Updated: Feb 11, 2019
Also known as the Federalist Period because of the development of America’s governance during this time, the Early National Period of American history and literature marks a time when the new country was trying to find its own voice independent of England. Writers helped the country explore this new independent identity and worked to help define what it meant to be an American and created the foundations of a uniquely American culture.
This is when the dream of the “Great American Novel” took root wherein artists from the New World looked to prove their skills and culture were just as great and even exceeded that produced by the Old World. Despite this, English literature from Britain would continue to influence American literature and vice versa. During the Early National Period, England was experiencing its Romantic period and while Romantic literature from England would influence some of America’s early national period, America would develop its own unique Romantic movement later on.
After George Washington left office in 1797 but especially after his death in 1799, America tried to find itself without the aid of its greatest national hero. John Adams served a single presidential term ending in 1801, which was marked by the division of America into political factions, scandal, suppression of civil liberties for matters of national security, and set the stage for the quarrel between the states and federal government that would contribute to the outbreak of the civil war. Adams scandalous presidency was largely overshadowed by his successor, Thomas Jefferson, who took the office in 1801.
Under Jefferson, American rapidly expanded thanks to the Louisiana Purchase as well as paid down much of the national debt, as he had promised during his campaign. Things were also changing in terms of foreign policy. America would also become involved in its first foreign war, the First Barbary War, during his presidency.
Jefferson’s ally James Madison succeeded him in 1808 and had to deal with continued British interference in American government. Britain was the greatest naval power of the day and used this power to attack the U.S. in an attempt to win back its colonies known as the War of 1812. The war actually officially began around 1815 and didn’t end until 1816. The war would also create new folk heroes like Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison. The triumph would lead to the period known as the Era of Good Feelings where Americans felt invincible even against the greatest powers in the world. This era also marked a rise in nationalism and a new, united since of America.
The national government was strengthened and the economy was buoyed by the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Textiles miles started in Massachusetts were supported by the invention of the cotton gin in the south, which also increased the value and amount of slave labor in the region. Cotton and textiles became the country’s predominant export. America also began to develop its own folk heroes rooted in the frontier spirit of those who explored the new West like Lewis and Clark, David Crockett, and Daniel Boone.
However, the country also began to divide up into different regions with their own regional identities. This sectionalism created areas like New England, which was largely federalist and based on an industrial economy, and the American South, which was largely in favor of the Democratic-Republican party and relied on a slave-based agriculture economy. The Mid-Atlantic states found themselves caught a bit in the middle while the newly formed states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois began to identify themselves as the heartland and national bread basket.
James Monroe was elected in 1817 to the presidency as a Democratic-Republican because the Federalist party had basically fallen apart. With only one political party, the Era of Good Feelings saw the country without some of the political divisiveness that had marked its history since the departure of George Washington. Rather than divided by party, the country became divided based on regional values and economies.
By the start of Monroe’s second term as president in 1820, the U.S. also laid claim to Florida by moving settlers in to force the Spanish out; everything below the 49th parallel including the Great Lakes, Rocky Mountains, and Red River area through treaties with Great Britain; and had begun inching its way into Texas. As a result of this growth, issues began to rise over slavery and other issues of state's rights. While the north developed strong anti-slavery positions, much of its industrial economy was relied on by the free labor of slaves in the south. Likewise, many southerners knew their economic bubble would burst if their slaves were free and that the south would not be able to economically exceed or compete with the industrial north, which could be much easier retrofitted to accommodate a slave-free economy.
Congressional Libraries and Copyright Laws
Education and literacy were among the goals of many early leaders of the U.S., though education was often largely limited to wealthy white young men who could be spared to attend schools. The idea of creating a national library for the U.S. dated back to 1783, but it was signed into law by John Adams in 1800. The Library of Congress initially contained legal books, maps, and other reference items seen as useful to the members of Congress, now operating in Washington, D.C. In 1802, new president Thomas Jefferson appointed the first Librarian of Congress and established a committee to regulate the library. When much of the initial library was burned in 1814 during the British invasion of Washington, D.C., Jefferson sold his personal library as a replacement.
