Literature and History: The Development of American Culture to 1865

Adam Smith Reading for 10/7

Greetings class,

Attached you will find selections from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that you are to read for class on 10/7, along with Thomas Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence and selected letters of John and Abigail Adams. Some of you may have heard of Adam Smith for his more famous work The Wealth of Nations (1775), which is considered by some to be the blueprint of modern capitalism.

For some, when you hear the word “sentimentalism” or “sentimental” you might think of the melodramatic, the manipulative, or over-the-top emotionalism and you probably don’t think of the founding of the United States or philosophy. But sentimentalism (or “sympathy” or “sensibility” as it was also known) is a philosophical movement particularly prominent in 18th century Scottish philosophy.  These Scottish Enlightenment figures (like Smith, or Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and others) had remarkable impact on the literate peoples of the English colonial world. This small sampling from Smith will hopefully give us a sense of how sentiment operates in this context and how it comes to influence the Revolutionary War and the formation of the United States.

Click here to download the pdf and please bring it to class next Friday.

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One response

  1. jacquibonaventure

    I found it interesting that during this time sympathy had the definition of empathy. You could see it in the literature of that time, especially in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. When we were discussing him in class, it hit the nail right on the head that it sounded like a very intense break up letter between the colonies and England. He was very clear that he blamed England for all of the colonies troubles and made it very clear that the colonies would take a stand and no longer be apart of England’s affairs. After we addressed that this was the most political break up letter, when Jefferson would describe how it was unfair for the colonies to be dragged into the troubles that the English would experience with other countries, i couldn’t help but to actually relate it to a real reason a couple would actually break up. It isn’t rare to hear a boyfriend or girlfriend actually say “your problems become my problems, i’ve had enough,” which is basically what Jefferson was trying to communicate when you evaluate the piece. Keeping in mind the sentimentalism that influenced literature of this time, you could tell that Jefferson wasn’t just trying to say, this is what we’re doing, here’s a list of reasons why and there’s nothing you can do about it, bye; but rather he really wanted it to leave an emotional mark as well. It’s almost like he was trying to teach the mother country a lesson that said, “if this is how you treat your children, you’ll lose them.” He really wanted England’s leaders to regret taking advantage of the colonies, not to just state their breaking away from them.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:28 am

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