nation would ultimately

lead to the full independence of the American nation (Onuf, 2000, pp. 130-133).

Further representative of the revolutionary mind-set, especially in regards to

slavery, in Jeffersons Notes, the debates over slavery clearly demonstrate the

contradictory nature of equality, as mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. For

example, Jefferson explains that slaves were property, and there is a lack of consistency

in the meaning of the term slave. This is evident when Jefferson claims that in some

countries the laboring poor were called freemen, in others they were called slaves; but

that the difference as to the state was imaginary only (1776). The secretarial nature of

the Notes suggests that Jefferson was writing in a seemingly objective manner, thus

making it unclear how Jefferson viewed the institution of slavery. Jefferson claims that,

although slaves increase the productivity of the slave holding states, the further burden
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northern regions with defense as the slaves live within the nation of the freemen.

Therefore, after a discussion of the purposes for slavery, Jefferson does declare that

further importation of slaves should be discouraged (1776). However, Jeffersons remarks

do allude to a distinction between the freemen and the slaves, further indicating that

there were two distinct nations. This distinction is necessary for students to understand

when they are contextualizing Jeffersons meanings of equality (1776).

Simplifying the Revolutionary mindset proposes a condition where students are

unable to move beyond the generalizations of the noble and celebrated events leading up

to the Revolutionary. Understanding the Declaration of Independence as a tool for

binding the nation to the backdrop of a war is essential for students to fully grasp the

conditions that perplexed the minds of men like Jefferson, and these conditions include

the discussion of slavery. That being said, Dr. Professor Onufs descriptions of the two

distinct nations, Jeffersons Notes, and his letter to Henry Lee provide students wit the

opportunity to not only understand and draw conclusions about this complex time period,

they provide the essential context for encapsulating the early American mind-set. Thus

teachers must move beyond the narrative presented by the state standards and bring these

realizations to the forefront of the classroom.

Works Cited
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Founders Online: From Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 8 May 1825. (n.d.). Retrieved
September 20, 2015.

Founders Online: Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, 7 June1 Aug ...
(n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2015.

KSDE (2013). Kansas Standards for History, Government, and Social Studies. Retrieved
from: http://www.ksde.org/Portals/0/CSAS/Content%20Area%20(F-
L)/History,%20Government,%20and%20Social%20Studies/Eighth%20Grade%20
United%20States%20History.pdf

Onuf, P. (2000). Jefferson's empire the language of American nationhood.


Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. (n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2015.