Jefferson’s personal library contained more than double that in the original library and had a variety of books on subjects ranging from law to art to culture, language, and even a few cookbooks. Some argued that the texts covered subjects that might be of no use to politicians, such as hot-air ballooning and music texts, but Jefferson argued that lawmakers may need information on a wide variety of issues. Today, the Library of Congress has more than 32 million cataloged books and print materials in 470 languages and the largest rare book collection in North America. It has its own book classification system that is also used by research and university libraries in the U.S. and serves as the legal repository for copyright protection and registration.
Meanwhile, America’s book industry was facing a tumult. While sales had been buoyed following the American Revolution, by 1805 there was a glut of book production and book sellers in the country. An economic depression that hit the entire economy that year forced many booksellers to go bankrupt, especially since many publishers cosigned on loans and debts for each other. The bankruptcy of a single publisher could also bankrupt his many friends.
The onset of the War of 1812 further contributed to this decline in the publishing industry. To counteract this economic downturn, publishers began limiting the number of copies and runs of a publication to make books more rare. Costly engravings were also added to texts as it was harder to copy the plates onto the page and therefore less copies were made. This also made it harder for pirates to copy texts and pass them off as originals. Copyright laws also began to make it harder to make fake copies of texts. While the first national copyright law was passed in 1790, it only protected the author’s rights for a few years and only if that author was a resident of the U.S. In addition to establishing and strengthening author-publisher relations, these laws made the value of books go up after the Embargo of 1808 prevented the import of British and French literature.
And while there was nothing that legally prevented one publisher from republishing a work with author’s permission, the publishing industry developed something called the “courtesy of the trade” wherein the first company to announce a book - typically adds for subscribers or upcoming publication in a newspaper - other publishers would back off of the title as per gentleman’s agreement. A single publisher may advertise in various city newspapers indicating that they were to provide copies of the book to markets in those cities as well as their own.
Sometimes, publishers from different cities with different customers would also partner for “joint editions” of books to ensure that no one’s right to publish was infringed upon. This changed after the War of 1812 when the rapid production in American-made literature increased and there was no time to see if another company was already publishing the work. The firm that could get the text out the fastest would then sell the most and typically, this went to publishers in strategically placed Philadelphia, which could easily transport books both North and South, by land and water. This led to a great rivalry between firms in Philadelphia and New York, eventually leading to a national reconfiguration of the book trade and new national publishing and copyright laws in the 1820s and 1830s.
Developing the American Voice
Meanwhile, American writers were looking to find their own unique style of writing. Prior to this period, the American literary culture had largely imitated that of Britain. The first novels published in the U.S. in the late 1700s were largely reflective of the popular sentimental novels being published in England at the same time. By the change into the new century, American writers were trying to deviate from imitation and into something entirely their own. As a result of the expansion of the American frontier and their desire to make something American, many of these writers looked to creating new American heroes.
One of the first best-sellers of this new American century was Mason Locke Weems - better known by his pen name Parson Weems - biography of George Washington. A book agenta nd author, Weems was the first to churn out a biography of the president after his death and his text, The Life of Washington, contained many made-up stories now taken as fact, such as the famed story of Washington and the Cherry Tree. Weems would go on to write biographies of other popular American early heroes such as General Francis Marion in 1805, Benjamin Franklin in 1817, and William Penn in 1819. Of course, many of the accounts in Weems books were made up to both elevate these figures into heroic status in American lore as well as boost his own book sales. Though many of his tales have been proven untrue, they still remain an integral part of the fabric of American folklore.
The year after Weems’ first edition of his Washington biography was published, a man who would become one of the first famous American writers published his first works under the pen name Jonathan Oldstyle. The New York-born Washington Irving was writing to support the Federalist papers and ideals in New York’s Morning Chronicle, impressing the paper’s owner Aaron Burr and literary magazine editor and writer Charles Brockden Brown. They soon found that the author was an ailing young man of 19. After studying law and spending time abroad in Europe for his health, Irving created a literary magazine similar to the modern Mad magazine in 1807 and gave New York City its nickname of Gotham.
