"A character to establish": personal and national identity in the new nation

Trees, Andrew Spencer, Department of History, University of Virginia
Rosenfeld, Sofia, Department of History, University of Virginia
Rust, Marion, University of Virginia

Washington Irving once complained that the United States was "a pure unadulterated LOGOCRACY or government of words." From the beginning of their national history, Americans have looked to define themselves with the written word. My dissertation explores various textual attempts to define a self and a nation in the post-revolutionary landscape, a world in which boundaries between public and private were fluid and ill-defined. Who one claimed to be said a great deal not simply about one's self but about one's hopes and fears for the "people." This study examines four different attempts at building a personal and a national character, focusing on Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Through close textual analysis, I study rhetorical patterns that offer a vision of how they thought about themselves and about the nation, examining the intimate links between the shaping of country and self. To study the founders from this angle, I engage in what could be called the poetics of politics, a view of the political realm that broadens political concerns beyond specific policies to a stylistic component of political action that also takes such matters as rhetoric into consideration, as well as the politics of poetics, a view of the literary realm that finds political implications in rhetorical and literary tendencies.

By studying these conflicting visions of self and nation, I hope to give not simply a clearer picture of the founders and their conceptions of the people but of the challenges and possibilities of identity, both personal and national, in the early republic, a better sense of who each of them thought "we" were or, at least, could be. Using a perspective informed by both history and literature, this dissertation attempts to illuminate the complicated relationship among rhetoric, politics, self, and nation, as well as shed light on larger questions of authenticity, representation, and identity, which continue to challenge us today.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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