Topic #1: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography exemplifies the idea of American Individualism. Throughout his autobiography, Franklin consistently describes instances where his persistent hard work, dedication, study of his own character, and intelligence contributed to making him one of the most successful and famous people in history. Think of an example in contemporary American culture that testifies to the persistence of the myth of the self-made man (or woman). In your response, address the following questions: How do news programs, novels, television shows, and movies perpetuate the contemporary ideal of the self-made individual (ideally, your response should focus around one of these mediums)? What do current figures have in common with Franklin? In what ways are they different? Again, you should focus on one or two figures (or “types” of figures) in order to focus your response. Don’t forget to include textual support!
Topic #2: In his efforts to support his arguments for the racial inferiority of black people in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously dismissed the artistic merit of Wheatley’s poetry: “Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” Why do you think Jefferson felt compelled to denounce Wheatley in this way? What is at stake in his refusal to “dignify” her poetry with his criticism? Make sure that you are using textual support in your response, either from Wheatley’s poetry, Jefferson’s section on Slavery, or both.
Topic #3: Read the handout detailing what is now known about Jefferson’s relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Now that DNA tests have proven that he had children with Hemings, and that he held those children in slavery for most of his life, the discrepancy between Jefferson’s belief that “all men are created equal” and the reality of his life as a plantation owner seems even more problematic. How do you feel about this? Discuss in detail in your groups. How does this fact complicate ideals of the enlightenment? Jefferson was by no means untroubled by the question of slavery–he sponsored unsuccessful political action to weaken or end slavery on several occasions and he devised elaborate architectural tricks at Monticello to disguise the slave labor that was foundational to its operations. But despite his discomfort with slavery, he never brought himself to free his slaves, nor did he free them after his death. Make sure you are using textual support in your response!