Irving’s humor was one of the things that drew an audience to his writing. While mourning the loss of his fiancee, he wrote a satire on the popular local history writings and politics being espoused at the time with the 1809 publication of A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. The publication was kicked off by a hoax newspaper ad threatening to publish the manuscript of the fictional Knickerbocker if he didn’t return to a hotel and pay his bill. City officials became concerned enough about the allegedly missing man that they considered offering a reward for information on his whereabouts.
The success of the book led to Irving becoming editor of Analectic Magazine, which published biographies of numerous American military heroes as well as the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry,” better known today as the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner.” In 1819, he would published The Sketch Book which contained the story of Rip Van Winkle. He would go on to publish numerous early American classics like Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, A History of the LIfe and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Tales of the Alhambra, and popular short stories like “The Devil and Tom Walker” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Like Irving, James Fenimore Cooper was essential to the forging of the American literary identity. He told stories of great heroes and noble savages, romanticising the American Frontier. His first novel, published in 1820, was titled Precaution and was a response to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which his wife had challenged him to outdo. HIs other tales like The Spy, The Pioneers, The Leatherstocking Tales, and The Last of the Mohicans, would become best-sellers. The Last of the Mohicans would remain on the best-sellers list throughout the 1800s and give birth to a whole genre of novels about the noble Native American brought down by white encroachment, glorifying the American nature and frontier.
Cooper wasn’t the first to present this visage, however, as tales of native peoples dated back to the first reports during the exploration of the Americas as well as the captive narratives that gained popularity during the colonial period and remained popular well into the Early National Period. Of course, many of those writing about encounters with native peoples actually had no experience in that realm. One of the first American plays was James Nelson barker’s The Indian Princess, or La Belle Sauvage, an 1808 melodrama about the life of Pocahontas that ended up as an opera. Barker followed this up with Marion, or the Battle of Flodden Field in 1812, a play after the blank verse poem by Sir Walter Scott.
Outside of the fictional accounts of the American Frontier, Americans also devoured actual accounts of the exploration of the new territory acquired by the U.S. The report compiled by Lewis and Clark about their explorations was widely read. It also spurred many people to go westward themselves, seeking a bit of the adventure and notoriety that came with being one of the first to lay claim to unclaimed land - or at least land that wasn't claimed by any white people.
Many frontiersmen like David Crockett, Daniel Boone, and John Colter told their own stories not only to educate others about the frontier but also establish their reputations. Stories like those of the Crawford Expedition into Ohio in 1782 were immortalized in songs during the Early National Period. The frontiersman became an icon of American literature and folklore, giving way to the stories of mountain men and cowboys in later generations. These early figures allowed for the settlement of the west and seemed to embody the concept of Manifest Destiny, that it was an American right to settle land not previously occupied by white settlers. This was the first time the American west was really being romanticized - even if most of the "western' settlement was still focused east of the Mississippi River.
Early Women Writers
As the American men waxed poetic about the romance of the frontier and the bravado of the pioneer lifestyle, American women were also emerging as a literary force. Despite not having the right to vote or own property - especially since only property-owning men were allowed to vote in this period - women writers advocated for issues including their own rights, abolition, the rights of Native Americans, and their own political viewpoints. While they may still be overshadowed by the writings of their male counterparts in the average American classroom, these women set the state for future generations of female writers who would have a great influence on various political movements in the middle and end of the 1800s.
Tabitha Gilman Tenney was a woman from New Hampshire whose literary career began writing an instructional text for children. However, her most popular novel was the 1801 Female Quixotism which cast protagonist Dorcasina Sheldon as a contemporary Cervantes attacking the romantic literature Tenney felt weakened women to only be concerned with marriage and motherhood rather than improving their minds. The book was described as the most popular novel written in America until the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. At the time Stowe published her own groundbreaking novel, Tenney’s Female Quixotism was still selling well with five editions in print.
