Head-on View of Governor's Palace, Williamsburg, Virginia, calls to mind the Federal era of American literature, written in the 1700s.

Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, Virginia. Original Photo by Sebastian Hirsch.*

Significant Historical Dates:

1773: Boston Tea Party: protests “taxation without representation”
1775: Lexington and Concord; Battle of Bunker Hill (first battles in Revolutionary War)
1776: Declaration of Independence
1783: Treaty of Paris recognizes American independence
1788: U. S. Constitution ratified
1789: Bill of Rights adopted

1700s American Literature:

Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” 1734, and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” 1741.

Jonathan Edwards is now  known mostly as the hellfire and brimstone preacher from America’s First Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a revival of central tenets of Puritan faith that swept American in the 1730s and early 1740s. Edwards could indeed inspire terror in the souls of his congregation, as seen in the second sermon listed here. But also read “Divine and Supernatural Light” to understand his love for God and the benefits he believed God offers His worshipers.

Benjamin Franklin, “The Way to Wealth,” 1758, “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” 1747, and “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One,”1773.

A very brief sample of writing from an American founder. Franklin not only played a major role in the creation of the American nation, but also gave us Poor Richard’s Almanac, the public library, and the volunteer fire department. For more, read Franklin’s Autobiography. He may have exaggerated some of his personal qualities, but his life story demonstrates many of the values and virtues that came to define the American character, and that many Americans sought, and still seek, to emulate.

Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” “To the University of Cambridge, in New England,” (or any of her other poems that you choose), 1770-1773.

Brought from Africa as a slave to America while just a young girl, Phillis Wheatley was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston. Recognizing her intelligence, the family taught her to read and write English, as well as English poetry and Latin. She began writing her own poetry as a young teenager. She first became famous for her poem eulogizing George Whitefield, a well-known Evangelist preacher who died suddenly in 1770. Eventually a book of her poems was published in London, making her the first African-American to publish a book of poetry. Her poems are written in the somewhat formal style of her day, but also convey her individual personality and passion.

Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence,” 1776.

Thomas Paine, “Common Sense” and “The Crisis,” 1776.

After early defeats in the Revolutionary War, soldiers were suffering and Americans were losing heart. Paine’s writings, circulated widely in the form of pamphlets, inspired people to persist in the American fight for freedom.

J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, “Letter 3: What is an American,” 1782.

This French-American writer spent some time as a farmer in New York state before the American Revolution. Eventually returning to France, he published his Letters from an American Farmer in which he describes the life and the new culture that was developing in America. As he saw it, American’s new type of person believed in freedom, individualism, religious toleration, civic cooperation, and pursuit of personal goals and dreams. The book was popular in Europe as an informative description to the “Old World” of what was happening in the “New.”

Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist No. 1,” 1787.

A collection of over 80 essays, The Federalist Papers were first published under the pen name “Publius” in New York newspapers. They were written by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to make the case to the nation for adopting the newly proposed U. S. Constitution, the one we still have today. In this introductory essay, Hamilton explains why people needed to give these arguments a fair hearing. If you take the time to read just a couple of these papers, you may well be amazed how attentively the public followed this long series of detailed and complicated arguments in favor of a new form of government. Would that more Americans committed to doing this today!

James Madison, “The Federalist No. 10,” 1787.

In this Federalist Paper, Madison explains the causes and dangers of political factions in a democracy, and how the checks and balances proposed in the new Constitution would mitigate these.

Judith Sargent Murray, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” 1790.

Literary historian and critic Elaine Showalter refers to Murray as “America’s first major feminist author” (A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Knopf 2009, p. 23). Published under the pen name “Constantia,” this essay humorously but justly challenges the idea that women are inherently inferior to men, saying that unequal education is the cause of any supposed differences.


Go Back to American Literature-Colonial: 1600s

Go Forward to American Literature-Romantic/Antebellum: 1800-1860


*Photo Attribution: Williamsburg VA Governors Palace, Sebastian Hirsch [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.