Yale for Life

American Nationhood: North and South

June 17-23, 2018

“I see the whole destiny of American contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shores, like the whole human race in the first man.”  – Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” – Ernest Hemingway, 1935

How was America formed? Was it in the rocky coasts of New England or in the broad flat lands of the Mississippi?  What determines American identity?  Is it geography, religion, or politics? What are the springs of American Nationhood?

America’s motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” is far from obviously valid.  A divide between North and South has been evident since the founding, when among other things, the notorious three-fifths clause entered the law of the land as an accommodation across this chasm.  This course will seek the origin and evolution of American Character in two distinct and distinctive places.

Did these traditions ever coalesce?  Have they influenced and informed each other?  Do we struggle with them even today?  This course will provide the tools to ask, and hopefully begin to address, such questions.

While Americans traditionally think of “North” and “South,” this course maintains that within these ill-defined regions, there were specific loci of ideas.

In the South, the Mississippi Valley looms large.  Indeed, the major river valleys of the world: The Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, the Indus, Huang Ho, and others of lesser extent, are, by their geographic reality, strategically, economically, politically ,and culturally, generators of civilizational activities, drawing populations to them and propelling influences far outward beyond them. The Mississippi River is one of the world’s greatest and its history as a civilizational force may be unique in the societies and political systems produced on and around it.

We will open by briefly looking at the Cahokia Mound Builder phenomenon, a pre-Columbian city (east of today’s St. Louis) existing for almost a thousand years until mysteriously abandoned about 1400. Its “artificial mountain” producing a political “theory” not unlike some of those elsewhere in the pre-historic world.

The physical extent and characteristics of the Mississippi, and the European powers’ ambitions for it will be introduced through Parkman’s classic The Jesuits in North America and LaSalle’s survey of the river’s entire length.

The military significance of the river and port will be covered through the Battles of New Orleans (Jackson, 1814) and Vicksburg (Grant, 1863).

George Caleb Bingham’s “The Jolly Flatboatmen,” 1846, “The most important genre painting in American history,” will be used not only for its artistic and cultural significance but also to address the geopolitics of trade to the West.

The African-American dimension will involve the Civil War slave “conspiracy” revealed in Winthrop Jordan’s Tumult and Silence at Second Creek, and the genesis and evolution of the Blues in the Delta from the late 1800s to the early twentieth century. In literature, New Orleans Creole society and the works of Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty emphasize Black-White relations and the impact of the past on the present.

All these factors, and others, are pulled together interactively in the Parkman Prize winning book by John M. Barry, Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.

As for “The North,” Tocqueville’s claim for the spring of American destiny is prescient if somewhat exaggerated. He has identified a crucial aspect of the American experience.

The Puritan imagination was largely limited to New England – New England exceptionalism as it has been called – but it was carried beyond the perimeters of the northeast as the influence of New England made itself felt through its universities and high politics of the early republic.

We will focus on New England’s role in shaping American religious, moral, and political sensibilities first through the Puritan moment and later through its more secular offshoots in the form of transcendentalism and later pragmatism (the major American contribution to philosophy).

We will begin by viewing some short works by the leading voice of the American Puritan tradition (John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards).  These thinkers were responsible for crafting the language of American exceptionalism.   Were Americans or at least their Puritan founders, a new chosen people?  Was America a new Jerusalem established precisely to be a light unto the nations?  If so, what was America chosen to be or to do?  How has this language of chosenness or exceptionalism shaped American national identity up until today?  What has been its influence and how should we continue to think about it?

This Puritan image of self-perfection was continued in the early republic by a secularized offshoot of New England called Transcendentalism whose greatest representatives were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  These thinkers developed ideas of individualism, conscience, and self-making that remain core values of American identity.  These ideas also played a central role in shaping the great reform movements of the nineteenth century including abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage.  These writers developed a language of conscience politics that not only justified resistance to what they deemed unjust wars (the Mexican-American War) but to unjust laws (the Fugitive Slave Law), and support for causes and movements that promise emancipation from unjust social institutions.

Finally, we will examine the influence of transcendentalism on the two movements of thought – realism and pragmatism – that came of age in the immediate post-Civil War era and extended the New England imagination to areas of history, law, science, and philosophy.  Henry Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, C. S. Pierce, and William James created a new philosophy intended to reshape American values in the light of the new doctrines of evolution and historicism.  We will conclude by reading a short work by a contemporary philosopher, Richard Rorty, who has done more than anyone to revive the tradition of pragmatism using it to address the perennial issue of American national identity.

Our Lead Faculty:

Charles Hill
Diplomat-in-Residence and Distinguished Fellow in International Security Studies

Charles Hill is a diplomat in residence and lecturer in International Studies at Yale University. He is a career minister in the U.S. Foreign Service, serving in a variety of roles such as Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Middle East at the State Department, Chief of Staff of the same, and executive aid to former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz. He has taught Directed Studies and Grand Strategies to a generation of Yale students. Beloved at Yale for Life, Professor Hill was a 2017 recipient of the Howard R. Lamar Faculty Award for outstanding service to alumni.

Steven B. Smith
Alfred Cowles Professor of Government & Philosophy

Steven B. Smith has taught at Yale since 1984. He has served as Director of Graduate Studies in Political Science, Director of the Special Program in the Humanities, and Acting Chair of Judaic Studies and from 1996-2011 served as the Master of Branford College. His research has focused on the history of political philosophy with special attention to the problem of the ancients and moderns, the relation of religion and politics, and theories of representative government. He received the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences in 2009, and last year co-led the wonderful Yale for Life course on The Enlightenment.

Learn More About our Lead Faculty!

Guest Professors

Our morning seminars with lead faculty will be followed in the afternoons by a seminar with an amazing guest professor.  These scholars bring a variety of different perspectives to our subject, from eighteenth century British Literature, to Theater of the Enlightenment, and more.  Yale for Life continues its emphasis on interdisciplinary study, not only through the variety in the core syllabus, but through these world-class leaders of Yale’s intellectual portfolio.

More information on our guest professors will be posted soon.


All Yale for Life courses actually start months before our June meeting.  After registration, you will receive all books and scholarly articles for the course, and will immerse yourself in great works curated by our faculty.  “American Nationhood: North and South” is no exception, with works ranging from contemporaneous writings to great books written by your own Yale for Life professors.  Primary sources will mix with authoritative texts to produce night after night of joy as you prepare for your return to the life of the mind.

See an excerpt from a Yale for Life Reading List

Special Events

One of Yale for Life’s unique and most beloved features are our Special Events; sessions at a number of Yale’s well-known (such as the Yale Art Gallery) or less-known (such as a 2012 session at the not-yet-processed Kissinger Papers) centers of collection and learning.  “American Nationhood: North and South” is no exception. We are keeping some surprises up our sleeve, but here is a taste:

Interior view of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Yale’s legendary Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the largest Rare Book library in the world, will open its vaults to Yale for Life, with a dazzling array of treasures reflecting themes of our course.

Art can be a mirror to a society’s values and character, and so it is in our course.  Yale’s peerless collections and museums will be a classroom for us, as we are guided by leading curators and professors through these amazing halls.

Learn more about Yale for Life special events

Beyond the Classroom

Everything that happens during the Yale for Life program is colored by the fact that it takes place at Yale.  Learn more about the experience!

Learn more about the living at Yale experience
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