Rebecca Rush published her only novel at the age of 33. Kelroy has been much admired by scholars and follows the story of a young girl who falls in love with a typical Byronic heroine despite the fact that she has to marry rich to avoid her family sinking into poverty. The story ends in a typical gothic tragedy, but has a lot to say on the nature of love and material wealth. The reason by it is the only book Rush ever published and why she didn’t gain much notoriety for it during her lifetime is because Kelroy was published just before the War of 1812. Advertisements for the book were drowned out by news of the war and with a possible British invasion being planned, Americans were less interested in buying books than means of defending themselves.
Massachusetts native Judith Sargent Murray became one of the first outspoken advocates for women’s rights in America beginning with her 1790 essay “On Equality of the Sexes.” In addition to this, she wrote numerous poems, plays, novels, collections of letters, and essays espousing her beliefs in feminism, universalism, education, and economic independence. Figures like George Washington, John Adams, and Henry Knox were known to publish her works and she was one of the supporters of Abigail Adams’ Republican Motherhood Movement that believed that the education of patriotic male voters rested with the early formative years they spent with their mothers. Therefore, women should be educated on political issues just as well as men to ensure the next generation of voters was educated.
The letters of Abigail Adams herself continue to not only give insight into life during the American Revolution but also the early American government and her attempts to influence male politicians to “not forget the ladies.” Poet, satirist, and playwright Mercy Otis Warren also continued to write during this time period compiling one of the first concise histories of the American revolution with the publication of her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution in 1805.
Origins of American Poetry
Just as American writers were looking for ways to come up with unique novels and plays that would outdo those produced in England, poetry in a uniquely American style also began to take off during the early National Period. Colonial era poetry by the likes of Phillis Wheatley, Anne Bradstreet, Samuel Danforth, and others had aped the works back in Europe and most of this early American poetry was highly religious in tone. As British poetry was beginning to explore the Romantic movement’s ideals of the glory of nature, American poets focused on the subject of the new country itself in their works.
Philip Freneau was one of the most prolific American poets of this period and his poetry followed this idea of America as subject matter. A sea captain, nationalist, and polemic, Freneau was dubbed the “Poet of the American Revolution” for his anti-British pieces during the war as well as his imprisonment for doing so. His works like “The House of Night” and the “Wild Honey Suckle” would influence the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Freneau also kept up with the idea of the romantic American frontier and the noble Native American in his poems “Noble Savage” and “The Indian Burying Ground.”
Mainly known as a lawyer, judge, and justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Hugh Henry Brackenridge was one of the most important founders of Pittsburgh, creating entities that would become the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In his spare time, he also wrote poetry about his experiences both in the American Revolution and on the Pennsylvania frontier including his blank verse tragic poem “The Battle of Bunker Hill,” a periodic drama “The Death of General Montgomery at the Siege of Quebec,” and a satirical novel called “Modern Chivalry.”
William Cullen Bryant became an elder statesmen of the Transcendentalism movement later on, but his early works date back to 1811 when he began working on his famed “Thanatopsis.” His first publication came in 1817 when his father submitted some of his works to the North American Review and soon, Bryant’s poems began appearing regularly in the publication. Bryant would make literary friends with Washington Irving and by 1832 was dubbed the country’s leading poet for his contributions. The natural exploration and emphasis on the romanticism of America as an ideal and the wildness of the country's frontier would go on to influence a generation of poets who looked to nature for guidance and beauty as well as lessons about the nature of mankind.
Nicknamed “the first poet in Indiana,” Rebecca Hammond Lard was a frontier woman who went from Massachusetts to Indiana in the 1810s with her husband. She wrote 143 pages of poetry published as Miscellaneous Poems by a Lady in 1820 that touched on her feelings of beauty, death, and nature. Her second book, On the Banks of the Ohio, was featured widely in books and magazines throughout the country and was one of the first works published in the new American west. In addition to emotions and nature, her poems reflect on life in the early American frontier and how the lessons learned by the early colonists of America can still apply to those settling the new frontier.